It's the job of a general manager to plan for the future. The team will project their contracts and salary cap years ahead of time. Of course, play on the ice is the most important factor and can change a team's plans, but every good general manager enters the offseason with a plan in place knowing who he wants to re-sign, who will walk, who to draft and who to target in free agency. This year, however, is different. How do you prepare for an offseason when you know...practically nothing? That's the task that lays before every NHL general manager right now, including Capitals GM Brian MacLellan.
Heading into the 2019 draft, the salary cap ceiling had not been set and it was rumored that the actual number would be below the initial projections. MacLellan called it "frustrating" to have uncertainty with the cap heading into a key date in the offseason.
Thanks to the coronavirus, there is much more uncertainty regarding this year's offseason. MacLellan has to prepare for both the playoffs and the offseason not knowing if the players will get back on the ice, an uncertain cap number that seems unlikely to rise next season, no date for the combine, no date for the draft, no date for free agency and no idea whether next season will begin on time or could get pushed back by the current season.
"It is difficult," MacLellan said in a conference call on Monday. "I guess we talk over all the possible scenarios and you try to prepare mentally for anything. What happens to the cap? Does the cap go down because revenues are going to decrease? Do they artificially keep it where it’s at? So, the answer to those questions puts us on pause on your [unrestricted free agent] negotiations. How do we proceed given both those scenarios? Those are just open-ended questions and we discuss them, but we don’t come up with any answers."
And there won't be any answers until the world begins to emerge from this global pandemic and the NHL can get some clarity on when players could potentially return to the ice.
Once the world is ready to return to some semblance of normalcy, however, it is not as if everything can return to business as usual.
One of the major events of the offseason is the draft. Both the scouting combine and draft, set for early and late June respectively, have been postponed. In addition, travel restrictions and health concerns greatly limited what the team's scouts were able to do even before everything was paused.
"The amateur guys, they had some big tournaments at the end that got canceled on them," MacLellan said. "It's a big part of their year. I think they always look forward to the tournaments and finalizing their lists and reports and it kind of got grounded to a halt at the end of this, at the end of the season for us. I talk to [assistant general manager Ross Mahoney] a lot about what we can do to keep guys engaged, the use of video. Can we do a little more phone interviews? We look for ways to stay engaged creatively and to see if we can improve on our process of finding players."
There are also logistical issues with changing the offseason calendar. The league year officially begins on July 1 and NHL player contracts expire on June 30 for any player on the final year of his deal. Should the season extend deep into the summer -- MacLellan noted the NHL had asked for building availability dates for the month of August -- those contracts would have to be extended.
“I think the League brought up that in the last call that it would be extended through August if that was the case," MacLellan said. "If that’s the route we were going down, the contracts I guess would have to be approved by the [NHLPA] still too, but they would go to the end of August, if that was the date they chose.”
That is a positive, but it will still be hard to prepare for free agency without knowing what the salary cap will be or when it will take place. That makes it difficult to know what the team can spend on its on free agents, let alone on players they can bring in. The Caps are a veteran-laden team with several players signed to long-term contracts when it was presumed the cap would continue rising. Even one year without the cap raising could quickly put Washington in a bind.
And while MacLellan is still trying to wrap his head around that, this is all being done not knowing if this season is over or not. Will there be a playoff for the Caps to further evaluate their players? Should MacLellan prepare for next season as if the Cup window is still open? It's hard to tell if the Caps can continue competing for the Cup without a postseason to evaluate.
And so for general managers across the league, people whose job it is to prepare for the future, they are all left with more questions than answers.
"I don't think we have answers to any of those questions," MacLellan said.
He added, "If we did (play) through August, could we have a couple of months off and then start back up in November? What do they do with that cap number? I think there are so many questions that we haven't even considered that'll pop up given whatever the result is at the end of this. Again, the league has been very open to anybody asking questions of giving recommendations. So all we can do is try and prepare for different scenarios that we see coming and do the best we can do."
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