According to Gary Bettman, the NHL’s Salary Cap is likely going to settle at around $71 million for the 2015-16 season, as many have expected for the last few months. This puts a lot of teams in an ugly position. Thanks to the fall of the Canadian dollar over the past year, the cap ceiling didn’t rise as much as many around the league expected it would. Next year will mark the 10 year anniversary of the cap being implemented. Since the 2005-06 season the cap has almost doubled from its modest $39 million figure. After the NHL signed its TV deal with Rogers, projections were floating around that had the cap rising to $80 million by 2017, and $100 million by 2021. Whether that ends up being the case or not, teams like Chicago, Los Angeles, and many others have been strangled by the slow growth of the cap ceiling, meaning tough decisions and an interesting offseason is on the horizon.
For every team in a cap bind, you have another opportunistic team with a boat load of cap space looking to take advantage of players who get squeezed out of their current team’s cap picture. After the jump, I’ll look at some of the players who could come available thanks to the $71 million cap crunch.
THE TEAMS WHO ARE IN TROUBLE
I wrote about the Blackhawks’ cap situation a few months ago. It looked grim back then, and to nobody’s surprise, it still does now. The Hawks have seven forwards, four defencemen, and two goalies from their current roster signed into next season. Those 13 players are going to cost the Hawks $63.5 million. Chicago’s cap crunch is largely the reality of having two players signed to contracts with $10.5 million cap hits. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s extensions are set to kick in next season, and their combined $21 million will account for roughly 30 per cent of the Hawks’ total cap. When the two of them were signed, it was probably assumed that the cap would have risen by a lot more than it did by the time these extensions kicked in. These deals won’t look awful if the cap does eventually rise to $80 million, but right now, it’s damn near impossible to put together a good team when two guys represent almost one third of the money you’re allowed to spend on players, regardless of how good they are. We can safely assume that Kane and Toews are going nowhere, so let’s start there. After that, I would also venture a guess that Duncan Keith, who’s signed at a beautiful $5.551 for eight more seasons is also staying put. I doubt Nicklas Hjalmarsson is going anywhere, because like Keith, he’s signed to a pretty nice contract. So who becomes available?
The emergence of Scott Darling this season likely makes Corey Crawford expendable. Also, after Crawford’s strong performance in the playoffs, it probably won’t be hard for the Hawks to find a suitor for him. He costs the Hawks $6.0 million, so cutting him out and rolling with Darling and Raanta makes a lot of sense. Patrick Sharp is another guy likely to be on the way out, especially with Brandon Saad needing a new contract for next season (RFA), and Andrew Shaw needing one in 2016 (RFA). The player I’m torn on is Brent Seabrook. He’s an unrestricted free agent come July 1, 2016, and he’s currently got a cap hit of $5.80 million. If he does test the waters of free agency, there’s no doubt somebody would pay a mint for him. I don’t know Seabrook personally so I have no clue if he’s willing to take a pay cut to continue playing for the Hawks, but unless the cap takes an astronomical spike next year, Chicago won’t be able to match what other teams are offering him in free agency.
The Rangers are in a similar situation to the Hawks this summer, but it isn’t quite as terrifying. New York only has seven forwards, six defencemen, and two goalies from this year’s roster signed into next year with $9.50 million in free cap space to deal with filling out the roster. Of those 15 guys, only nine of them are signed beyond next season. This summer, Carl Hagelin, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan, and Jesper Fast need new deals (RFA), and Martin St. Louis is set to become a UFA. Next summer, the Rangers will need to give Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider (RFA) new deals, and Keith Yandle becomes a UFA. It’s safe to say the Rangers are in win now mode, so they’re going to need to figure out a way to shed some salary so they can keep around some of their key players.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Marty St. Louis take a pay cut to stay with the Rangers because he’s nearing the end of his career, but I can’t see any of their RFAs doing the same. Dan Boyle is signed for one more season at $4.50 million, so he should become available for trade this summer. The Rangers may also look to move Kevin Klein, who’s signed for three more years at a modest $2.90 million and Cam Talbot, who’s signed for one more year at $1.45 million. Trading Talbot and Klein could free up around $4.0 million in cap space next season (depending on what comes back in return), but it’ll be difficult to find players who are as effective in their roles and as cheap as those two are, so it may not actually make sense to move them. The Rangers may be best to sell high on some of their RFA forwards and sign cheap, veteran UFAs in their place.
