The NHL’s 2016-17 cap ceiling and this summer’s UFA class

Updated: December 9, 2015 at 4:55 pm by Cam Lewis

A couple of days ago at the league’s Board of Governors Meeting, Commissioner Gary Bettman said that the NHL’s salary cap could go up by roughly $3 million next season. He also went on to say that this was a “very, very, very rough projection” and that next year’s cap will “depend on a variety of different factors” like the strength of the Canadian dollar and the revenue the league can generate. It’s important to remember that this time last year, Bettman suggested that the cap for the 2015-16 season would be around $73 million, but as we know, it ended up being less than that. 

If this is the case, and everything goes according to plan, we’ll be looking at somewhere around a $74.5 million salary cap ceiling for the 2016-17 season, which could be interesting as we head into a summer that boasts one of the best free agent classes of recent memory. 

Thanks to the 2015-16 season’s cap ceiling coming in at a figure much lower than originally expected, last offseason was abnormally tame. Very few, if any, horrific albatross contracts were handed out to the available players as teams struggled to deal with fitting their teams under the $71.5 million ceiling. It was actually perfect timing, because last year’s class didn’t really feature very many significant free agents, so the players that were available were signed to deals that reflect their value more so than we would have seen in just about any other offseason. 

This summer, though, is completely different. As of right now, franchise guys like Steven Stamkos and Anze Kopitar are on their way to hitting the open market which is something we almost never see. Even if those two are locked up before July 1, the list is loaded with names like David Backes, Eric Staal, Dustin Byfuglien, Kyle Okposo, Andrew Ladd, Milan Lucic, and Alex Goligoski. The extra spending money will certainly make it easier for teams to open their wallets to this summer’s free agent crop, but it’s more of an aid to teams’ short-term picture than their long-term outlook.

For example, the cap going up by $3 million will be especially advantageous to a team like Chicago, who had a rough time piecing together a complete 23 man roster this season. They had to dump Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad through trades, and they had to let Johnny Oduya walk as a free agent, and they’ve been filling out their roster with a revolving door of rookies and bargain bin free agents. The extra $3 million will certainly make it easier for them to squeeze players around Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s combined $21 million cap hit. 

That said, there’s still always a long-term risk in signing big name free agents. I mean, having an extra $3 million this summer to spend might make it a little bit easier for the Tampa Bay Lightning to sign Steven Stamkos and flesh out the rest of their roster around him right now, but ultimately, teams need to look well beyond the 2016-17 season when making this kind of investment. When the Hawks signed Toews and Kane to their respective eight-year deals, it was with the idea that while the ceiling hovered around $70 million at the time, eventually it would go up, and when it did, those $10.5 million cap hits would look like bargains. 

Then, as we saw this year, the weak Canadian dollar had a tremendous effect on league revenue, and as a result, the ceiling came in lower than they thought it would. Of course, these things are really, really difficult to predict, and that’s the reality of operating an NHL franchise in the cap world. A $3 million boost to the cap ceiling is nice and all, but it really shouldn’t be a reason for teams to go crazy with their spending this summer. We didn’t see any Dave Bolland or David Clarkson catastrophes this year, so maybe the General Managers in the league have learned something about being conservative on the market and not just spending because you can. As we learned over the past year and change, teams are probably better off being conservative on the free agent market, because a spike in the cap one year isn’t necessarily synonymous with continuous increase. 

Oh well, from an entertainment standpoint it looks like it’s going to be a fun summer. I’m sure all of the impending UFAs are salivating.