As the 2018-19 regular season was about to start, the Capitals had a tough decision to make. Tom Wilson was ejected from the team’s final preseason game after a hit to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist and faced a lengthy suspension. Since a player’s salary continues to count against the cap during a suspension, Brian MacLellan had to find a way to replace Wilson with almost no cap space to work with.
Defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, meanwhile, had just wrapped up a solid training camp. He had performed like one of the top-six defensemen on the team and looked poised to make the roster.
Instead, Siegenthaler was sent to the AHL and it was for one simple reason: He was waiver-exempt.
Now in 2019, the Caps once again find themselves in serious cap trouble and once again, Siegenthaler is waiver exempt. This year, however, he won’t have to worry.
Whenever a player with an NHL contract is assigned to the AHL, he has to pass through waivers meaning any team in the league can put a claim on him and take his rights for nothing. When players first enter the league, however, they are exempt from the waiver process allowing them to be sent up or down at any time. The NHL has a lot of complicated rules about how long a player can be waiver exempt for, but for now all you need to know is that Siegenthaler is waiver exempt this season.
One week ago, MacLellan was having a pretty good offseason. He had reshaped the team into a more defensively formidable group and all that was left to do was fit defenseman Christian Djoos in the remaining cap space as the team’s No. 7 defenseman.
But that didn’t happen.
An independent arbitrator awarded Djoos a one-year contract for $1.25 million which brought the team over the cap. On Saturday, the team also re-signed forward Chandler Stephenson to a one-year deal for $1.05 million.
According to CapFriendly, Washington now stands about $1.3 million over the salary cap for next season.
The good news is that teams can be up to 10-percent over the salary cap until the start of the next season. The bad news is that Washington is still going to have to cut salary between now and then in order to get under the cap.
Whenever a team gets in a salary-cap bind, one of the first things to check is the waiver-exempt status of players on the roster. That prospect who is oh-so-close to the NHL and who may be actually slightly better than the veteran he is competing against for a spot in the lineup? Sorry, it’s back to the AHL for you.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this. When a player’s talent rises to a certain level, it doesn’t matter what the waiver status is anymore, he’s going to play. We saw this with Jakub Vrana who was also waiver exempt in 2018-19, but there was never any talk of sending him back to Hershey.
For many prospects who are battling for roster spots, however, if you need to clear up space and the prospect is on par with the veteran, sending him down to the AHL is an easy solution. That way you ensure you do not lose a player to waivers for nothing and you still have that prospect in your system ready to call-up when needed.
So great, the Caps should just send Siegenthaler and Stephenson to the AHL. Siegenthaler is still waiver exempt and, since the Caps have two extra forwards, someone is going to be the odd-man out and Stephenson seems the most likely candidate.
Problem solved...and there was much rejoicing. Let’s start the season!
Actually...it’s not problem solved. At all.
Let’s rewind and break this down.
First, the Caps have 14 forwards and seven defensemen under contract. A team only needs 13 forwards (four lines plus one extra) so someone is getting sent down. Stephenson seems the most likely candidate. If MacLellan was really that enamored with Stephenson’s play last season, he would not have gone out and signed not one, but two fourth-line penalty killers.
If you send both players to Hershey, you take Stephenson’s $1.05 million and Siegenthaler’s roughly $715,000 cap hit off the books. That would move the team back under the cap by about $400,000.
But we’re not done. Washington would have only six defensemen at that point. You need six for a game, but you need seven on the roster with an extra.
Why? Hershey’s only a few hours drive, right? Because anything can happen before a game. Maybe John Carlson twists his ankle stepping off the bus on his way to the arena. Maybe Michal Kempny is fine for a morning skate, but gets sick over the course of the day and can’t play. Maybe someone gets injured at morning skate and the Bears are on a road trip and nowhere close to Washington or maybe someone gets sick while the Caps are in California or Vancouver. NHL teams need at least one extra forward and one extra defenseman. That means if you send Siegenthaler down, you have to bring someone else back up.
The most likely candidate at that point would be Tyler Lewington who, though he would not challenge any of the Caps’ top six for a spot in the lineup, could be a serviceable No. 7. But Lewington’s cap hit is $675,000 and that would put the Caps back over the cap ceiling.
That’s a problem, especially given the fact that Lewington has literally the lowest cap hit in the organization meaning recalling a cheaper player is not an option. There are no cheaper options. In fact, the current NHL minimum salary is $700,000 so MacLellan could not even go out and sign another player off the scrap heap just to keep on the roster on an emergency basis.
OK, well if recalling a cheaper defenseman isn’t the solution, then why not send down a more expensive forward and get his cap hit off the books? They can’t do that either.
Teams only get a limited amount of cap relief when forwards are sent to the AHL. This is calculated by the minimum NHL salary plus $375,000. The most cap relief a team can get in the 2019-20 season is $1.075 million.
So if, for example, Garnet Hathaway is sent to the AHL, $425,000 of his $1.5 million cap hit would still count against the cap and that would still put the Caps over. You could send Siegenthaler and any forward on the Caps’ roster down to the AHL and the team still will not have enough money under the cap to recall Lewington even though he is cheaper than the current NHL minimum salary.
While Siegenthaler’s waiver exempt status may look like a tempting option to use to try to fix the team’s cap constraints, his small cap hit of less than $715,000 actually means sending him down does not solve anything.
There are plenty of other options MacLellan has at his disposal to trim salary, but waiving Siegenthaler is not one of them.
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