Tampa’s name isn’t one usually thrown around in discussions of teams in cap hell, because they aren’t quite there — yet. The Lightning have 11 forwards, seven defencemen, and two goalies from their current roster signed into next season. Basically, their entire team is set to return next year aside from old man Brendan Morrow and few RFAs. So what’s the problem here? Steven Stamkos is set to become a UFA on July 1, 2016. To further compound issues, Victor Hedman becomes a UFA on July 1, 2017, and Tyler Johnson will also need a new contract (RFA) at the same time. So looking into the future, Tampa is either going to need to free up some of the money they have allocated to other players in the future, or they may be looking to sell Steven Stamkos before he’s able to walk away for nothing. Like with Seabrook, I don’t know Stamkos, so I have no clue whether he’s going to be willing to take a pay cut to play in Tampa Bay, but there’s no reason he couldn’t get similar contracts to the ones Chicago gave Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. If that’s the case, a few interesting Lightning players could become available.
At the top of that list is Ben Bishop. Not necessarily because Tampa wants to move him, but because he has an expensive $5.950 million cap hit, and they have an excellent prospect in Andrei Vasilevski who could take over for him. Valtteri Filppula, Matt Carle, and Jason Garrison are a few other solid players who Tampa would likely look into moving to free up some room for Stamkos and co. to be signed long term. There’s also a chance Stamkos is the one sold to ensure that the team has the cap space to have a good, deep team for years to come. Look at what’s happening in Chicago right now, Yzerman may want to avoid that, and if that’s the case, Leafs fans may get their wish of a Stamkos homecoming.
The Bruins suffered a serious fall from grace this season largely due to some pretty ugly injury issues. Boston’s cap situation is well known, and if the Bruins want to go back to being the beasts of the east like they have been for the past few years, they’re going to have to let go of some of the players who helped give them that label. Heading into next season, the Bruins have nine forwards under contracts (10 if you could Marc Savard), four defencemen, and one goalie from this season’s team. With that, they only have a little over $13 million to spend on the rest of their roster (as a result of Savard’s LTIR cushion). They also have a few key players who need new contracts: Doug Hamilton (RFA), Brett Connolly (RFA), and Carl Soderberg (UFA).
Like I said before, the Bruins aren’t the same team they used to be and they’ll likely be looking to shed some salary so that they can make their team younger and more flexible. As weird as it may seem, captain Zdeno Chara could be one of Boston’s cap casualties as the team looks for Hamilton to take over on the blue line. Chara is now 38 years old and has three years left on a deal with a price tag of $6.917 million. Obviously he’s the heart and soul of the team, but moving his contract could help the Bruins solve a lot of problems, and it may allot for them to keep around some of their younger players. Milan Lucic is only one year away from becoming a UFA, so the Bruins may be looking to move him for assets while they still can, because it’s difficult to say whether they’ll be able to match what other teams are offering him in the free market.
The Wild acquired both a gift and a curse this season: Devan Dubnyk. He was traded to the Wild after bouncing around the league for the past year and finally found himself, becoming an elite goaltender and helping to turn around Minnesota’s season. The one unfortunate thing here is that he’s a UFA on July 1. The Wild have nine forwards, five defencemen, and two goalies signed for next season and they only have $10 million in cap space laying around to sign Dubnyk, Mikael Granlund, Erik Huala (RFA), and flesh out their roster. As a result, they’ll likely be forced to sell some of their defencemen to free up some cap space.
The most likely candidate is Jared Spurgeon, a right handed defenceman capable of making nice passes and munching minutes. I imagine they’ll also be looking to move goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who’s signed for another year at $3.417 million, especially if they’ll be handing out a hefty amount of coin to keep Dubnyk around.
