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When will NHL teams like Toronto finally understand their own CBA? (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
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It's reliably amazing how people in the NHL seem to lack a comprehensive understanding of the league's collective bargaining agreement, particularly when it is not so coincidentally part of their job descriptions to do just that.

One cannot logically expect the average fan, with a job and a life and all that, to understand the various ins and outs of the CBA. It's a massive document written by some very, very good and expensive lawyers that, even if Joe Ranger Fan had the time to read it all thoroughly, the amount he would likely be able to distill from the legal jargon would only be the roughest framework of how this thing might work maybe. Whether that person would then be able to explain it to someone else is unclear but unlikely.

Fortunately over the years there have been many hockey journalists and bloggers, some of whom might even have legal degrees themselves, who have been able to kind of sketch out the basic tenets of the CBA to the point where many fans have at least a pretty good understanding of it. People know why and sometimes even approximately how much teams are able to spend and how much that amount will change from one season to the next, and how waivers work, and restricted free agency, and a whole host of other details.

Obviously, the thing around which the entire CBA has been built since it was originally adopted in 2005 is the salary cap, and teams are aware of this. The problem for some of them is that not every GM can be a lawyer-slash-mathematician-slash-people-manager who understands exactly how the salary cap works and can seemingly bend it to his will; in fact, only a handful of these executives seem to be in any way adept at this, while most others seem to have either middling capabilities or calamitously bad ones.

For these reasons, some teams also hire other executives to serve among other things as "capologists" to explain to them how their hockey ops people's decisions will impact their flexibility against the salary cap.

This, for example, is the case in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs are facing perhaps the oddest cap crunch in semi-recent NHL history.

Again, the basic building blocks of the salary cap have been in place for more than eight years at this point, and you'd think that a team employing a guy with a law degree like assistant GM Claude Loiselle — a former director of hockey ops for the NHL itself who was involved with both salary arbitration and collective bargaining— would be a little bit better with how it handled things.

The fact of the matter is that right now the Maple Leafs are facing a rather serious problem despite entering the summer with somewhere in the neighborhood of $24.5 million to spend and relatively few of his own free agents to sign.

He has, by Capgeek's count, spent about $25 million, which even the least CBA-savvy reader will note as being more than $24.5 million.

Yes, it seems the Leafs are over the cap, even before calling up players to replace David Clarkson (suspended for the first 10 games of the season) and Frazer McLaren (nursing a broken pinky) which — even at a league-minimum salary — would add another $55,000-plus to a cap situation in which the Leafs are now forced to consider amounts in the tens of thousands of dollars to be massively important, rather than mostly inconsequential, as most other teams do.

The problem for the Leafs with regard to their lack of flexibility is that all but one of the guys on their current roster are on one-way deals, meaning they can't be sent down without the team retaining a portion of those players' salaries as a cap hit (this being the "Wade Redden Rule"). The league also makes allowances for what's called the "bonus cushion," meaning that while players' bonuses theoretically count against the cap, those that would exceed the ceiling can be carried over into next season, essentially reducing the amount the team can spend by x amount a year on; recall that the Blackhawks, post-2010 Cup, suffered this fate and consequently had to offload what felt like half the team.

What's interesting, though, is that the Leafs currently say they have no problems with regard to the salary cap, and in fact are not even over it. Here's what Dave Poulin, the club's VP of hockey ops, had to say on Toronto radio earlier this week about it:

"There’s a cushion base that’s figured in here… nobody can sit outside our room and tell us exactly what our cap is other than Claude Loiselle, and that’s corresponding directly with the league. … It’s inaccurate, because of the bonus cushion you’re allowed on contracts. There is more of a margin there. That said, for a number of teams it is really, really tight. The timing of this is unfortunate, coming off a year where the cap goes down."

He further noted that teams could opt to carry fewer players on their rosters than the 23 allowed in the CBA simply as a means of staying compliant, which most commonly could be as low as 21. As James Mirtle outlined yesterday, a new rule even allows teams to call up players and not have their salaries count against the cap as long as they play the previous game with just 19 players on the roster.

