Most important part of NHL calendar is upon us

Richards's underlying numbers show exactly why he's been waived. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Now that the Stanley Cup final is over, the most important two and a half weeks on the NHL calendar are upon us.

The lineups of all 30 teams will be tweaked during a frenzied period where the capologists earn their paycheques, starting with the opening of the buyout period Monday. That will be followed in short order by a draft expected to include significant trades, the extension of qualifying offers to unsigned younger players and the beginning of free agency.

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The role of a front office in the NHL is as much asset management as it is talent evaluation these days, which makes the possibility of compliance buyouts particularly interesting. This is the final opportunity for the 26 teams still possessing at least one — Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and Philadelphia burnt both of their CBA-granted escapes last year — and the decisions aren’t exactly cut-and-dried.

First of all, the salary cap relief still costs real money. The expected buyout of veteran centre Brad Richards, for example, would see the New York Rangers pay him more than $20 million over the next 12 years. That’s after already dishing out approximately $30 million in salary and bonuses to Richards for just three years of service.

It is a hefty price tag — albeit one that can be justified by the potential cap recapture penalty the team would face if it continued to employ Richards and he retired early, leaving dead money on the books for years to come.

The decision on Richards also comes down to performance, just as it will for Buffalo’s Ville Leino, San Jose’s Martin Havlat, Detroit’s Jordin Tootoo and Tampa’s Ryan Malone, among others. They are all obvious candidates to receive a CBO before June 30.

Where things gets tricky is with a player like Los Angeles Kings centre Mike Richards, who is beloved by the organization and just contributed to another championship. However, he did so in a supporting role and is still due $29 million over the next six years — not exactly commensurate with a fourth-line player.

That looms as a tough decision for Kings GM Dean Lombardi.

The target isn’t only on big-money players or those signed to long-term deals. For example, the Sabres bought out the last year of Nathan Gerbe’s $1.85-million contract last summer and there could be a couple unexpected moves like that one in the offing.

Buyout candidates and rumours for all 30 teams

NHL teams have been told to expect the upper limit of the salary cap to be set around $70 million for next season — the final accounting is still being completed — and maintaining as much payroll flexibility as possible under that threshold is imperative.

Any money removed by buyouts or expiring contracts will soon be replaced by new deals, with negotiations in full swing on a number of fronts. While July 1 remains the date that unrestricted free agents can sign with other teams, players in that situation are allowed to start interviewing with potential suitors on June 25.

This is a new wrinkle in the CBA that saw a two-day trial run at the end of last year’s lockout-shortened season, with David Clarkson among the few who visited multiple cities across the continent to field pitches. That won’t be necessary this time around since the interview period opens before the June 27-28 draft, which leaves UFA’s the chance to meet teams in Philadelphia, although some may still choose to go directly to the places where they might potentially end up playing.

It is a relatively weak free-agent class — headlined by Marian Gaborik, Paul Stastny and Thomas Vanek — so most teams looking for upgrades will have to explore other avenues as well.

In speaking with general managers after their meeting in New York last week, the general opinion seemed to be that a busy trading period around the draft awaits. There are certainly big names (and big contracts) available. However, as a word of caution, we have heard this type of talk before and then had the realities of the salary cap limit movement.

Beyond the more headline-grabbing machinations of the NHL’s economic system, deadlines for player-elected salary arbitration and qualifying offers are also fast approaching. There is always the outside possibility of an offer sheet to a restricted free agent once July 1 arrives as well.

While the management of a NHL team is basically a 365-day job now, the decisions made in the coming weeks will significantly impact the direction of each team. So as the Kings continue to parade the Stanley Cup around Southern California — still celebrating an unparalleled playoff run — the chase for next year’s championship has already begun in boardrooms around North America.

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