Bear Contract Options & The Taxi Squad

We got an early Christmas present this past weekend when the NHL and the NHLPA reached a formal agreement to play the 2021 NHL season! I won’t discuss the specifics surrounding the season in this space, but I’m just happy to have a formal agreement in place so that we can all start watching and talking hockey again soon.

The one detail I do want to focus on in this piece is the taxi squad, which is going to be a new thing specifically in place only for the upcoming season. Each team will be allowed to carry an extra 4-6 players that will be allowed to practice and travel with the team. The taxi squad will work like the AHL for salary cap purposes. A player making less than $1,075,000 will have his full salary cap hit deducted from the team’s total cap hit while he’s on the taxi squad, and any player on the taxi squad whose cap hit is higher than that will save his team $1,075,000 against the cap. I wasn’t sure if there was going to be any sort of cap relief specific for this season, but there isn’t really. The taxi squad is basically like purgatory. They aren’t in the NHL, but they are practicing with the NHL team. They also aren’t in the AHL, even though they are treated like they are in regards to the cap.

As you are well aware, the Oilers are in a bit of a cap crunch. The taxi squad is going to be helpful for cap strapped teams like the Oilers. @CapFriendly posted a very interesting thread on this subject on Sunday, but I’m going to expand on it and explain how it will pertain to the Oilers.

The $81,500,000 cap limit is the amount that teams can spend on player salaries for the entirety of the regular season. The amount that a team spends over the course of the regular season is calculated based on how much the team spends on each individual day of the regular season. If a player is only on the NHL roster for 15 days during the season, then the team is only charged 15 days worth of that player’s salary for that season. For example, Kailer Yamamoto spent 96 out of the possible 186 days on the Oilers roster last season, which means that the Oilers were only charged $471,120 in cap space for Yamamoto last season even though his salary cap hit is $894,166. The other rule that exists is that a team’s roster on a given day cannot exceed the $81,500,000 limit based on their full season salary cap hit. That is the way that most of us are used to thinking about the salary cap.

Teams can have a maximum of 23 players on their active rosters, but they can also choose to have fewer players on the active roster. The benefit of having the taxi squad for a team like the Oilers is that they can save money against the cap by carrying less than 23 players on the active roster on non-game days. The rules for moving guys from the NHL to the taxi squad are the same as they are for moving players from the NHL to the AHL. Most players have to pass through waivers in order to be moved onto the taxi squad. Once a player does that, then he can be moved around however the team pleases for the next 30 days. The problem with that is that the Oilers would need to be prepared to lose the player on waivers if they want to put him on the taxi squad.

Some players are waivers exempt, which means that the team can move those players around as they please for the entirety of the season. The only waivers exempt player on the playoff bubble roster was Yamamoto. There are 116 days in the coming regular season and there are 56 game days. There could be as many as 60 days where the Oilers won’t be charged cap space for Yamamoto if they play their cards right. That would bring his full season cap hit down to as low as $462,500. There’s a value contract for you! That would save the Oilers $431,666 against the cap over the course of the season. The Oilers technically would’ve been able to do this with Yamamoto in a normal season, but the taxi squad enables the Oilers to have Yamamoto still practice with the team while he’s being shuffled around to make the money work.

Teams can carry anywhere from 4-6 players on the taxi squad. However, if they were to carry 6 players on the taxi squad and then move a player down from the NHL roster, they would have to move someone off of the taxi squad, which means that they would not be able to practice with the team. That is my understanding at least. That would be problematic if the AHL is unable to start up again for any reason.

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a cap status update, but this is a good time to do one. Ken Holland confirmed that Oscar Klefbom will not play for the Oilers during the upcoming season, which means that Klefbom will be placed on LTIR. That move could be made at any time, but the Oilers would maximize the amount of LTIR cap relief that would be available to them by making that move on the first day of the new season. I have bolded the names of the players that would make up the most expensive possible active roster that could be created on January 13 using the current contracts, and I’ve included those players in my calculations. They order that they appear in is an approximate depth chart.

