Canterbury will only be salary cap compliant next year if they fill their five remaining positions with players on the minimum wage.
Chief executive Andrew Hill admits it could be three years before the club has "clear space" to sign high-profile players.
At a media briefing before their fan forum on Thursday night, the Bulldogs revealed they:
- Were salary cap compliant for 2018;
- Had 7-10 players on back-ended deals throughout 2019 and 2020;
- Had half a dozen players with ratchet clauses;
- Had 25 of 30 spots filled for next season with more than $500,000 to spend;
- Were not actively shopping players around but would be open to discussions;
- Were paying for five players at other clubs.
The Bulldogs will be letting three international players go at the end of the year – Greg Eastwood, Brett and Josh Morris – but that won't be the end of the pain.
Hill rejected speculation that the club was way over its cap for 2018 and would have to shed players.
"We are cap compliant for 2018 – not significantly under it - but we are under it," Hill said.
"We are not actively selling any player or shopping them around to be salary cap compliant. We will be compliant for 2019.
"And we're starting to embark on 2020. We will have clear space by 2021."
Eastwood and the Morris twins, who are off contract this year, release $2.2 million but that money has already been largely taken up by back-ended deals and ratchet clauses for players contracted to the club in 2019.
For 2019, even though the NRL cap rises from $9.4 million to $9.6m for the top 30 squad, the Bulldogs have "between seven and 10 players" on back-ended deals.
There are also "half a dozen" players with ratchet clauses in their contracts where their pay increases each year as the cap goes up. Hill would not divulge which players for privacy reasons.
"At the time the club signed some of these deals they obviously were working on the cap being north of $10 million," Hill said, not naming the previous administrators involved headlined by former chairman Ray Dib, chief executive Raelene Castle and head coach Des Hasler.
"I wasn't here so I don't know how or why or who. It was before my time. My focus is now and that is to future-proof the club.
"We will manage our cap diligently and become a club focused on development."
Hill said they are in the market for five players. The catch is they have little to spend.
He addressed reports that Parramatta were after David Klemmer, while the Titans and Cowboys have been circling Moses Mbye. Both players are not off contract until 2020 but are believed to be on back-ended deals.
Hill began his tenure at the club in November. New chairwoman Lynne Anderson swept to power in February. Neither official was told about the dire salary cap situation before they took office.
"We were looking in from the sidelines and thought there was something really wrong," Anderson said.
That was based on the fact the Bulldogs did push former captain James Graham out the door in 2017 "solely because we had to become cap compliant", Hill said.
Graham is one of five players the Bulldogs are still carrying part of their salaries in their cap – the others are Brenko Lee (Titans), Brad Abbey (Raiders), Sam Kasiano (Storm) and Moses Suli (Manly).
Asked if he felt let down by the previous administration, Hill said: "I see it as a great challenge for Dean (Pay) and myself.
"We'll get through the next period because we have wonderful and experienced people in key roles."
The Bulldogs have set up a retention and recruitment committee comprised of Hill, Pay, board member and former premiership-winning coach and player Chris Anderson, general manager of football Andrew Farrar, recruitment manager Warren McDonnell and finance manager Vince Costa.
"Dean will have a large say in who we recruit," Hill said. "But the coach won't be meeting players and managers on his own. We will not offer ratchet clauses moving forward, and we will avoid back-ended contracts."
Pay is contracted until the end of 2019. But Anderson hinted extending Pay's tenure at Belmore was high in her thinking.
Anderson and Hill were due to tell club members and supporters the salary cap situation at a fan forum at Canterbury Leagues Club on Thursday night.
ARL Commission chairman Peter Beattie and NRL boss Todd Greenberg were also due to address members on the plan to grow rugby league. The Bulldogs are the first of all 16 clubs they are visiting to talk directly to supporters.