Poulin is, however, right about the ways some teams are dealing with the cap. Currently, eight teams are over it, but some are currently carrying more roster players than they are allowed. The Wings are at 25, the Rangers, Kings, and Flyers 24. The Flyers also happen to be able to write off more than their overage thanks to placing Chris Pronger on the long-term injured reserve, as the Bruins can with Marc Savard to solve their problem. That leaves the Penguins (who have two players on two-way deals), Sharks and Leafs. As a consequence, the league is going to see a lot of veterans shifted around in trades and waiver moves this weekend.

It's hard to say whether the Leafs count themselves among the teams for which the cap situation is "really, really tight," so vehement have been their denials, and if they don't they obviously should. Their cap overage could be as much as $216,000 after Cody Franson's long-sought extension, but given why Clarkson and McLaren are missing time, they won't have the option of having those 19 guys on the roster. This problem would only be exacerbated by the team's decision, should it come to that, of keeping Morgan Rielly with the big club. Currently, that seems an impossibility.

Short of a trade, or placing McLaren rather cynically on long-term injured reserve even though his malady (suffered two weeks ago) doesn't exactly lend itself to missing 10 regular-season games or 24 days, there's almost no way the Leafs can enter the season being cap-compliant, at least from an outsider's view.

It's enough to make one wonder what exactly Loiselle, who's regarded as one of the smarter guys in any front office, knows what everyone else in the hockey world somehow doesn't. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, if it's another case of an NHL front office simply having a difference of opinion with the league/reality about how the CBA works. There is at least some amount of precedent for that kind of thing.

Just last winter, as a matter of fact, Flames GM Jay Feaster successfully signed Ryan O'Reilly to a rather judicious offer sheet, the kind of shrewd team management one would typically not expect from Calgary's front office. He would, had Colorado declined to match the offer of two years at $5 million per, have forfeited his first- and second-round picks in last year's draft (in which Calgary selected sixth) but that would have been only a moderate price to pay for a player of O'Reilly's quality.

The problem was that O'Reilly had played for the KHL's Metallurg Magnitogorsk after the NHL's lockout ended, meaning that he would have been subject to waivers since he was signed by a team other than the one that held his rights. Jay Feaster either didn't know that or didn't share the "interpretation" of the CBA in the same way as anyone else who read it.

Essentially, if Colorado didn't match, the Avs would have gotten the Flames' own first- and second-round picks, and some other team would have claimed O'Reilly, and the Flames would have been screwed and Feaster would have been fired (and probably, he should have been anyway).

All of that is a long way of saying that the Leafs might think their salary cap situation is one thing when it is in fact entirely another. It's theoretically possible that Capgeek is wrong about a team's bonus cushion, but this would be one of the very rare instances of the site getting anything wrong. It currently lists Jake Gardiner as the only player on the team who could be due any bonuses on top of his regular pay and previous signing bonus based on his performance, but that only comes to $300,000 at most. While that certainly is more than the theoretical overage of $216,667 listed on the site that number — guess what! — doesn't include the bonus.

This is a mess. All of it. And a lot of it has to do with the Leafs' decision to eat salary cap space on players who no longer play for them ($1 million for Colby Armstrong, currently underwhelming in Europe; another $1 million for Darcy Tucker, long since retired; and a combined $500,000 for Ben Scrivens and Matt Frattin, both now plying their trade with Los Angeles; and that's in addition to having amnestied both Mike Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski, moves wise and foolish, respectively).

More of it, though, has to do with roster mismanagement. How everything shakes out will be interesting, come June, when they have 13 players on expiring contracts, including Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Dave Bolland, Nikolai Kulemin, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, and James Reimer.

You know what's going to be more interesting? Whatever happens if someone in the regular lineup gets hurt, say, three games into the season. There's a reason most teams keep a million dollars worth of cap room or more free and handy just in case things go sideways.

The Leafs, even if one believes their pronouncements about their own flexibility, are operating on far thinner margins than that. That's not conducive to anything but trouble.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. Here is his Twitter and here is his e-mail

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