With one week left of training camp and a few more difficult roster decisions to come, the NHL's salary cap would appear to be a factor in who starts the season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Depending on who is pencilled onto the roster, the Leafs are anywhere from $4.6-million under the cap to slightly over it, with the fate of both $3.5-million defenceman Jeff Finger and prospect Nazem Kadri playing a role in how tight their cap situation will be this season.
If, as the New York Rangers did with Wade Redden's $6.5-million salary on Saturday, the Leafs were to waive Finger and then send him to the minors, they would enter the season well under the cap.
If, however, they decide to keep him on the roster as one of two extra defenceman, it may be difficult to fit young forwards such as Kadri and Luca Caputi under the cap.
Leafs general manager Brian Burke said Sunday he plans to give Finger every opportunity to make the team and that there wouldn't be any cap issues if Kadri fails to make the team.
"This speculation that Jeff Finger has been earmarked for assignment, I don't think is fair to Jeff," Burke said on a conference call announcing 21 training camp cuts. "It's not what a professional athlete who signs as a free agent is entitled to.
"I think he's entitled to a fair look. You can't come in with a preconceived notion that that's how you're going to solve your cap issue. That's not fair to the player. You start doing stuff like that then players aren't going sign with your organization."
Making the Leafs roster fit under the cap with Finger in the lineup will fall, in part, to assistant GM Claude Loiselle, who was hired in June to take over the role of team capologist from the departed Jeff Jackson.
Loiselle has been monitoring the Leafs' cap situation closely in the off-season and said the organization is well aware that things could be tight if several young players earn their bonuses or injuries hit.
He reiterated Burke's point, however, that sending a one-way contract like Finger's to the minors will not be a necessity.
"It all depends on who's performing and who's going to be on the team," Loiselle said. "There are ways to make our team cap compliant without sending one-way guys down.
"We finished 29th last year - we need to be better. And in order to be better, the best players are going to play ... Nobody is slotted down [for demotion to the minors]in August."
The Leafs exceeded the cap last season by $1.4-million, using the NHL's performance bonus cushion to go over the limit. That overage carries over to this season, and Toronto is now working with a lower cap ($58-million) than every team except the Chicago Blackhawks ($55.2-million) and Boston Bruins ($57.6-million).
Even if players with bonus-laden, entry-level contracts like Kadri don't make the team, the Leafs are expected to have three players in Tyler Bozak, Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson who have a combined $5.12-million in bonuses they could receive this season.
Loiselle said the goal is to not go over the cap this season and that, ideally, Toronto will have about $1.5-million in available cap space to allow for bonuses - some of which Bozak and Schenn are very likely to hit - and injury replacements.
One way Loiselle would like to see the Leafs create cap room is by carrying a roster closer to the 20-player minimum.
"That's going to be my push throughout the year," he said. "Now that's up to the coaches and that's up to Brian, how many guys they carry, but ideally from a cap-management point of view, when you're close to the cap, you're better off carrying 20 players.
"Every day that you're under the cap is like putting money in the bank. It accumulates."
That brings the conversation back to Finger, who played only 39 games last season and has been nursing a knee injury in camp that has kept him out of all five preseason games to date. Burke said Sunday it is likely the Leafs will carry eight defencemen to start the season, meaning Finger will be in a battle with Gunnarsson, Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff to remain in the NHL.
The team says its cap situation isn't so dire, however, that his salary alone will leave Finger as the odd man out.
"At the end of the day, we're all trying to compete, we're all trying to put the best team on the ice," Loiselle said. "The most important thing is to try to dress your best players - your best 20 - and then you start looking at your cap."