Taking the Salary Cap Temperature of the NHL

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One of the key news items from this week’s NHL Board of Governors meetings was some clarity around next year’s salary cap. While the official number won’t be finalized until later in the season, commissioner Gary Bettman offered up a projection of $73 million.

That represents an increase over this year’s $69 million cap. It’s a lower number than had once been expected, back when the league was riding high off the new Canadian TV deal and there were suggestions that the cap could grow significantly going forward. But it’s higher than some of the more recent projections, which pointed to the dropping Canadian dollar as a sign that the cap could grow much more slowly.

So basically, the news falls somewhere in the middle for the teams that spend to the cap ceiling or aspire to get there soon. And it also gives us as good an excuse as any to take a deeper look into some of those teams. Who’s in good shape over the next few years? And who’s got some tough choices coming up?

Today we’ll look at five teams on each side of the fence. One of those groups was a lot easier to put together than the other; if I had to split the whole league, I’d say that at least two-thirds would fall firmly into the “bad” category, and you’ll find that even our good teams typically come with a few caveats. That’s life in a salary cap league. We’ll base our evaluation on the answers to various questions: How much salary do they already have committed, for next year and beyond, and for how many roster spots? Are there any players who are locked up long term that seem to represent exceptionally good or bad value? Which key players are coming up for renewal soon, and will the team have enough space to get those deals done? And which highly paid but less productive players are coming off the cap soon, freeing up space?

One key point: We’re looking at the cap ceiling here, and not every team can spend that much. Many teams are on internal budgets, so their cap space relative to the upper limit doesn’t really matter. Teams like the Senators or Coyotes have all the cap space in the world, but they can’t spend it, so they don’t get credit for having lots of room they’ll never use. That’s why this list ends up being heavy on the big-market teams — they’re the ones who are most affected by the ceiling.

(Another note: All dollar figures in this post are the players’ annual average value, which is to say their cap hit. For the purpose of this exercise, we don’t care what their actual salary is. And as I’m sure goes without saying, all the numbers come from the indispensable CapGeek.com.)

This isn’t meant to be a complete list, in the sense that the 20 teams we don’t get to aren’t all stuck in some sort of fuzzy middle,1 but these 10 teams are the ones that stand out today.

Got your calculators out? Let’s get started.

Good: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are currently right up against the cap, with some breathing room available due to Mattias Ohlund’s LTIR exemption.2 But given that they’re one of the best teams in the league, you can handle that.

Down the road, they’re in decent shape, with one crucial caveat we’ll get to in the next paragraph. They have plenty of young talent, and already locked up Calder finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat on matching $3.33 million deals through 2017. Ben Bishop gets a raise to $5.95 million next year, but that seems like fair value the way he’s playing, and Victor Hedman’s $4 million through 2017 looks like one of the best deals in the entire league right now. There are a few question marks (Ryan Callahan at $5.8 million through 2020 stands out), but for the most part this is a very good team that has managed its cap situation reasonably well.

Now we get to the caveat: Steven Stamkos. The Lightning’s franchise player is schedule to hit unrestricted free agency in 2016. He’ll re-sign before then — every superstar re-signs before free agency — but he’ll probably become the highest-paid player in the league in the process. That will complicate things, especially since the team doesn’t really have any major salaries coming off the books that year. Steve Yzerman will find a way to get it done; it’s just a question of how many pieces he has to move to make room.

Bad: Chicago Blackhawks

Over the first decade of the salary cap era, the Blackhawks have become the poster child for how the rules can punish good teams. When they won the Cup in 2010, they had to immediately start shipping out key players to get back to a manageable number. They had to do it again after another championship in 2013. Those moves kept the ship afloat for a few more years. It may not stay that way much longer.

They certainly have the core locked up. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane recently signed matching $10.5 million deals that kick in next year and run through 2023. That represents the highest cap hit in the league, at least for now, but will probably look like fair value relatively soon.3 Duncan Keith gets $5.5 million on a deal that turns through 2023; that’s great value, but scary terms for a guy who’s already 31.

And then there’s Marian Hossa. He gets $5.275 million through 2021, thanks to one of those back-diving deals that the new CBA outlawed. He’d be 42 when his deal expires, so the odds of him playing effectively through to the end of it are close to zero. That means the Hawks are going to have a diminishing asset on their hands awfully soon, and will probably get hit with a cap recapture penalty4 at some point.

That all adds up to roughly $32 million locked into just four players for the next six years. Add in $5.9 million for Patrick Sharp, $5.8 million for Brent Seabrook, and $6 million more for Corey Crawford, and this is an awfully top-heavy team. They’ve been pretty good at surrounding their stars with decent depth, and the rising cap will relieve a bit of that pressure as they go. But spending big money on players who’ll eventually be out of their prime — or already are, in Hossa’s case — won’t leave much margin for error.

So yes, the Blackhawks are almost certainly going to have to pay a price down the line. Would they trade any of those Cups for it? Not a chance.

Good: St. Louis Blues

The longest deal on the books is also their best: $6.5 million to Alex Pietrangelo through 2020. The highest-paid player is Paul Stastny, who got $7 million as a free agent this summer, but only through 2018, which is very reasonable terms for a top UFA. The core guys are all signed for a few more years, and the deals are staggered so they don’t all come up at the same time.

They’ll need a bridge deal for Vladimir Tarasenko, and these days nobody’s really sure what they’re doing with their goaltending, but for the most part the Blues’ cap situation looks nice and clean. As long as ownership keeps letting them spend, they’re in good shape.

