Like many followers of the Detroit Red Wings last season, Matthew Wuest wondered how on earth management was going to keep the team together under the constrictions of the salary cap -- and whether the Wings had a prayer of bringing back star free agent Marian Hossa(notes).
Wuest was compiling a database of salary information for his Web site, RedWingsCentral.com, when he had a puckhead epiphany. "It dawned on me that a calculator could be created to play with the numbers and see who could fit," he said.
The "cap calculator" he created was an instant hit and, quite frankly, a godsend for Web-savvy hockey fans. Here was an application to test wild scenarios, predict future roster configurations and play fantasy GM with free-agent signings. Perhaps most importantly, it was an immediate sniff test on the outlandish trade rumors that pervade the online sports fan experience on blogs and message boards.
But that was just the beginning for Wuest: Witness CapGeek.com, his vast wonderland of salary data, up-to-the-minute news and cap-crunching tools.
A site that tracks the cap space for all NHL teams on a daily basis. A site that lists the full roster, with salary information, for every team. A site that even lets you figure out the buyout ramifications for every NHL player; like, for example, what it would cost the New York Islanders to cut ties with Rick DiPietro next summer.
Cap Geek isn't just an addictive site for fantasy nuts and amateur front-office execs; it's also breaking contract news faster than traditional media on occasion.
How does he do it? Where do the numbers come from? And does Matthew Wuest, as one of its scholars, think the salary cap is good or bad for the NHL?
Wuest is a freelance hockey journalist writes for the Metro Halifax and has written for publications like The Hockey News. Becoming one of the leaders in NHL economic coverage wasn't necessarily on his to-do list.
"To be honest, I'm more of a hockey fan than a businessman, and this site's all about the business side," he said. "But I know people were just constantly talking about how the Wings were going to sign [their free agents] and there really wasn't much clarity."
The cap calculator and the various other inventions on Cap Geek are trail-blazing. For years, fans clamored for the NHL or the NHLPA or a large media site to provide simple, easy-to-use salary cap tools.
But Wuest said the NHL doesn't release its salary information, so it would never create anything like Cap Geek. As for everyone else: "I guess it's a pretty large undertaking. You have to have the capability to do it, and you have to want to do it," he said.
"It kind of found me."
Cap Geek was given a kick-start by Chip McCleary, the mastermind behind NHLSCAP. After a personal matter intruded on his blogging career, McCleary endorsed and consulted with Wuest on the new salary cap site.
"The tools he's built into CapGeek are a cap junkie's dream, and I'm confident that if you spend 3 minutes there, you'll agree that it blows away every other site that's attempted to show salary and cap information -- including what I've had here," wrote McCleary on NHLSCAP during the summer.
Where does the Cap Geek data come from? "The biggest thing is making sure you have good sources who can provide the most accurate data," Wuest said.
Those sources include media reports, confirmation through official channels and Wuest's own informants. His list of transactions on Cap Geek's front page separates the ones he's confirmed from the ones that haven't been yet.
In its short existence, Cap Geek has broken its share of contract news. The site was first with Torrey Mitchell's(notes) new contract with the San Jose Sharks, and was way out in front on Cam Ward's(notes) contact extension with the Carolina Hurricanes. Mainstream media hasn't acknowledged those scoops, but hockey message boards and Twitterers have.
"I have a high standard for what numbers will be posted and what numbers won't. I think, over a period of time, people will appreciate the accuracy of Cap Geek," Wuest said.
What we can all appreciate about Cap Geek: That it's managed to make the salary cap into something more than just an annoying hindrance on player movement. There's a certain animosity that lingers for hockey fans about the cap, which was born out of the lockout and causes headaches annually.
Wuest, however, supports the cap and believes it reveals who the real managerial stars are in the NHL.
"I think it's important for there to be a level playing field between the teams. I think that's where you really get to see who is a good general manager and who isn't," he said. "If there's some limit, you get some real gauge of who manages a team and who's just buying a team."
To that end, he doesn't have a problem with teams that exploit the CBA loophole that allows them to sign players to front-loaded, long-term deals that reduce their cap hits -- but he does want that loophole closed in the next CBA.
"If enough players sign those deals, you're wiping off a lot of big names from the free-agent frenzy in July, which is a time when the NHL gets a lot of exposure," he said.
Like the free-agent frenzy, Cap Geek taps into basic armchair GM instincts most sports fans have: That we can build a winner just like the pros can.
That's why they put trades into sports video games, right?
A "trade machine" is in the plans for Cap Geek down the line, as are other bells and whistles. But for now, Wuest has a site that's quickly become a mandatory point of reference for many puckheads -- and one that's long overdue.
"I get emails from people saying 'I can delete my salary spread sheet now,'" he said.