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Kassian ($3.2M)
Ennis ($1M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Yamamoto ($894,166)
Kahun ($975k) Turris ($1.65M) Puljujarvi ($1.175M)
Neal ($5.75M) Khaira ($1.2M) Archibald ($1.5M)
Nygard ($875k) Haas ($915k) Chiasson ($1,075,000)

P. Russell ($700k)
Quine ($700k)
Benson ($808,333)
McLeod ($834,167)
Marody ($925k)
Griffith ($725k)
Gambardella ($700k)

Nurse ($5.6M) Bear (RFA)
Russell ($4M) Barrie ($3.75M)
Jones ($850k) Larsson ($4,166,666)
Lagesson ($725k)

Bouchard ($863,333)
Lennstrom ($925k)

LTIR: Klefbom ($4,167,000)

Koskinen ($4.5M)
Smith ($1.5M)
Forsberg ($700k)

Total Cap Hit: $76,467,832
Buyouts: Pouliot ($1,333,333), Sekera ($2.5M)
Retained: Lucic ($750k)
Buried: Chiasson ($1,075,000)
Overage: $338k

Total: $81,389,165
Cap Space: $110,835

It would be a 22-man active roster because Alex Chiasson’s salary would have to start buried on the taxi squad to get the cap hit total as close as possible to the $81,500,000 limit on January 13 without risking losing a valuable young player on waivers. We could swap out Caleb Jones and Joakim Nygard for Philip Broberg and Cooper Marody to get within $16,668 of the cap limit, but the Oilers would certainly lose both Jones and Nygard on waivers if they were to do that. That’s not worth the extra $94,167 in potential LTIR relief that the Oilers could gain by making those moves.

It doesn’t have to be Chiasson that gets sent down. It could be any waivers eligible player making more than $1,075,000. I chose Chiasson because I don’t think a team would take him at his cap hit and the Oilers would not be seriously impacted if a team were to claim him. I also don’t think that he will be a part of the opening night lineup. James Neal would be another candidate for such a move, although I believe that he will have a place on the opening night roster.

The other thing that we need to remember is that Yamamoto is waivers exempt, which means that he could be left off of the January 13 roster and brought back up before the first game. Doing that in conjunction with sending Chiasson to the taxi squad would leave the Oilers with $1,005,001 in cap space. Bob Stauffer said that he would not be surprised to see the Oilers sign a left shot defenceman with 75 or more NHL games played and that could act as a 6/7D. If Holland were to sign said player to a one-year, $1 million deal, then the Oilers could get within $5001 of the $81,500,000 limit. That is as close as the Oilers could reasonably expect to get to the limit. In that scenario, they could get their limit up to $85,661,999 after placing Klefbom on LTIR.

Yamamoto would need to be brought back up after placing Klefbom on the LTIR, which would put the Oilers at $82,389,165. That would also put the team at 23 men on the active roster, so if Bear were to be added, then someone else would need to be taken off of the active roster. Chiasson has already been moved down in my hypothetical example, so it would have to be someone else. I want to provide a safe estimate for how much Bear could be signed for here. The active roster that I outlined above only has 6 defencemen on it, so I will move the cheapest forward down to the taxi squad, which is Joakim Nygard. After moving Nygard down, the Oilers would be at $81,514,165. That would leave them with $4,147,834 that they could use to sign Bear. That would be more than enough to make the kid happy for the next 5 years.

The problem with this approach is that Bear would have to miss training camp while waiting for a contract to get signed. That is never ideal, but this is the best possible year to miss training camp for because there are no pre-season games and camp is only going to be 10 days long. Bear is far from the only NHL player to have not played since August. Some haven’t played since last March! He would be a step behind some players, but he would catch up more quickly this year than he would if he were to miss camp in any other year. Signing Bear to the full $4 million would also screw the Oilers out of any kind of roster flexibility in case of injuries for the coming season.

It would be nice to get Bear signed before the start of training camp though. Today, Holland told the media that he wants to get Bear signed quickly so that he can be in Edmonton by this weekend. That is going to be much easier to accomplish now that we have confirmation that Klefbom will be out for the entire season and that we know the rules surrounding the taxi squad.