The Flyers have quite a few cement block contracts that are weighing them down, making it really difficult for them to improve their team. Obviously the Flyers will (should) look to unload ugly contracts like Vinny Lecavalier at $4.50 million, R.J. Umberger at $4.60 million, and Andrew MacDonald at $5.00 million, but what team would want to take on these deals? I wrote about the Flyers’ cap situation a few months ago and suggested that they sell high some of their good, young players like Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Sean Couturier so they can aim to be competitive when some of these awful contracts have run their course. If the Flyers do try to unload these contracts via trade, they’re going to have to sweeten the pot either by retaining salary, or by attaching draft picks as rewards.
It’s hard to say exactly what the Flyers will do, but it’s safe to assume pretty much anyone on this roster not named Claude Giroux or Steve Mason will be available, especially if teams are willing to absorb some ugly contracts.
The Kings are in a similar situation to the Flyers — deep in the depths of cap hell. They have a bunch of guys signed to ugly contracts, but their difference is, they’re in win now mode much more so than the Flyers are, because they’re actually still a good team despite their spending. The biggest fear for the Kings is the fact Anze Kopitar is set to become a UFA on July 1, 2016, and unless they ship some contracts out, or the cap spikes, they won’t have the money to offer him a new deal. Unless, of course, he’s willing to take a substantial pay cut to stay with the Kings, which is becoming a common theme here. In terms of immediate issues, the Kings have about $64 million tied into 10 forwards, six defencemen (this could change depending on what happens with Slava Voynov), and two goalies from their roster this season. Justin Williams, Andrej Sekera and Jarrett Stoll are becoming UFAs, and Tyler Toffoli and Martin Jones need new deals (RFA) this summer.
They only have about $7.0 million to deal with those guys, with Toffoli being the most pressing concern. Like the Flyers, the Kings will likely be looking to trade players with salary retained, or with draft picks included in order to free up some cap room this summer for Toffoli, and possibly Williams and Sekera, and next summer for Kopitar. The two most likely candidates to be shipped out would obviously be Dustin Brown and Mike Richards, who own $5.875 million and $5.750 million cap hits respectively.
THE TEAMS WHO CAN CAPITALIZE ON IT
The Leafs have a lot of money — and they’re willing to spend it. We’ve known it all along, and the Leafs proved it this season by hiring Mike Babcock to a massive $50 million contract and by trading for Nathan Horton, a player who will probably never play for them just to get the LTIR bonus and save some cap space. All teams are under the same cap, but that doesn’t mean they have the same financial resources. Some teams can’t spend all the way to the cap ceiling, while some can easily. On top of that, some teams have enough money that they can afford to absorb ugly contracts and buy them out or bury them because of the money their owners are willing to spend on the team.
The Leafs management staff have acknowledged that they’re rebuilding for the long haul and signing Mike Babcock isn’t an indication of them trying to pull a quick retool to be competitive for next season. This makes them an interesting situation. Since they won’t be looking to compete for the playoffs for a few seasons, we could see the Leafs take on some of Philadelphia or L.A’s albatross contracts in return for some draft picks. That being said, the Leafs have some contracts of their own they may want to shed before they start going out and solving the problems of other teams for them.
Like the Leafs, the Coyotes are in it for the long haul. Unlike the Leafs, though, the Coyotes don’t have endless pools of cash to throw around. In fact, they’re bleeding money. Regardless, the Coyotes need to get the cap floor somehow, and currently, they only have $34.5 million tied into seven forwards, three defencemen, and a goalie. Arizona could look to take on some ugly contracts in return for some draft picks and prospects in hopes that it makes the team slightly more interesting to watch in a market starving for fans, and because, well, like I said, they need to get to the cap floor and right now, they’re nowhere close.
