By Stu Hackel
NHL General Managers won't select their next GM of the Year award winner for another 11 months, but the early leader has to be Capitals' GM George McPhee.
The Capitals announced this morning they've signed Karl Alzner to a new two-year contract extension and Caps Nation can now breathe again. What is most remarkable about this deal is that McPhee was able to bring Alzner in for the price of $2.57 million, a cap hit of merely $1.285 million annually, which is more than the defenseman would have gotten had he accepted the Caps' qualifying offer (a mandated five percent raise over his previous salary of $875,000), but well below the market value for a top four blueliner. And, as Katie Carrera of The Washington Post points out, the annual cap hit is $390,000 less than that of the final year of Alzner's entry-level deal last season. His hit was higher last season because of performance and signing bonuses that don't appear to be present in his new contract.
With his team's payroll rising to the cap ceiling, McPhee had little choice but to drive a hard bargain with Alzner's agent, J.P. Barry. And with Alzner having little leverage as an RFA without arbitration rights -- and none next season if he had settled for one-year deal or taken the Caps' qualifying offer, Barry had little bargaining power.
Tag this on to McPhee's theft of a putative Number 1 goalie off the free agent market by signing Tomas Vokoun to a one-year deal for $1.5 million, his trading his third string RFA goalie Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a first-round choice (possibly a lottery pick) in 2012 and a second- or third-rounder in 2013, and his other trades and signings to build gritty depth and it has been a mighty impressive few weeks.
Now, all of this puts Washington once again over the cap (they dipped under it when the traded Eric Fehr to Winnipeg last week) with a total of $65,190,128 according to capgeek.com. The cap is $64.3 million, so they've got to shed some salary somewhere. Teams are allowed to go over the cap by 10 percent during the summer and, as Carrera has previously written, Poti (groin muscle issue) may be a candidate for the Injured Reserve list when the time comes to get under the cap so that will at least buy some time. Injuries can often be a team capologist's best friend, as the Devils have demonstrated more than once since 2006, when they put Alexander Mogilny on long-term injured reserve to help clear cap space and sign some of their free agents.
But what of the other end of the cap spectrum? There are still five teams that are short of the $48.3 million minimum payroll -- the Jets, Coyotes, Avalanche, Predators and Islanders. The first three are less than $3 million away and all five have RFAs and/or rookies to sign, but the Preds are about $7 million short (although they still have to sign Shea Weber) while the Isles are over $10 million under the floor. New York has only 18 players under contract and signing their RFAs will certainly bring them a bit closer, but those guys -- led by Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau and Ty Wishart -- aren't going to close the gap entirely. You expect they will have to add a high-priced player or two from somewhere to accomplish that.
The Panthers did an amazing job of climbing over the floor by acquiring 10 players and adding over $32 million in salary, but they gobbled up a number of free agents they could overpay and traded for Brian Campbell and Kris Versteeg, who already weren't cheap, most especially Campbell. So who is left for the Islanders? Here's the remaining UFA list from NHL.com, and the agents for those guys have most likely heard from Isles GM Garth Snow. There are also a few big-ticket players whose contracts their GMs (or maybe just their team's fans) might like to peddle to Snow -- Scott Gomez, Brian Rolston and Shawn Horcoff come quickly to mind.
The challenge for Snow, and any GM in that position, is not to become a dumping ground for has-beens and castoffs, but to add a player or two who can really provide leadership (as Doug Weight did) in trying to mold his young core into a contender. That is not likely to be very easy.
R&D For You and Me: The NHL announced today that it would run its second Research, Development and Orientation Camp in mid-August in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. One purpose of the camp is to test out potential new rules and playing surface configurations, using some of the game's top young prospects. This provides NHL Hockey Operations, GMs and others in team hockey departments the chance to test ideas on how to improve the game, see which ones have potential in real game conditions and which don't work as well as originally thought.
Last year, for example, the invited players tested rule wrinkles during game situations, such as the teams switching ends for the four-on-four overtime period so they'd have the long change; denying teams the right to change players if they go offside; forcing the team being called for a delayed penalty to clear the defensive zone and not just gain possession of the puck before play is stopped; moving the center back a foot from the faceoff circle if his team commits a face-off violation, and even taking out the two side faceoff circles in each end and replacing them with one in the slot. (You can read about all the experiments the NHL.com blog on last years RDO camp here.)
This year, the two coaches who will run the teams are Dan Bylsma of the Penguins and Dave Tippett of the Coyotes. Last year's coaches were Ken Hitchcock and Dave King. Using many of the top 17-year-old prospects also provides NHL talent evaluators a first look at some of the better players who will be eligible for the 2012 draft. This year's top picks, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau, all participated in last year's inaugural RDO camp.
The list of players who will be participating and the rules they will test will be released shortly, but Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill said after last year's camp that he was impressed with the on-ice intellect of the young players. "They had to think a little differently, they couldn't ice it or had to be careful on the line change," he said. "They're used to taking it easy coming off. It makes them think, but I think it's a great experience."