Tim Murray has a daily routine.
“My first stop is the trainer’s room – every day,” the Sabres’ general manager said. “Who can play? Who can’t play? Who’s available? Who’s not available? What do I have to call up?”
Then Murray goes upstairs and has Assistant GM Mark Jakubowski calculate the salary cap. Whether the Sabres summon Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Cal O’Reilly or Dan Catenacci depends on how close Buffalo is to the cap ceiling – and the team has been mighty close.
“This is what we do every day,” Murray said.
It’s not fun, and it’s certainly not expected. Murray had no plans to spend to the cap, but injuries have affected the off-ice routines as much as the on-ice product.
“We’re a cap team because of injuries,” Murray said. “We’re paying 27 people. Ideally, we would like to have 21 people on our team. We’re paying 27 people NHL salaries that are on the cap.
“One injury is easy. Two injuries is OK. But if you have 27 guys on your roster, you’re into unknown territory, so we’re trying to make the best of it.”
Because of the volume and magnitude of injuries, Murray and Jakubowski have had to develop circus skills. They juggle money. They walk a financial tightrope.
The thing they can’t do is clown around. One misstep would be costly.
“We’re right against the cap,” Murray said.
Normally, a cap team is a contender. Back in 2006-07, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Sabres couldn’t let rookie Drew Stafford practice because it would have put them over the threshold.
This year’s team is not a contender, but it’s in the same predicament as the club from a decade ago. On the surface, that’s troubling news. But, as Murray explained, it’s simply because of injuries.
NHL teams don’t benefit from the cap-relieving device known as long-term injured reserve until they need to exceed the ceiling, so every injured player is on Buffalo’s cap. That includes forward Cody McCormick, who hasn’t played in almost two years because of blood clots, and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, who is day-to-day. Jack Eichel, Tyler Ennis, Ryan O’Reilly, Zach Bogosian and Nicolas Deslauriers are also hurt, giving the Sabres seven guys out of the lineup.
Those absences have led to as many as five call-ups per game. Even though the erstwhile Amerks are on the low end of the salary scale, having that many in Buffalo adds up.
For example, the Sabres needed forwards Evan Rodrigues, William Carrier and Baptiste, plus defensemen Taylor Fedun and Justin Falk on Thursday against Tampa Bay. The quintet has a combined cap hit of $3.5 million. According to the daily salary calculator at CapFriendly.com, their additions put the Sabres at $72,662,024 – just $337,976 under the cap of $73 million.
Because the NHL calculates the cap every day, being that close to the ceiling impacts which minor-leaguer gets the call and how long he gets to stay.
“There was a day last week where Catenacci makes $575,000, and he was the only forward we could have brought up if there was a sickness or an injury,” Murray said.
Potential bonuses are also tying the hands of Murray and Jakubowski. Entry-level contracts are flush with incentives, some easily attainable and some not. So even though Internet salary sites may list Baptiste’s cap hit as $718,333, the Sabres have to budget $1 million or so for the year.
“We’re a team that has young guys that have a capability of earning huge bonuses in Eichel and Sam Reinhart, and even Baptiste and Carrier and these guys have smaller bonuses,” Murray said. “We don’t know if they’re going to earn them yet. You have to predict that and you have to account for it. That’s what we’re doing right now.
“Basically, from the start of the year we’re going on the assumption they’re going to reach their bonuses, so that’s how we are calculating our cap and that’s how we are using players.”
Ignoring potential bonuses would have a huge impact. For example, if the Sabres are stuck near the cap all season and merely budget base salaries, year-end bonuses could push their payroll to $75 million. That $2 million cap overage would be subtracted from next season’s cap allowance. So if the cap remains at $73 million, the Sabres would have only $71 million to spend.
“It’s a big impact if you go over,” Murray said.
That’s why the GM’s daily routine features trips to the trainer’s room and encounters with calculators.