Has the cap 'n trade market opened for Snow?

Was yesterday's big "Tonight We're Gonna Trade Like it's Nine-teen-Ninety-two" party a one-time thing, or has it re-organized the landscape for what Garth Snow can do this spring and summer?

Snow has long stated the crucial assumption that he views his Islanders cap space as an asset. We have long fantasized around here that he might be able to put that asset to good use by lifting a solid player or two from the league's fat cats who have spent like kids in a candy store. But the fact is Snow can't leverage it if other GMs don't agree that it is, in fact, valuable. In other words, to acquire a high-paid player who is better than what the Islanders give up, Snow's trading partner has to agree that the cap room has a value on top of the player(s) he's getting back. The fewer of those GMs who exist, the harder it is for Snow to twist their self-inflicted knife.

There are a few other fun factors to consider which came up in email banter yesterday. (The managers for SBN hockey sites like Lighthouse Hockey have a discussion list where we fight over whose site is prettier coordinate logistics and such, and these points came up during yesterday's OMG! trade buzz.)

The first point came from Derek of Oilers site Copper & Blue:

Maybe today is the day that we can point to and say that hockey GMs have finally figured out how to manage player movement in a capped world?

(He concluded it with a jab at his own GM, but since I'm unethically posting snippets of semi-private correspondence, I'll stop there.)

I've long argued that while the cap has made trades more difficult (i.e. You do have to get out a calculator now instead of walk upstairs to the owner and say, "This guy plays like he's sniffing glue, I wanna ship him off."), it has not made them as impossible as some people make them out. Funny how the biggest whiners seem to be those who profit from trade rumors and the GMs who have historically itchy trader fingers, isn't it?

One problem is that the surprisingly escalating cap in the first few post-lockout years gave GMs a false sense that they can sign guys to stupid money now, and the cap space will open up later through the magic of annually growing hockey-related revenues. But now that we're four-plus years into this system and revenues are looking flat for this year, GMs may be suddenly forced into reconsidering the value of cap space and expiring contracts. Certainly that was in play during yesterday's trades between Brian Burke, Bob Murray and Darryl Sutter.

(Humorous aside: The Leafs traded 39 percent of their 2009-10 goal production yesterday! Goal-wise -- though hardly value-wise -- that'd be like taking Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen, Trent Hunter, Rob Schremp and Mark Streit out of Thursday's lineup.)

Cap Hit vs. Cash Outlay

Another interesting note came from Dirk of Predators site On The Forecheck:

I wonder when we'll see additional value realized for players who have a major difference between their cap hit and salary. For instance, a budget-conscious team (like Nashville) could acquire a high-cap, lower salary player from a cap-max team, to the benefit of both parties...

This thought may have been in play yesterday when Murray acquired ol' Jason Blake, whose frankly laughable long-term contract he signed with the Maple Leafs actually pays out less as it goes on. (Blake signed for five years, $20 million, but it was front-loaded, so the next two years pay out only $3 million per while the cap hit remains $4 million per.)

"What the hell is the difference?" you might ask. Well, for a cheap team that is not going to spend to the cap -- hello, Islanders -- real money going out matters, particularly if it allows you to take on more cap drain than you otherwise could afford.

Or as Earl Sleek of Battle of California -- who liked yesterday's exchange of salary on the bench for salary on the ice quite a bit -- pointed out via email (I'm really breaking all the laws of email correspondence here. Kids, don't try this at home.):

Basically, any team that doesn't intend on spending to the salary cap maximum should probably care more about cash payouts than cap math calculations -- I think [many] teams fall into that category. The only useful thing cap math is good for (in my mind) is to see whether you've exceeded the contrived maximum -- the cap ceiling.

And that gets to the other side of Garth Snow's payroll "asset" equation: Thanks largely to the Top Secret mode our franchise operates in and partly to the lack of provocative media covering it, we have no idea what GM Garth is allowed to spend in real dollars. But we can bet if there are options to take decent players who have bigger cap hits than salary left, it would make Wang smile.

The Unknowns This Snowy Holiday Shopping Season

Sure, we know via Snow's text answer to Larry Brooks that Snow is "authorized" to increase payroll (how people blew that up into traditional Brooks calculus to mean the Islanders would definitely add bodies for a playoff run is beyond me).

But other than that typically tight-lipped Snow response, we really don't know:

  • What's Snow's payroll ceiling this year, or for any future year?
  • What qualifications, if any, would Charles Wang require to authorize taking on someone else's big-money contract?
  • How, if at all, has Wang's thinking on long-term money changed as the club's venue future has remained cloudy, its future revenues even cloudier?
  • What time horizon are Snow and Wang working from, and to what extent are long-term, big-money extensions for first-round picks Kyle Okposo (2011-12), Josh Bailey (2011-12) and John Tavares (2012-13) factored into the future budget when those players' entry-level deals expire? (Of course they're in the projected budget; but do they take away from other expenses in those years, or are they assumed as part of the naturally escalating expenditure of a maturing rebuild?)

The simple and surest assumption for these questions is something very P.R.-ish like "Wang has authorized Snow to make smart, hockey-based personnel decisions as opportunities arise, as long as they mesh with the generally accepted principles of a low-budget team's rebuilding plan."

If so, would that mean he could have pulled off the Leafs deal for Dion Phaneuf? No. Phaneuf at $6.5 million per (cap rate through 2013-14) and of debatable value, would've been the Islanders' highest salary by over $2 million. Plus, he's a tool. Plus, the Islanders don't have the kind of middle-age expiring contracts and/or offense-goosers that Calgary needed to part with Frankenphaneuf.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim-Leafs trade doesn't apply at all because they were basically shuffling around their salary problems into areas where they served greater needs (Toronto needed goaltending, Anaheim had too much high-priced goaltending). The Islanders, as a team that at the moment is some $10-11 million short of next year's assumed floor, don't have any salary problems.

How this all unfolds, well, fans will probably be the last to know. But with the Isles' five-game losing streak pushing them to the bottom of the East bubble and the Olympic trade freeze coming shortly before the deadline, I know how many of us are (Still. Every day.) thinking: There are laborious contracts attached to good players out there to be had, it'd sure be nice if Garth could land one or two of 'em.

To that end, you know the drill. Feel free to compile your wish list here and play Garth "I don't do things like Burke" Snow. Just please don't say Ales freaking Kotalik.

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