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How CBA uncertainty will affect 2012 free agency

Deep-pocketed teams could try to pry RFAs like Shea Weber away, but could be in trouble if the cap ceiling shrinks.(Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Deep-pocketed teams could try to pry RFAs like Shea Weber away, but could be in trouble if the cap ceiling shrinks.(Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Recent reports suggest the NHL salary cap could both increase and decrease before the start of next season.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires Sept. 15, the cap ceiling is estimated to rise as high as $69 million for 2012-13, approximately a $5-million increase over the current limit of $64.3 million.

The cap floor would also rise from the current $48.3 million to around $53 million.

That's without taking into account the NHL Players’ Association’s right to employ its five percent “escalator,” which would push the ceiling to $72 million and the floor to $56 million.

That's good news for NHL teams with payrolls for next season currently in excess of $50 million (Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, San Jose, Vancouver and Los Angeles), providing them with substantially more cap space.

The increase, however, is expected to be temporary. 

If the league succeeds in lowering the players’ share of revenue (currently 57 percent) in the next CBA, the cap limits will also be lowered, forcing GMs to operate throughout this summer under self-imposed limits until next season's figures are finally determined.

Should the revenue share become a 50-50 split, the cap ceiling for next season would be around $60 million. The cap floor, meanwhile, could see a bigger decline if the next CBA widens the current $16-million gap between the floor and ceiling.

Teams currently at the lower end of the scale for committed payroll for next season – Dallas, Ottawa, the New York Islanders, Winnipeg, St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville, Carolina and Colorado – shouldn't be adversely affected by this situation.

Most currently appear committed to remaining somewhere between the cap floor and the midpoint between the floor and ceiling.  If the former is lowered, it'll make it easier for those teams to get above that limit prior to the start of next season.

It could also prompt many of the GMs of those lower-salaried teams to be more active in this summer's free agent market. Teams with internal cap ceilings will have more space to work with than those with payrolls in excess of $50 million.

Should the higher-salaried teams maintain self-imposed caps of $60 million or lower, it will significantly hamper their ability to re-sign key players and bid competitively for unrestricted free agents.

Those teams can, of course, spend above their self-imposed limits, even going beyond the official number for this summer under the current CBA.

That, however, comes with serious risk. If they were to spend up to the projected $69-$72 million and the new cap ceiling were lowered, they’d be forced to make salary-dumping trades or bury players in the minors to become cap-compliant provided that option is still allowed in the next CBA.

Given the lack of quality depth in this summer's UFA market, some GMs could try to pry away restricted free agents from their rivals with offer sheets, especially those high-salaried teams  handcuffed by limited cap space.

Vancouver's Cory Schneider, Boston's Tuukka Rask, Buffalo's Tyler Ennis, the New York Rangers' Michael Del Zotto, and Montreal's Carey Price and P.K. Subban could prove tempting targets.

Tight-budgeted teams at the lower end of the scale could also be targeted by GMs with considerable cap space and a willingness to spend. Nashville's Shea Weber, Dallas' Jamie Benn, Colorado's Matt Duchene, Winnipeg's Evander Kane, and Florida's Kris Versteeg could fall into that group.

Even if the threat of offer sheets turns out to be an empty one, the uncertainty over what will be contained in the new CBA could have an impact on RFA contract negotiations. GMs could wait until the new CBA is implemented before re-signing those players.

Whatever the outcome of the CBA negotiations, it's shaping up to be an interesting off-season.

Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.

 

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