As soon as the words “flat salary cap” were uttered last year prior to the Return to Play, we all probably suspected that life would be challenging for the Calgary Flames this season due to a lack of cap space. But rather than just white knuckle their way through the season, the Flames’ hockey operations crew has been busy with a flurry of moves aimed at giving them some breathing room.

A note about contract types

There are two types of NHL deals: one-ways and two-ways.
A player on a one-way deal gets his NHL salary no matter where he’s playing. A player on a two-way deal has a different NHL salary and AHL salary specified within their contract.
Neither has anything to do with waivers. Waivers is its own thing.

How 2020-21 payroll works

There are 116 days to the NHL season, with daily payroll scaled (on the NHL and taxi squad) depending on the number of days spent on a particular roster or squad.
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Salaries for players on the NHL roster are paid 72% of their regular salaries – the deductions are a 20% escrow holdback and a 10% deferral – and for the sake of simplicity, we’re just going to ignore bonuses.
Players on the taxi squad get their AHL salary (if they’re on a two-way) or the NHL salary (if they’re on a one-way), subject to the escrow and deferral noted above.
Players on the AHL roster get 48% of the AHL side of their salaries. If they’re on a one-way deal, they get 72% of their NHL salary. And our understanding is their pay is spread out and pro-rated based upon how much time they spend on the AHL roster relative to the length of the AHL season.

Payroll complexity

As of Tuesday, the Flames had used 31 different players on the NHL roster. 12 of those players also spent time on the taxi squad. And of those 12 players, six had also spent time on the AHL roster.
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We’ll ignore the precise payroll math, but here’s a glance at the taxi bodies this season, their time split, and their current contracts:
  • Connor Mackey: 6 days NHL, 30 days taxi, also AHL (two-way: $925,000 NHL / $70,000 AHL)
  • Derek Ryan: 40 days NHL, 16 days taxi (one-way: $3.125 million)
  • Brett Ritchie: 11 days NHL, 17 days taxi, also AHL (two-way: $700,000 NHL / $125,000 AHL)
  • Michael Stone: 2 days NHL, 31 days taxi, also AHL (two-way: $700,000 NHL / $200,000 AHL)
  • Zac Rinaldo: 5 days NHL, 51 days taxi (two-way: $700,000 NHL / $350,000 AHL)
  • Byron Froese: 9 days NHL, 16 days taxi, also AHL (two-way: $725,000 NHL / $350,000 AHL)
  • Glenn Gawdin: 6 days NHL, 9 days taxi, also AHL (two-way: $700,000 NHL / $95,000 AHL)
  • Buddy Robinson: 16 days NHL, 40 days taxi (one-way: $700,000)
  • Artyom Zagidulin: 9 days NHL, 3 days taxi, also AHL (two-way: $700,000 NHL / $125,000 AHL)
  • Oliver Kylington: 13 days NHL, 43 days taxi (two-way: $787,500 NHL / $70,000 AHL)
  • Louis Domingue: 1 day NHL, 43 days taxi, also AHL (two-way: $700,000 NHL / $450,000 AHL)
  • Dominik Simon: 52 days NHL, 4 days taxi (one-way: $700,000)
The Flames have done a superb job of rotating these guys through. You might notice that the Flames almost always bring up a couple players from the taxi squad to be healthy extras on game days. You might also notice that they usually rotate different taxi squad players through those spots, giving a rotating set of players a day of NHL pay rather than their taxi squad (AHL) pay.
It may seem like a small thing, but for players on low cap hit deals (during a pandemic), a few days of NHL salary go a long way and help maintain the Flames’ reputation in player (and agent) circles as an organization that takes care of their players.
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Cap flexibility

If the Flames had said “screw it” and made zero weird moves, they could’ve kept a 22-man roster all season and had $223,334 in cap space accumulated over the entire 116-day season. However, the Flames opted to make 152 different transactions in the 56 days since the regular season began – an average of 2.7 moves per day – that have accumulated approximately $300,593 in cap space thus far.
Looking at just Ryan and Kylington, you can see what some moves can do.
  • Ryan has spent 16 days on the taxi squad. On the days he’s on the taxi squad, his cap hit drops by $1.075 million, so his pro-rated cap savings for those 16 days alone is $148,276. They’ve stashed away those cap savings for later, and Ryan has played in every game he’s been healthy for.
  • Kylington has spent 43 days on the taxi squad. On the days he’s on the taxi squad, his cap hit is zero, so the pro-rated cap savings for those days is $291,918 and allowed the Flames the cap flexibility to bring up Mackey, Froese, Ritchie and others. Had the Flames been conservative and opted not to make all these moves, they wouldn’t have had the ability to try out different players in different scenarios.
In other words, just their cap saving moves regarding Ryan and Kylington have given the team future cap flexibility for later this season and allowed them to weather some short-term injury issues when they were missing players like Sean Monahan, Dillon Dube and Jacob Markstrom – they had Kylington-created cap space so they didn’t need to do anything drastic.
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The folks at the NHL’s Central Registry may dread the series of faxes they get from the Flames every day before the 3 p.m. MT roster deadline, but you can’t deny that the slew of moves they’ve made have been effective at creating wiggle room for when they need it down the road.