It's fitting that the league's Board Of Governors meeting earlier this week took place in Pebble Beach because few clubs stand to benefit more from commissioner Gary Bettman's announcement at that meeting than the NHL team closest to that locale, the San Jose Sharks. Bettman forecast an increase in the salary cap from this year's upper limit of $64.3 million to roughly $71.1 million for the 2014-15 season. Although there were whispers coming out of the interminable lockout that engulfed the hockey world this time last year that the cap could rise to the $70-million mark as soon as next season, even the most optimistic projections didn't have it reaching that level until a few more years down the road.
But the predicted 10.6% increase is good news for a Sharks team on which Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the two best players in franchise history, and Dan Boyle, another contender for inclusion on San Jose's Mount Rushmore, are slated to hit unrestricted free agency. A $71.1 million ceiling would give the Sharks about $25.2 million in space according to capgeek.com to sign their big three as well as retain restricted free agents Tommy Wingels, James Sheppard, Jason Demers and Alex Stalock this summer. That is, of course, assuming the franchise is willing to spend to the salary cap as they've done in previous seasons (most notably the 2009-10 and 2010-11 campaigns where they relied on the Worcester Shuttle to remain in compliance with the collective bargaining agreement) albeit ones in which the league had a lower upper limit. But with software billionaire Hasso Plattner now at the helm, it's probably a good bet the Sharks will be willing to loosen the purse strings in order to keep a contender together.
The question now shifts to how much those three players will cost and whether the added cushion will be enough to accommodate them. Doug Wilson is reported to have been in discussions with all three this past summer but their contract demands have largely been kept under wraps. Presumably the 3-year, $22.5 million extension Pavel Datsyuk inked with the Red Wings this past June represents the high-water mark for Thornton and Marleau while Patrik Elias's 3-year, $16.5 million deal with the Devils is the lower bound for those two. Boyle is tougher to peg because there just aren't many 37-year-old defensemen in this league who are as effective as he continues to be but Sergei Gonchar's 2-year, $10 million contract with Dallas seems like a good starting point if Boyle is willing to take a bit of a discount on what could be his last NHL deal.
If we split the difference between Elias and Datsyuk's deals and assume Thornton and Marleau each carry a $6.5 million hit on their next contract while Boyle gets Gonchar's $5 million, that would leave the Sharks with a little over $7 million to sign the aforementioned RFAs and fill out their roster with a seventh defenseman via the free agent market or internal promotion, which is certainly doable. But those are fairly starry-eyed projections, especially given that Thornton and Marleau are in the midst of fantastic seasons and, again, the cap is going up which means it's reasonable for all three to expect their percentage of the Sharks' overall payroll not to dip too drastically. The ace up Wilson's sleeve here is that he still has the right to perform two compliance buyouts and, while he prides himself on having never bought out a player, cutting ties with Marty Havlat and/or Brad Stuart should open up the requisite space to pay the players who matter.
But the fact that this cap increase means San Jose could realistically retain Thornton, Marleau and Boyle and fill out the remainder of their roster without even having to resort to a buyout should lead to a lot fewer headaches for the team's general manager and gives the Sharks a better chance of keeping a great team intact.