The Ottawa Senators, whether or not they're ready to compete for a playoff spot, are paying for that caliber of team for the first time in a while.
(The preceding sentence would've been a lot less gloomy with a better performance yesterday, by the way. It would've been something along the lines of "The Ottawa Senators are the best team in the NHL, and that comes with a high price".)
Not since the infamous Zdeno Chara-Wade Redden debate have we had to worry about a salary cap crunch, but here we are in 2023, and general manager Pierre Dorion has already been forced to try and navigate the waters of fielding a competitive roster with limited resources.
Let's rewind back to the end of training camp. The Senators, with RFA Shane Pinto unsigned, had 21 skaters on the roster – 13 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goalies – and around $60k in cap space. Signing Pinto at this point is impossible without moving money out. Even with Ottawa accruing cap space each day, the CBA ensures teams can't circumvent the cap with RFAs by increasing the cap hit of the player to be signed. Take Brady Tkachuk's seven-year deal signed in 2021 as an example. The AAV is roughly $8.2M, but the cap hit in the first year is slightly higher – around $8.3M – because the deal was signed a few days after the season officially began.
Additionally, there was the added issue of Josh Norris' rehab from shoulder surgery to consider, too. With Zack MacEwen listed as day-to-day on opening night, the roster included only 11 healthy forwards, and no cap space to recall any reinforcements. At least not at first. The way cap space is accrued is that if the Sens are $60k under the cap for one day, they can then exceed the cap by $60k for one day. Or, by waiting two days, they can be $120k above the ceiling for a day. Of course, in this case, that's still not nearly enough room to work with, let alone at the start of the year.
Placing Norris on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) could've been a viable option, as it would've allowed the Sens to sign Pinto and have a bit more flexibility regarding their depth. Training camp standouts Roby Jarventie, Jiri Smejkal, and Maxence Guenette could start the year in Ottawa, for example. The problem with this approach is that a player placed on LTIR must stay there until they've missed at least 10 games or 24 days. Furthermore, LTIR doesn't actually create cap space, rather, it offers cap relief by allowing teams to exceed the ceiling.
That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but teams can't accrue cap space while they're above the ceiling, meaning they wouldn't be able to return an injured player to the team until the playoffs when the cap no longer exists. The Tampa Bay Lightning did this with Nikita Kucherov in 2020 to great effect, and considering how Ridly Greig has arguably been Ottawa's best forward, let alone a capable 2C, one could see the same approach working for them. But hindsight is 20/20, and so is Norris' vision when it comes to finding the back of the net. Ottawa's biggest issue last season was an inability to finish on chances at even strength, so it's in their best interest to have their best finisher in the lineup for as many games as possible. Besides, since Norris has now appeared in three games, the possibility of his ever really being eligible to go on LTIR seems remote at best.
So, with LTIR ruled out, the Sens have what the CBA refers to as a "roster emergency". Teams right up against the cap can be forced to play a man short for one game as a slap on the wrist, as we saw on opening night against the Carolina Hurricanes. Thereafter, a team is permitted to call up a player on an emergency basis without a cap charge, so long as his cap hit doesn't exceed the league minimum by more than $100k. In this case, Jacob Bernard-Docker was recalled to replace the injured Artem Zub.
One detail that stuck out to me here is that following the Saturday loss to Detroit, is that the Senators sent JBD back to Belleville, only to recall him the next day, again on an emergency basis. In pursuit of an explanation for these shenanigans, I came across this article from The Hockey News pertaining to emergency recalls after the trade deadline – not everything here will apply to the entire season, but it's implied emergency recalls work the same way.
Players recalled on an emergency basis must be sent back down to the minors, but can be recalled in time for the next game. So, for the duration of Zub's injury, the Sens can keep swinging Jacob from Bernad to Docker and back again without their cap hit changing. In the event that I'm incorrect about this and this rule only applies after the trade deadline, the reasoning for recalling JBD twice currently escapes me. Maybe one recall for each part of his last name?
These are the kinds of things we'll see from the team going forward – small moves with the goal of saving as much cap space as possible. In previous years we saw the team make roster decisions with real dollar savings in mind – trading Zack Smith for Artem Anisimov, a player with a comparable salary and higher cap hit is a decent example here. That's why it's a bummer to see the ~5M in dead money on Ottawa's payroll after the team had very little incentive to be above the cap floor for years.
To conclude: there is not a lot of maneuvering, barring a major injury, that the team can do. To alleviate the cap crunch, or at the very least to sign Shane Pinto, the Sens will need to shed some salary. There's no two ways around it. Oh well. At least our problems come from spending money as opposed to not spending money. Welcome to cheering for a cap team, folks.