THE MORNING SKATE — On Tim Thomas and ‘Roster Flexibility’

Kevin Schultz

The Islanders acquired Tim Thomas yesterday, but not exactly to play hockey. As far as GM Garth Snow knows, Thomas is still at home in Colorado and not skating. Thomas was acquired for a conditional 2nd round pick; if Thomas ever plays for the Islanders or the Islanders trade him, Boston gets the pick. If he hangs out in the Rocky Mountains and the Islanders let his contract expire, the Islanders don’t lose a thing.

Yesterday, GM Garth Snow told Arthur Staple the move was about “roster flexibility.”

This is the NHL we’re in now, where for some teams clearing cap space has a value and for others hitting the cap floor has a value. Enter the Bruins and the Islanders, each at one side of that spectrum. Neither team really gave anything up in this deal unless Thomas moves to the ice or another team, but both gained something.

There was no benefit to the Bruins for having Thomas on the roster but there was benefit to getting him off of it. They weren’t paying him and he wasn’t taking up a roster spot. But, thanks to the CBA, he was counting against the cap. The Bruins now have some space freed up due to Thomas’ departure.

The Islanders don’t get a body for the locker room but now assure themselves the ability to not be in violation of the salary cap floor. They’ll be able to stay above the floor and move players around without worry of facing a Devils style penalty for circumventing the cap should they fall below the floor.

There’s one thing that’s a bit off though, the Islanders didn’t seem to be quite so close to the floor.

Once the team added Lubomir Visnovsky to the roster, they were above the salary floor. That floor was set at $44 million this year, with the upper limit at $64.3 million. The Islanders are, according to CapGeek, at $53 million. As the CapGeek fine print reads, that $53 million mark is the team’s cap spending if the current roster doesn’t change and it is an inexact number. So, if the Islanders activated Visnovsky and and did not acquire Thomas, they would still be compliant in the neighborhood of $48 million.

The difference now is that the Islanders can move a player like Lubomir Visnovsky or Mark Streit if they feel there’s a good enough offer out there or whatever the case may be (hey, with Visnovsky, you never know). Either way, it’s generally in anticipation of selling off one of those players. The Islanders would have been cutting it very close if they moved one of those and did not have Thomas’ contract. It’s certainly not about adding salary, that obviously would not have required Thomas.

And there’s another angle. Much like Evgeni Nabokov was two years ago when the Islanders grabbed him off waivers and tolled his contract, Thomas is an asset. The Islanders can toll Thomas’ contract every year he doesn’t report, making it a cap hit in perpetuity. They can also trade him, assumedly, for more than a second round pick if he does decide to play in the future.

You can criticize it as a way to skirt the cap floor and you can argue that it’s a smart move. Both are true. It’s a smart move for maneuvering around the cap floor.

As usual, ESPN had trouble figuring out which Tim Thomas got traded. (h/t Puck Daddy)

If the Islanders and Bruins had been talking about a Tim Thomas trade during the lockout, that would have been in violation of the lockout.

As the Sporting News tells it:

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, on a conference call discussing the move, appears to have added to the scuzziness of the whole situation: Specifically, while tweeting the relevant points from call, the Bruins’ official account quoted Chiarelli as saying he’d talked trade with Isles GM Garth Snow for a few months.

That, under the terms of the lockout that ended about a month ago, was not allowed.

So, in sum, a deal designed to add phantom salary to an NHL team’s books and help said team avoid paying actual players seems to have been discussed during an owner-led lockout. Okey doke.