Jets in shadow of cap crunch
Injury-plagued squad’s options limited by restrictions of salary ceiling
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The last thing the Winnipeg Jets need right now is another problem on their hands. The hockey club is having enough trouble fielding a competitive roster these days, with seven regular skaters currently sidelined by various bumps, bruises and breaks.
They’re on the cusp a doozy, however, especially if the injury bug keeps biting. As hard as it might be to believe, Winnipeg is nearly at the NHL’s salary cap ceiling, with not even enough pennies left to call up another player should the need arise without having to do some major financial gymnastics.
Allow us to explain.
The team is currently carrying 22 healthy skaters, comprised of 13 forwards, seven defencemen and two goaltenders (The NHL maximum is 23 players). They make a combined US$57 million, which isn’t anywhere close to the US$82.5 million maximum.
Unfortunately, they also have seven injured bodies counting against the cap, and those players make US $25 million between them.
That leaves, according to the CapFriendly website, exactly US$418,202 in room as of Thursday. Which wouldn’t even allow them to squeeze a player making the league-minimum (US$750,00) on to the roster).
Some folks mistakenly believe an injured player doesn’t count. That’s not true. The only exception is if a team uses long-term injured reserve (LTIR), which is something the Jets are trying to avoid. Doing so means you can no longer accrue cap space throughout the course of a year, as the Jets have been doing. And it would severely limit their ability to swing for the fences and take on a big contract later this year — Jonathan Toews, anyone??? — as we get closer to the trade deadline.
Put it this way: Winnipeg began the year with appoximately US$78 million in salary based on the opening-night roster, which included all of Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Nate Schmidt, Mason Appleton, Cole Perfetti, Saku Maenalanen and Logan Stanley. That gave them about US$4.5 million in breathing room to start. The season is considered 185 days in length, so the opening night cap hit counted for 1/185 of the year’s total. Each day that progressed at that number would bring further flexibility down the road.
By the time they got close to the March 3 trade deadline, the hope was to have all kinds of space should they need it.
Unfortunately, the Jets’ ugly injury situation means they are now accruing very little on a daily basis (1/185 of US$418,202 on Thursday, for example). And they may soon have no choice but to use LTIR to create some short-term relief, even though it would severely hamper their abilities later this year.
Thursday’s game against Vancouver saw forward Kristian Reichel and defenceman Kyle Capobianco as the two healthy scratches. At this point, the Jets could theoretically handle two more injured players and still have enough to field a lineup of 18 skaters/two goaltenders, but anything beyond that and they either have to play short (something a handful of teams have done in recent years, dressing 17 and even 16 skaters at times), or tap into LTIR.
The above also shows why it’s not as easy as “make a trade!” as many fans are shouting these days. Any new money in would have to be balanced with money out, barring an LTIR activation.
It’s one thing to use LTIR on a player who isn’t expected back this season. Tampa Bay, for example, expertly stickhandled their way through that a couple years ago with Nikita Kucherov (some suggest they manipulated the rules), bringing him back just in time for the playoffs, when the salary cap no longer exists. The Lightning then iced a lineup that was more than US$10 million above the regular-season cap, winning the Stanley Cup.
None of Winnipeg’s injured will be out that long. So general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff can’t just worry about today’s number, but also what it looks like later in the season when the injured are back in the mix. All of while trying to keep a severely shorthanded squad competitive that currently includes five callups from the Manitoba Moose (Reichel, Jansen Harkins, Kevin Stenlund, Michael Eyssimont, Ville Heinola) and two waiver wire pickups (Axel Jonsson-Fjalby and Karson Kuhlman). Fun times, eh?
Speaking of injuries, Jets coach Rick Bowness, in response to a Free Press query, broke down the status of all seven. Here’s the latest:
Schmidt (out since Dec. 15), Perfetti (out since Dec. 22), Ehlers (out since Oct. 17) and Maenalanen (out since Dec. 8) all skated on their own prior to Thursday’s optional morning skate.
“That’s the first time Nate has skated. Nik and Saku have been skating. I think Nate is the closest at this point (to returning). And Cole, probably, he skated with the group. So maybe Cole and Nate would be the closest, the other two are still a ways away,” said Bowness.
That’s a bit of a surprise, since earlier this week Bowness figured Maenalanen could be back by next week.
“We thought so. It’s taking a little longer,” said Bowness.
Appleton (out since Nov. 13). Wheeler (out since Dec. 15) and Stanley (out since Dec. 9) remain off the ice.
“I think (Appleton) has got a doctor’s appointment on the 4th of January. And then we’ll go from there. He hasn’t skated, he hasn’t done a whole lot. He’s going to be a while yet,” said Bowness. “Logan’s still a couple of weeks away from skating, for sure. Wheels. Maybe a couple days to a week to skate again. I think we’ve got it all sorted out.”
A best-case estimate, at this point, would be Schmidt and Perfetti back within a week or so, Maenalanen and Ehlers closer to two weeks, and Appleton, Wheeler and Stanley likely three weeks or longer.
In other words, there’s the potential for things to actually get worse before they get better.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.