If the Oilers were to use my suggested active roster for January 13, then they would be able to sign a player for $1 million, which would bring them to within $5001 of the $81,500,000 limit, thus maximizing the amount of LTIR relief to be gained by placing Klefbom on the LTIR. Stauffer speculated that that player might be an incoming UFA, but it could also be Bear. There had been rumours that the Oilers were trying to sign Bear to a one-year, $1 million deal because of the economic restraints surrounding this season. However, Bear is likely not enthused with that idea given his success last season. He likely wants more. I’m also sure that Holland would like Bear to have cost certainty through the 2021-22 season because he would like to re-sign Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Holland told the media that talks with Nuge have ended for the time being due to economic restraints associated with this season, but that he would still like to find a way to get a deal done. That will be easier if Bear has a contract that takes him past the current season.

The other way to get Bear signed before the season would be to place Klefbom on the LTIR before the season starts. If that were to happen, then the Oilers would not be allowed to have any more cap relief than they would already be using on the date that the LTIR transaction were to be made. I explained this in more detail in a previous piece about off-season cap hit calculations, but the Oilers could go over the cap now and then place Klefbom on the LTIR. The disadvantage to doing that is that the current cap hit of a team is calculated differently in the off-season than it is during the season. The off-season cap hit is usually higher than the in-season cap hit. The Oilers currently sit at $83,866,280 after signing Dominik Kahun according to my calculation of their off-season cap hit.

We have to remember that Bear’s current salary cap hit is included in that $83,866,280 figure that I mentioned because he is currently an RFA. He counts for $731,048 against the current cap hit, which represents his qualifying offer divided by the 185 days that he was on the Oilers roster last season. We can subtract that number from the current off-season cap hit to figure out how much the Oilers could sign him for before the season starts. Doing that leaves the Oilers at $83,135,232. The maximum possible upper limit after putting Klefbom on the LTIR is the $81,500,000 limit plus Klefbom’s cap hit of $4,167,000, which equals $85,667,000. If we subtract the current off-season cap hit from that number, that leaves $2,531,768 that could be used to sign Bear. That might be enough to get a 2-3 year deal done with Bear.

Bear could get signed for anywhere from $1 million – $4,147,834 per season. It could go a number of different ways at this point, but the Oilers will work to make Bear happy, although they probably want to keep the price low because of the flat cap for the next few seasons and because they want to re-sign Nuge. My prediciton is that he will sign a 2-3 year deal with a $2.5-3 million AAV after the season starts. That will make Bear happy for the time being, and it will leave the Oilers with some flexibility to add more of a salary cap hit in case of injuries during the coming season.

Now to predict who will start the season on the taxi squad. Here is how I feel the opening night lineup will look after all of the transactions are said and done:

Nuge-McDavid-Kassian
Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Kahun-Turris-Pujujarvi
Neal-Khaira-Archibald
Haas

Nurse-Bear
Russell-Barrie
Jones-Larsson
Lagesson-Lennstrom (or new signing as suggested by Stauffer)

Koskinen
Smith

They can choose up to 6 players to include on the taxi squad, but I’ll only pick 5 because I would leave a space open for Yamamoto to bounce up and down to save cap space throughout the season without having to leave a player with nowhere to play.

There needs to be one goalie on the taxi squad, and that goalie is Anton Forsberg. That’s an easy choice. I have 8 defencemen on the 23-man roster, so I will choose 1 more defenceman and 3 more forwards to round out the taxi squad.

The taxi squad is a great chance to allow some prospects a chance to practice with the big club and to be around the NHL players for a few months, which is a great alternative should the AHL not be able to get going for any reason. Evan Bouchard is an easy choice for the 1 defence spot on my taxi squad. His loan in Sweden is over, and the expectation seems to be that he will be in North America for the remainder of the season. His offensive prowess is fantastic, but his skating and defensive awareness are still works in progress. Being able to practice with the Oilers on a consistent basis will allow him to work on his skating and his defensive awareness.

The other prospect that I would have on the taxi squad is Tyler Benson. I would want this player to be a prospect, and the choices were Benson or Ryan McLeod. Benson has NHL games under his belt, and he got 19 points in 15 games while playing in Switzerland. I believe that he is more NHL ready today than McLeod is. Benson needs to work on his foot speed, and getting to practice with the Oilers will be a good opportunity for him to do that.

I have already said that Chiasson would have to be buried on the taxi squad in order to maximize the possible LTIR relief for Klefbom. The scenario that I suggested would maximize the LTIR relief also entailed adding a defenceman for around $1 million, which is either Theodore Lennstrom or an unnamed UFA. Signing Bear and recalling Yamamoto after the LTIR transaction meant that I had to move Nygard down to the taxi squad. Nygard would be the last forward on the taxi squad.

