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Clouds on the horizon - the Calgary Flames and the falling cap

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The Flames have one or two looses ends to tie up before their off-season is all but finished: Dustin Boyd remains an RFA and once he's signed, the club will have 14 NHL forwards, 7 defensemen, 2 goalies...and about 300k in cap space.

That's not terribly concerning, however. The club can effectively eliminate it's cap issues by deep sixing Primeau to the farm - no need to replace him, since the Flames will have a full compliment of forwards anyways. Calgary could also demote, say, Prust and Kronwall to Abbotsford and only call them up when needed.

No, the real concern as a Flame fan isn't this coming season, but the next: Calgary is poised to be in a world of hurt come 10/11 due to the expected salary cap drop. Consider that the club currently has about $45M in space committed to 15 players. If the ceiling drops to the $50M level, Sutter will be faced with filling some significant holes with approximately $5M (1.4M/player). Guys like Rene Bourque, Craig Conroy, Olli Jokinen, Eric Nystrom, Mark Giordano, Adam PardyCurtis McElhinney and (perhaps) Dustin Boyd will have to be re-signed or replaced with those dollars; a daunting task considering several of them (Bourque, Nystrom) will likely be in line for respectable raises.

A majority of the Flames cap space is invested in big, long term deals. Iginla, Langkow, Bouwmeester, Phaneuf, Regehr, Kiprusoff and Sarich represent 38.133M in cap space - meaning less than half the players signed are gobbling up nearly 85% of the organizations committed space for 10/11. Iginla, Regehr and Kipper also have NMC in their contracts. 

The implications for the team are clear, even one year out: at least one of the big boys has to go. Cory Sarich is the most obvious choice, given the fact he falls outside the club's "big three defenders" and his contributions could probably be replicated by a cheaper option. Unfortunately, moving Sarich's 3.6M cap hit and replacing it with a bargain contract (say, 1M) only produces 2.6M in additional cap dollars...which may not be enough. You can run a somewhat similar scenario with Lagnkow, except he will be particularly valuable to the team once Conroy and Jokinen move on. And Regehr is such good value at 4M, it probably doesn't make much sense to move him and try to replace his contributions. 

Of course, Miikka Kiprusoff would be the best salary to move given he's an extremely poor bet to cover his cap hit. Unfortunately, the goalie market is softer than Kyle Wellwood's waistline (right Martin Biron?) - dealing Kipper now would prove nigh impossible...moreso next summer if he puts up mediocre numbers for the third straight year this coming season. Then there's that pesky NMC. 

Which leaves us with the likes of Iginla, Phaneuf and Bouwmeester. There's a non-trivial chance that the various converging factors will result in the loss of one of these 3 big contracts I think. You can probably scratch Bouwmeester given his proven ability, age and the fact that he only recently signed his deal. That leaves Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf, only one of whom has a NTC and will likely remain the best forward on the club even if his step back last year was indicative of an inexorable decline...

Leaving us with Dion Phaneuf. Now, it's possible Dion will rebound from his lackluster season and get back on the development curve that saw him becoming one of the premier defensemen in the game. If he knocks it out of the park in 09/10, then maybe Sutter finds a way to keep him. However, even if Phaneuf takes a firm step in the right direction he is prime trade fodder going forward. Given his pedigree, his age and eye-popping counting stats, Phaneuf could probably land the Flames an attractive package of players and futures - such a package could go a long way to assuaging the organization's cap woes in 10/11 (to say nothing of the cap savings themselves).

Obviously I'm reading tea leaves here with a full season to be played during the intervening time frame. Still, should the prophecies of a significantly falling cap prove accurate, Sutter will clearly be faced with some difficult decisions next summer.