Same goes for the Sabres. Buffalo has over $25 million to flesh out their roster for next season, and they already have 10 forwards, five defencemen, and one goalie locked up, meaning they may be able to gamble on a buy low candidate, or do somebody a favour and absorb a bad contract. Of course, the Sabres are closer (hopefully) to contending than the Coyotes, so they don’t want to put themselves in a bad situation by taking on too much of the league’s garbage.
Everything changed for the Oilers this spring. They won the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, they cleaned house and removed the Old Boys Club from their upper management staff, and now they’re much closer to being in win now mode than they were at this time last year. The Oilers have roughly $20 million to mess around with this offseason with pressing needs on the blue line and in net. They already have 11 forwards under contract, but they only have four defencemen and one goalie signed. Also, two of their ugly contracts, Teddy Purcell and Nikita Nikitin both at $4.50 million come off the shelf at the end of the next season, while most of their core is locked up long term.
The Oilers will likely be inquiring about some of the players I mentioned earlier like Seabrook, Klein, Spurgeon, and Garrison because not only do they have the money to spend right now, they should also be trying their best to be successful while Connor McDavid is still signed to an entry level contract.
The Predators enjoyed a breakout season this year and are starting to look like they’re close to being a legitimate Cup contender. Their defence and goaltending are stable for the foreseeable future with Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis locked up for at least four more seasons, but their forward group is a lot more unpredictable. Heading into next season, the Preds only have five forwards under contract, while five more RFAs need new deals, and four are set to hit unrestricted free agency. In total, the Preds have five forwards, five defencemen, and two goalies from this year’s team signed into next season with more than $30 million in cap space to deal with their holes.
First, they need to figure out what they want to do with Cody Franson, Mike Ribeiro, and Mike Fisher (UFA), and their crop of RFAs that include Colin Wilson and Calle Jarnkrok. After that, there’s a good chance the Preds will have enough money left over to make a bid for some help up front, potentially for someone like Patrick Sharp who may be squeezed out of Chicago.
The Islanders, like the Preds, finally enjoyed a breakout season this year. Last summer, the Islanders took advantage of cap squeezes in Chicago and Boston and came out with Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk who were two huge factors in the team’s success this season. This summer, the Islanders have the potential to do the same thing again. They have 11 forwards, five defencemen, and one goalie from last year’s roster signed into next year and they have about $16 million in cap space available to spend. Their two key free agents are Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, who are both RFAs, but after they’re signed, the Islanders will still have a decent amount of free cap space to help them upgrade their roster.
It’s also really important the Islanders capitalize on John Tavares’ team friendly deal while they can. He’s signed at $5.5 million for three more years, and let’s be honest, when he hits UFA status, his cap hit is probably going to double. Another Leddy or Boychuk style steal could turn the Islanders from a good team into a legitimate contender. Of course, they don’t want to go nuts and ruin their long term cap outlook, but somebody with one or two years left on their contract would fit nicely with the Islanders’ current situation.
IT’S GOING TO BE A WILD SUMMER
A lot of teams are in ugly cap situations right now. Cap situations that are so ugly, it’s going to be difficult for them to even ice an NHL team next season. Looking past those teams, we also have some impending super star free agents that are going to be looking for some huge paydays. Teams have to be looking at the current situation of the Chicago Blackhawks and L.A. Kings and be wondering if its worth it for them to sacrifice depth for star power. If they do decide they want to keep their franchise players around, these teams will be forced to move a handful of players to find the space to fit them in.
This is a great time to be either a rebuilding team, or a team right on the cusp of success. Some of the league’s elite teams may be taking a step back next season because they can’t afford to ice as strong of a roster as they were this season, while other teams have just enough cap space they can take advantage of the situation and acquire the players they need to push them over the top. Chicago, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and New York have a wealth of good players who are going to have to be shipped out so they can stay under the cap, while Philadelphia and Los Angeles will likely be calling around the league looking for favours on some potential buy-low candidates. Toronto, Buffalo, Arizona, Edmonton, and Calgary all have money to spend, while the Islanders and Predators look like they’re just a few pieces away from being serious contenders.
Long story short, thanks to a smaller than estimated cap ceiling, this is going to be a wild offseason.