There has been some talk that the salary cap may be going down by the 2010-11 season. This will obviously be a problem for a lot of teams and is something that needs to be taken into consideration by teams going forward, especially into this year's (and next year's) trade deadline. Tom Benjamin has suggested that the Oilers are in trouble going forward. My outlook is not nearly so bleak.
The important thing, first of all, is to have a budget. In the Shoalts article referenced above he suggests that the salary cap could fall to 46 million dollars. This seems like a panic number to me, but, then again, if two years ago you'd forecast that the TSX would be trading between 8,000 and 9,000 that would have looked like a panic number too. Basically, you can't completely discount the 46 million figure but if you're convinced it's heading that way you'll probably end up needlessly bleeding good assets.
So, how could the Oilers find a proper balance. Well, first, I think, they need to start with a long-term budget in terms of percentage of the cap and forecast a middle number for where the cap is going. I would use 50 million and distribute the budget as follows:
1st line - 30% = 15M
2nd line - 15% = 7.5M
bot 6F and bot 3D - 20% = 10M
top 4D - 30% = 15M
2G - 5% = 2.5M
Distributing the cash in this way we can start with what we know. The top line is set for 10/11 with Hemsky (4.1), Horcoff (5.5) and Penner (4.25) slotting in just fine. They're all in the heart of their careers and the line is outperforming against strong opposition. The total figure is 13.85. If the cap moves down to 46M, they'd be allocated 13.8M, so we're basicallly right on target. The thing to do here is stand pat.
The second line only has one committed contract for 10/11 in Robert Nilsson. In my view Gagner should be a priority. His numbers are nothing particuarly special so far this year so I'd try to ink him for 3M or less over 3 to 6 years this summer. It seems very doable. For this exercise we'll say he gets 3M. I'd leave the other spot until you know the cap number for 10/11 in case it's greater than 50M, but if it's 50M, or retreats as low as 46M you'll still have 2M to spend on either Cogliano or a free agent. If we're talking a 46M cap, 2M should be able to get a decent second line forward.
This is where the hard decisions start. The guys in these slots currently signed up are Stortini (0.7), Staios (2.7) and Moreau (2.0). They need to be traded at the deadline. They're not pulling their weight now anyway, so their replacements should be able to fill in. The Oilers will need to pick up a D on a contract that expires either this year or next, but that shouldn't be a problem. Still, it is essential for budget (as well as hockey) purposes that these guys be moved. If that goal is achieved, then the rest falls into place. I'd go with eight forwards on the following pay scale if the cap *actually* comes in around 46M (and I'd try my darndest to make sure none of these guys have deals longer than three years): 1.3 (Pisani?), 1 (Brodziak?), 1, 0.7 (Stortini), 0.7 (Reddox?), 0.7, 0.6, 0.6. The three D-men would be assigned as follows: 1.4 (Smid?), 0.7, 0.6. Now these numbers can all increase a bit if the cap is higher, but with a 46M cap those numbers don't strike me as out of line. At 50M the numbers are 9.3 out of 10M bugeted. If it actually is 46M Smid moves up to the top 4 and is replaced by another cheap (0.7) defender in the bottom pair. That puts this section at 8.6M out of 9.2M budgeted. Smid is an important swing man here. If he can be signed longish term around 1.5 it does this team some good. To end this section, what is needed is to ditch Staios and Moreau. Trade them. Now.
Now to the problem section. In a 50M budget, we have 15M to allocate to 4D. Three are signed for a total of 15M. Uh oh. Except! If the budget is 50M, we've saved 1.15M from our top line, 0.6M from our second line and 0.7M from our bottom feeders. That gives you 2.35M for a top 4 defender if the cap is 50M. To be honest I'd like to pillage another .65 from the goalies and see if we can sign up Grebeshkov at some term for 3M. If not then a D will need to be traded this off-season (so either trade Grebs or trade Souray and use that money to pay Grebs and a FA) and a free agent top 4 signed. That would be too bad to be honest. Let's hope someone can convince Grebeshkov to play for 3M per.
That leaves 1.95M for two goalies if Grebs is signed and quite possibly more if a D is traded. This isn't great, but it seems adequate. I would probably try to bring in three or even four guys around 0.9 each and have them compete through training cap. Stash two in the minors. It could be Conkannen. Or it could be Conklin in Pittsburgh and Detroit.
So that's the 50M cap met, dead on, only 0.1 left over. Tight but possible, and not much talent is bled away. If we need to get to 46M one of Souray and Vish bites the dust via trade that off-season. You'll probably be getting back pennies on the dollar and you might end up paying one of them in the minors, but, to be honest, I really doubt it. Souray's paid 4.5M for a 5.4M cap hit so someone looking to save money could well be interested. The talent level takes a hit replacing Souray/Vish with Smid in the top four and Smid with a cheap alternative (0.7) on D to get under the 46M cap but so long as Smid can handle top 4 minutes by his 5th pro season they should survive. No smoke and mirrors and just one panic button trade in the summer of 2010. You could even look into a loan agreement with a European team for Vish until the cap comes back up.
One other essential note. Do not pick up any more long-term big money contracts! Do not sign a big ticket item this summer unless another is leaving town or it's a one-year deal!