How the Jets can use the return of the Manitoba Moose to their advantage

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Photo Credit: Zazzle.com

As an internal budget team throughout their 2.0 existence, the Winnipeg Jets start every season at a disadvantage compared with the NHL’s big spenders. 

Though the Jets have slowly increased their spending, both in aggregate and relative to the salary cap, since landing in back Manitoba – even spending right up to the artificially lowered upper limit during the 2013-14 season – this is still a club that operates in an austere environment. This past season they ran at about $5 million less than the $69 million upper limit according to NHLNumbers.com, and this is a trend we should probably expect to continue unless ownership and management agree the window of opportunity is open. 

To general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s credit, the club’s mild spending disadvantage hasn’t cost the club any core assets. That’s the good news, but budget issues have kept the Jets restrained from being real players in free agency (actually, one might reasonably argue that this is to their benefit), and up until the 2014 NHL trade deadline, the Jets hadn’t capitalized on surplus cap space on the trade market in the way we often see from clubs in larger markets. 

An internal budget team in a salary cap league generally has to be pretty efficient elsewhere to keep up. With the upcoming return of the Manitoba Moose next season, the Jets have a marvellous opportunity to turn a relative weakness to their advantage. 

For a decade, the Manitoba Moose were the last vestige of professional hockey in the city of Winnipeg. 

The successful AHL franchise was among the league’s top draws. In partnership with their Vancouver Canucks affiliate produced a handful of future NHL head coaches (including Claude Noel, Randy Carlyle, Alain Vigneault, and Scott Arniel, among others), some more future NHL players, and had some success in the Calder Cup playoffs besides.

This season the Moose are back, and will be affiliated with the hometown Jets. They’ll even share the MTS Centre with their NHL parent club, the first such partnership in professional hockey.

Obviously there are benefits to this proximity from a player development and ease of recall standpoint, but there’s a less intuitive benefit that Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets would do well to avail themselves of, particularly as an internal cap team. 

It’s essentially a CBA loophole, but a team with an AHL affiliate in close proximity to their NHL team can use their AHL affiliate to save cap space throughout the season for use at the NHL trade deadline. Here’s how DragLikePull explained the mechanism and how the Toronto Maple Leafs managed to use it to maximize their cap space at the 2015 NHL trade deadline:

Each NHL team’s spending against the salary cap is calculated on a daily basis. The NHL season is considered to have 186 days, so for each day that a player is on an NHL club’s active roster, 1/186 of their cap hit counts towards the team’s allowable spending for that season.

According to Capgeek, Stuart Percy’s cap hit for this season is $863,333. That means that for every day he’s on the Leafs’ active roster, the Leafs lose $4,641.58 against their maximum spending on player salaries for the season. The converse is also true: for each day he’s not on the active roster (ie. in the AHL), the Leafs gain $4,641.58 that becomes available to spend later in the season.

Over time, this money can add up. If Percy were to be off the roster for 40 days this season, that would free up 185,663 additional dollars to spend elsewhere (such as on trade deadline acquisitions). That might not sound like a lot, but for a team like the Leafs that operates near the maximum allowable spending, that money could prove to be very helpful. And now that the team is doing the same thing with Sam Carrick ($3396.06 per day), the savings compound.

The Maple Leafs employed this tactic in earnest last season, and now that the Jets similarly have their AHL affiliate located in the same city (and actually the same building), it would be simple for them to replicate that approach. 

When players are reassigned to the AHL, they do have to physically report (with the exception of the paper transactions that the NHL permits on AHL clear day), and the ability to have a player literally just walk down the hall to report and *poof* they’re off your 23-man roster, is a pretty nice trump card for the Jets to have. 

If the Jets can employ a 22nd and 23rd man (basically an eighth defenseman and a 13th forward) who are waiver eligible, they could carry 21 players on the roster on home stands. Recalling a player due to injury would be simple, so there’s really no downside so long as the club manages the relationship with the player – who surely won’t enjoy losing out on a days (or weeks) worth of NHL salary – appropriately. 

Depending on the cost of those depth players’ contracts, the Jets could toll an additional $300,000 to $400,000 if they were disciplined about rolling with a lean roster when playing in front of the raucous MTS Centre crowds.

The comparable geographical proximity of their AHL teams notwithstanding, the Maple Leafs are not a particularly close comparable for the Jets. After all, a smaller market team like Winnipeg isn’t looking to pay a coach more than $6 million a year. Winnipeg will not be able to do things like take on Eric Brewer’s contract in order to procure a mid-round pick for Korbinian Holzer, or maximize their return by retaining salary and taking Zach Sill’s contract back so as to make the acquisition of Daniel Winnik cap neutral for a trade partner. 

There’s another internal budget team that has long employed a similar tactic, albeit somewhat less dramatically and without the convenience of a proximate AHL affiliate – the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks are famous for busily recalling and reassigning players throughout the season, and then essentially reinventing themselves with a variety of trades on NHL deadline day. 

Generally speaking, this is how an internal budget team should look to operate, particularly when they have a playoff bound team that’s worth improving. If you’re pinching pennies, then you can’t ignore that a player acquired at the NHL trade deadline isn’t as expensive as a player you employ for the full campaign. 

If the Jets are hoping to take a step towards becoming a perennial playoff team, then maximizing their flexibility at the deadline could be invaluable. This is a good way to accomplish that.

Now Cheveldayoff and company just need to find useful, waiver exempt depth pieces, which is easier said than done. To Bob Murray’s credit, it’s rare for an NHL team to employ a coterie of such players like the Ducks had in Rickard Rakell, Josh Manson, William Karlsson (since traded), and Emerson Etem this past season.