The New Jersey Devils do not really have a lot of salary cap space for this coming summer. Even if the upper limit increases, there's not as much cap space available as one may think. Possibly not enough to just even keep all of the restricted free agents at the lowest possible qualifying offer value. So while the Devils nearly have a full roster and don't necessarily need to sign a lot of players for next season, the salary cap is an issue.
However, at first glance, this seems like a short term issue. After the 2011-12 season, the Devils see many large contracts end according to CapGeek's team chart for New Jersey. Provided they're still Devils throughout this coming season and aren't extended, the following players will become unrestricted free agents: Martin Brodeur ($5,200,000), Brian Rolston ($5,062,500), Colin White ($3,000,000), Bryce Salvador ($2,900,000), and Rod Pelley ($550,000). Those five players combine for $16,712,500 leaving the salary cap. The space is further boosted by the buyouts of Andrew Peters and Jay Pandolfo ending after this season. That's significant enough to think that once 2011-12 is over, the Devils won't have to be right up at the cap ceiling.
However, I don't believe it's as simple as that. What the Devils will do in this offseason will have a large impact on how much space they'll have in the coming season. A short explanation follows after the jump.
It's easy to look at the team chart at CapGeek and see that, assuming a $59.4 million ceiling, the Devils will have over $26 million in projected cap space. As great as that is, there's two components to that will be directly affected by actions taken now.
The first component is the roster size. A big reason why the projected cap size is that in 2011-12, the Devils have 10 contracts on the books: 8 forwards and 2 defensemen. It's highly unlikely the Devils will fill in that many roster spots with their current prospects signed through 2012-13 - who are mostly in the final year of their entry level deals. The team chart assumes that free agents - restricted or otherwise - aren't included in the future seasons.
So while the Devils technically may not need to sign many players for this season, they'll be looking at their RFAs and determining who they want to keep long term. Zach Parise is a no-brainer, but I also mean other RFAs: Vladimir Zharkov, Matt Taormina, Mark Fraser, Anssi Salmela, and Matthew Corrente. If the team feels they would be worth keeping around for more than a season, then that just takes some more space up for future seasons. Combined, that could take a big chunk in the $17 million or so that comes off the books in the summer of 2012.
Fortunately, the Devils won't have many RFAs in the summer of 2012, just Mark Fayne and Nick Palmieri. I don't anticipate they'll eat into the potential cap space coming off the books by the impending UFAs. What will take up that space will be any other free agent signings to just to fill out the roster. The Devils are in their current situation largely through UFA signings like Rolston, Dainius Zubrus, Anton Volchenkov, and Henrik Tallinder. Depending on what they do now, they risk getting into the same spot next summer.
From that standpoint, I believe it's in the Devils' best interest to think beyond just this coming season when it comes to who they sign in this offseason. Yes, give Parise a big contract. Yes, give a few years to some of the RFAs. However, do so while keeping in mind that there will likely be more signings needed in 2012. Don't commit too much of future cap space, assuming that there will be plenty of it
The second component is something Lou should be very familiar with: the Contract Bargaining Agreement. The current CBA ends after the 2011-12 season. There will be negotiations for a new deal either during next season. Needless to say, it's in both the interest of the NHL and the NHLPA to agree to a new CBA as a third lockout within 20 years would likely undo most of growth the league and sport has made in recent seasons. However, while this is little more than speculation, it wouldn't surprise me that the issue of the how the salary cap floor and ceiling are calculated comes up in the next CBA talks.
This is where the concern comes in. The Devils are among a handful of teams (e.g. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York) that can and does spend to the salary cap ceiling regularly. The rest of the league does not. They have internal budgets and therefore hang out either in the middle or close to the floor as the season starts. In fact, the Islanders were technically below the floor in terms of payroll, riding out the buyouts of Alexei Yashin and Brendan Witt to meet it. Though, their extension to Michael Grabner will bump them up. The point is that there's a disparity in how the teams spend their money and since most of the league doesn't go to the ceiling, it wouldn't surprise me if most of the Board of Governors - who represent the owners - will argue for lowered ceilings and floorsin the next CBA. If successful, the projected space we think the Devils will have will shrink.
Lou, being on the NHL Board of Governors, probably is aware of this possibility. What's unknown to us, and perhaps even Lou since CBA talks haven't seriously started yet, is how much it could go down (assuming it does). All that can be done about that is to not commit so much of future cap space that the Devils become completely hamstrung if/when there are significant changes in the next CBA. I understand nothing is set in stone and for all I know, the salary cap will be remain untouched in the next CBA. I think it's better to have some space if only to give the Devils some flexibility. If the ceiling and floor eventually goes down, it'll lessen the potential damage to the Devils.
Therefore, the Devils will need to preserve a significant fraction of the cap space available in 2012 by how they deal with this offseason. Sure, give Zach Parise a long term deal and consider buying out some players; but be mindful that it doesn't lead to eating up, say, half of what could be come free by way of impending UFAs. Likewise, don't give the RFAs just one-year deals to create substantially larger offseason activity in 2012. This is the main idea I want to stress for this offseason. The decisions made now cannot be just for the 2011-12 season, but with the next few seasons in mind. The projected cap space they may have in the future is large, but it's not guaranteed. It certainly won't be if only the short term is considered.