My version of the taxi squad is this:

Chiasson
Nygard
Benson
Bouchard
Forsberg

The nice thing about having Bouchard and Benson on the taxi squad is that they are both waivers exempt. They could move anywhere that they Oilers want them to without waivers, which gives the Oilers the flexibility to send either player to the AHL at any point in the season if they feel that either player would be better served playing games in the AHL.

If I had to choose a 6th player to round out the taxi squad, it would be Alan Quine. He plays centre, and he has been quite successful at the AHL level. He’s a classic NHL/AHL tweener, which is the exact kind of player that the taxi squad is designed to accommodate. Ideally, I’d like to see him helping out the AHL club, but the Oilers might need centre depth this season.

I realize that was a lot of information, but I hope it was insightful and informative. Thanks for reading! As always, please let me know if there are any mistakes in this piece. I’m happy to make corrections and admit it if I’m wrong. Next week, I’ll be doing a North Division preview and a prediction about where the Oilers will finish. There will only be one week left until training camp once I post that piece! There’s light at the end of the tunnel!

**UPDATE** 12/26/20
The Oilers signed Slater Koekoek to a one-year, $850,000 contract on Boxing Day. Bob Stauffer hinted at such a contract last weekend. Koekoek gives the Oilers more depth at the bottom of the roster for defence, and he can step in and give quality minutes as a mobile bottom pairing defenceman if a need should arise. I mentioned above that such a signing would allow the Oilers to get close to the $81,500,000 cap limit before putting Klefbom onto the LTIR, which would give the Oilers more flexibility to sign Bear to a bigger contract. Here is my updated look at the active roster that would get the Oilers the closest to the cap before putting Klefbom onto the LTIR on opening day:

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Kassian ($3.2M)
Ennis ($1M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Neal ($5.75M)
Kahun ($975k) Turris ($1.65M) Puljujarvi ($1.175M)
Nygard ($875k) Khaira ($1.2M) Archibald ($1.5M)
Haas ($915k) Chiasson ($1,075,000 BURIED)

Nurse ($5.6M) Bear (RFA)
Russell ($4M) Barrie ($3.75M)
Jones ($850k) Larsson ($4,166,666)
Koekkoek ($850k)
Bouchard ($863,333)

LTIR: Klefbom ($4,167,000)

Koskinen ($4.5M)
Smith ($1.5M)

Total Cap Hit: $76,561,999
Buyouts: Pouliot ($1,333,333), Sekera ($2.5M)
Retained: Lucic ($750k)
Buried: Chiasson ($1,075,000)
Overage: $338k

Total: $81,483,332
Cap Space: $16,668

Kailer Yamamoto is notably absent from this roster. That is because he is waivers eligible, which means that the Oilers can move him up and down between the NHL and the taxi squad or the AHL as often as they wish. Starting Yamamoto on the taxi squad and putting Chiasson on waivers and then putting him on the taxi squad will allow the Oilers to have a 22-man active roster that gets them $16,668 away from the limit. That is as close as anyone could reasonably expect to get to the cap without going over.

That would give the Oilers $4,150,332 to use after putting Klefbom on LTIR. Ken Holland likes to leave about $1-1.5 million in cap space for flexibility to call people up in case of injuries. If Holland were to leave $1.5 million in LTIR relief, he could sign Bear for as much as $2,650,332. If the Bear contract were to be $3 million, that would leave $1,150,332 in cap space. I expect the Bear contract to be within that $2.5-3 million range over 2 years. Holland wanted Bear in Edmonton by today to quarantine to be ready in time for camp, but I have not heard any report suggesting that he is in Edmonton. I expect that the Bear camp is going to wait until January 13 to sign once the LTIR money becomes available.

I should note that Tampa Bay is sitting at $93,191,666, and they haven’t even put Nikita Kucherov on LTIR officially. Teams can go over the cap by 10% in the off-season, which is $89,650,000. The off-season cap hit is calculated differently, but it’s normally higher than the upcoming season’s total cap hit, which I indicated as being $93,191,666 for Tampa. There might be some rules that I’m unaware of that allows for situations like Tampa’s. While I don’t think Bear will sign until January 13, I also have to account for the fact that I could be wrong.

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