Over the past couple of months, I have been doing a lot of analysis work on the Tampa Bay Lightning and their cap situation going into the next few years in regards to a potential Steven Stamkos extension as well as the coming deals for players like Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat.
In the process, I've learned a lot about how the NHL salary cap works and I know there is still a lot of little intricacies to still learn. One thing I've learned in recent weeks is that you cannot 100% trust the salary cap web sites for during the season calculations.
For example, after Joel Vermin's injury, it was reported by several beat writers on Twitter that the Lightning had been forced into recalling Yanni Gourde because of his lower cap hit than other recall options from the Syracuse Crunch. They reported that General Fanager listed the Lightning's cap space as being only $30,000 after the recalls of Vermin and Gourde. The Lightning then followed up those moves by replacing Andrei Vasilevskiy and his $925,000 cap hit with Kristers Gudlevskis ($608,333) and Mike Angelidis ($650,000). After the moves, General Fanager was listing the Lightning as being $302,501 over the salary cap. After that, the Lightning also recalled Tanner Richard and his $641,666 cap hit putting the team $944,167 over the salary cap. How is that possible?
Well, it's pretty simple. General Fanager and most of the other cap web sites out there are taking the total salary cap hit for each player on the roster and counting it up. The flaw in that type of calculation is that when you're recalling a player, you only need enough cap space to cover the pro-rated cap hit for that player for the rest of the season. You also have to include the cap hit applied for players that were on the roster previously during the cap-year. For example, Adam Erne and Slater Koekkoek were on the Lightning's opening night roster. With one day each on the NHL roster, they have contributed a little less than $10,000 combined towards the salary cap this season.
The goal of the salary cap is that by the end of the year, an NHL team will have "spent" less than the upper limit of the salary cap and spent more than the lower limit, as it's officially called in the collective bargaining agreement. That includes the partial time that players spend on the roster on recalls from the minors. In the Lightning's case, that includes like Kevin Poulin, who spend time on the NHL roster and were later traded. That includes retained salaries and buyouts and buried contracts.
Whenever you add a player - by recall or by trade - you must have enough room left under the salary cap's upper limit to cover the players remaining salary cap hit for the year with the assumption they will stay on the roster the rest of the year.
Additionally, performance bonuses must be factored in, though the CBA allows for a certain amount of cushion over the upper limit to cover potential performance bonuses and is calculated separately from the averaged club salary for the Upper and Lower Limits. The terms of performance bonuses are often unknown to the public, but once a particular bonus becomes un-reachable, such as for games played, the team no longer has to calculate that in. If the team goes over the Upper Limit due to performance bonuses at the end of the year, the team is charged a "Bonus Overage" in the following year.
In short, sites like General Fanager are great sources for salary cap information and player contract data. However, they are not the end all, be all of cap calculation. And it's understandable as there are so many variables that go into play that must be calculated to formulate an accurate picture and that would be difficult to do all season for 30 different teams. Only the NHL and the teams truly know where they stand on the salary cap.