Just 48 hours after the completion of the Stanley Cup final, the window opens for general managers looking to claw out additional cap space or pull the chute on a risky long-term contract that doesn't look nearly as good now as it did when it was signed.
That's because it will be the start of the normal buyout window that, for the next two summers, will also serve as the opportunity for general managers to utilize their two compliance buyouts -- buyouts that won't count against the salary cap.
There's a solid compliance buyout candidate on nearly every team, and yet as the window gets closer to opening, just how many compliance buyouts we'll see this summer doesn't get any clearer.
One NHL assistant GM was asked to set the over/under on how many compliance buyouts we'll see this year. He put the number at 15. And he expects that number to drop next summer.
But it's truly an educated guess, because teams just aren't tipping each other off at this point.
"We all speculate and say 'This guy, he's automatic buyout.' We don't really know -- I don't know what other teams are thinking," said Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. "They don't share that information. We don't know their [finances], what they're planning on doing, whether it's a trade or guys in the minors or what they're planning to spend. I really have no idea. I'm really interested to see what happens."
We all are.
"It could be really interesting or it could be really anticlimactic," Yzerman said. "I have no idea."
Yzerman's uncertainty was echoed by several general managers.
"It's a good question," said Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. "We can always do our calculations and our thoughts but it's still going to be a guess. At the end of the day, we don't sit in the seats other guys are sitting. So many factors go in. From cap issues to budgets to ownership and all kinds of different things. I think it's going to be used. I don't know how much."
Everybody has taken a look at the teams that will struggle to get under the salary cap that drops to $64.3 million and identified players who are expendable. That's the easy part.
The hard part is convincing ownership that it's a great idea to pay a player to play elsewhere, because in some cases these are going to be very useful players. If a guy like Brad Richards is cut loose by the compliance buyout, there will be a lineup of teams interested in the center. Richards isn't the only buyout candidate who will draw interest.
That's not an easy conversation.
"Clearly, there are some teams that have to. Just looking at their cap situations, they have to,"Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said. "It's one thing to say you can buy somebody out and they're off your cap but still have to write a check to them. Not every owner has the same world view of that matter. It's still real dollars. Clearly, that's an option some teams will look at strongly. Your preference is to always make hockey moves, if you can."
And that's part of the secrecy. General managers aren't going to tip their hands on buyout candidates just in case they can trade them without paying the money to cut them loose. Another highlight of the new CBA is the ability to conduct retained salary transactions, which allow teams to trade a player while retaining up to 50 percent of that player's salary on their books. Teams can have up to three players on their roster who have their salaries paid by other teams, as long as the aggregate amount of retained salary doesn't exceed $9.645 million this coming season.
So the new CBA leaves other outs besides compliance buyouts, something GMs much prefer.
"If they want to do a buyout, I'm sure they'd be thrilled to do a trade before they'll do the buyout," Kekalainen said. "Now that you can eat the money, that brings money to the picture … the economics of the cap. That's the benefit some teams can afford."
There are benefits in this new CBA, and there are liabilities -- like the cap advantage recapture clause that impacts players who signed deals in excess of six years. In this clause, if a player leaves the league because of retirement or defection to another league, any cap advantage a team received over the course of the contract will be charged against a team's salary cap in equal amounts over the remaining term of the contract. It's the biggest reason a Brad Richards buyout makes so much sense. But it's not just Richards.
It's wild to think about now, considering just how big a role Marian Hossa has played in Chicago's run this season, but one team executive said he thought the Blackhawks absolutely had to look hard at moving Hossa this summer or next. Whether or not the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup, that would be as hard a move as any Stan Bowman had to make in dismantling the previous championship team in Chicago.
Why is the Hossa deal such a liability?
Thanks to the CapGeek's fantastic recapture calculator, we can calculate exactly what the penalty would be.
Hossa's actual salary drops to $1 million in the 2017-18 season, when Hossa will be 39. Which would make the conclusion of the 2016-17 an ideal time to retire.
If he does, that means the Blackhawks would have earned a cap benefit of $17.1 million over the course of this deal. So from 2017-18 through 2020-21 Chicago would be dinged with a $4.275 million penalty each of those seasons against the salary cap. That's the cost of a top-six forward.
Now, for a player of Hossa's caliber, a trade seems much more reasonable than a compliance buyout. So let's say the Ottawa Senators come calling and want to bring Hossa back to end his career where it began. If the Senators trade for Hossa this summer and he retires after that 2016-17 season, the penalties are much more reasonable.
The Blackhawks would have received a $10.5 million benefit and would be hit with an annual cap penalty of $2.625 million and the Senators would be hit with an annual penalty of $1.65 million from 2017-18 through 2020-21, a much more manageable number when it's shared.
And it's not just Hossa. Ilya Kovalchuk's salary drops to $1 million in 2020-21 for three seasons before increasing to $3 million in 2023-24 and then $4 million in 2024-25.
Let's say he decides to finish up his career in the KHL when that salary kicks down to $1 million. That would have given the Devils a benefit of $17.7 million, which means an annual salary-cap penalty of $4.42 million from the 2021-22 season through the 2024-25 season.
On Twitter, one reader (Sam Hitchcock, @HITCHCSS), proposed to me a trade that would send Florida's No. 2 overall pick to the Devils in exchange for Kovalchuk. If Kovalchuk retires before the 2020-21 season, the Devils would only be hit with an annual penalty of $600,000. The team trading for him, in this case the Panthers, would be the one punished the most, with an annual cap penalty of about $4 million. That's just not worth it. Considering the Devils aren't traditionally a cap team, it makes more sense for them to just accept the risk of a future penalty.
Yzerman inherited his own tough decision to make in Tampa, with Vincent Lecavalier. If Lecavalier retires before his salary drops down to $1.5 million in 2018-19, the Lightning would be hit with a hefty annual salary-cap penalty of $6.477 million in the final two years of Lecavalier's deal through 2020. That's a big hit.
So there's no easy answer when Yzerman was asked if he could say right now with certainty whether or not Lecavalier would be part of his team in August.
"I can say anything I want," Yzerman joked. "We've been busy with the draft combine, our minor league plan. I was at the World Championships. We haven't had our pro scouts together to sit down and plan our summer. We'll make any decisions later on getting closer to the draft."
He's not alone.