Bad (But Maybe Not Quite As Bad As You Think): Boston Bruins

The Bruins have used LTIR and deferred bonuses to squeeze all their talent under the cap over the past few years, and it caught up to them this year when they were all but maxed out before the offseason even began. So it may surprise you to learn that while they’re certainly not in good shape, they’re not a disaster. They’ve got their entire core locked up long-term (maybe too long in a few cases, but none of the deals to key guys looks especially awful).

That said, the blueline is going to be a nightmare next summer. Only Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are signed past this year, and young guys like Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton will need bridge deals. Maybe a bigger concern is Chara himself, who’s owed $6.9 million through 2017 and another $4 million in 2018.5 He’s already 37, has started to slow down ever so slightly, and has been hurt for much of this year. There’s a chance he comes back rested and ready to wreak havoc, but if he has hit the rapid-decline phase of his career, the Bruins’ situation gets worse real fast.

Good (At Least for Now): Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks’ core centers around Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, both of whom are locked up through 2021 on deals that pay them more than $8 million. Those deals, signed last spring, have provided decent value so far, and probably will for the next few years at least. Aging curves are tough to predict; some guys take a dive once they close in on their mid-30s, and if either Perry or Getzlaf does (or both do), the Ducks will have a headache on their hands. But for now, having your two franchise players locked in at least provides stability to work with the rest of the roster.

And the rest of the roster looks like it’s in pretty good shape. Ryan Kesler has this year and next at $5 million, at which point he’ll be heading into his age-32 season and the team can reevaluate. Cam Fowler has the same $4 million deal that every young defenseman in the league seems to have. Francois Beauchemin needs a new deal this summer, but injured blueliner Sheldon Souray comes off the cap, too, so they’ll have space.

One red flag: While the Ducks’ young goaltending duo of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson is a fantastic value at less than $2 million combined through the end of next year, both will need new contracts after. That could get tricky, and expensive.

Beyond that, the Ducks are in good shape for the near future. After that, it depends on how well Perry and Getzlaf can hold up.

Bad: Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs have historically struggled to manage the cap, and last year they managed the rare feat of missing the playoffs despite being capped out. That led to the team hiring Brandon Pridham away from the league headquarters as the new capologist, replacing Claude Loiselle.

Pridham inherits a team that actually has a decent chunk of cap space available for next year, something in the $20 million range. That sounds good until you remember that they’ll need new deals for key contributors Nazem Kadri, Jonathan Bernier, and Cody Franson.  The team also signed a bunch of smart, one-year deals with productive depth guys last summer, and the downside of that strategy is that it leaves you with a bunch of guys with expiring deals.

The bigger problem for the Leafs is that, among the core that they’ve already locked in, there’s not much that stands out in the way of value. James van Riemsdyk at $4.25 million through 2018 looks good, and Jake Gardiner’s $4.05 million through 2019 did, too, before he seemed to regress through the beginning of this year. You could include Tyler Bozak’s $4.2 million here, too, if you wanted to, although there’s still plenty of debate over whether he’s as good as his offensive numbers say he is.

Beyond that, you’ve got Phil Kessel at a reasonabl $8 million through 2022, and then a bunch of deals the club would probably like to have back. That includes Dion Phaneuf’s megadeal, as well as a David Clarkson contract that still ranks among the league’s very worst.

Once they sign their key RFAs, the Leafs probably won’t have much flexibility to go out and target big names next summer unless they can make a trade before then. At some point, they’re going to need to figure out whether the core they’ve locked into is one that can really win a championship someday. If not, extracting themselves from some of these deals is going to take some work.

Good: Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres don’t have a single player who makes more than $5.5 million, nor do they have anyone who’s signed past 2019. That, my friends, is a flexible cap situation.

OK, they also don’t have much in the way of good players, if you want to get picky. They don’t have a goalie under contract past this season, and that Tyler Myers deal still looks like an overpay. We listed them as “good,” not “perfect.”

But the fact is that the Sabres have lots of young talent on the way, and those guys will be cheap for the first few years. That leaves this team with all sorts of room to work with if they wanted to spend aggressively. Would they? Owner Terry Pegula certainly has the cash, although he might be a little gun-shy after the team’s 2011 foray into free agency turned out to be a disaster.

The Sabres have been strategically awful for years, and eventually GM Tim Murray is going to want to flip the switch from harvesting draft picks to winning games. When they do, he’ll have lots of room to play with.

Bad. No, Wait, Good. But Still Sort of Bad: Los Angeles Kings

I really can’t make up my mind on the Kings. On the one hand, they’re like the anti–Maple Leafs; they’ve locked up their core for the long haul, but it’s a core that has proven that it can actually win something. On the other hand, some of those deals … yikes.

The easiest way to divide up the Kings is by position. The defense looks great, led by Drew Doughty at a very reasonable $7 million through 2019, and Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez, and Jake Muzzin all signed long-term at the $4 million range.6 All of those deals look reasonable.

The same can’t be said for the forwards. It was a mild surprise when the team declined to use a compliance buyout on Mike Richards, whose game has declined sharply before he’s even hit 30 and who’s still owed $5.75 million through 2020. Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, and captain Dustin Brown are all locked in through at least 2021 at a combined total just north of $16 million — good value now, but the term will catch up with them. Veterans Justin Williams and (probably) Jarret Stoll need new deals this summer, as do a bunch of young guys including Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.

We haven’t mentioned Jonathan Quick yet. I’m on record as not liking his deal, which pays $5.8 million through 2023, because long-term goalie deals almost never work out. But he’s been great this season, so for now at least the Kings are getting good value.

And then there’s the team’s best player, Anze Kopitar. His deal is up in 2016, and he’ll deserve a big raise over his current $6.8 million. He could make the case to push toward Toews/Kane territory (although he’s having an off year offensively so far this season). The Kings should have room to afford that, but doing so while keeping their core and their up-and-coming young guys will be tough.

So are the Kings in good shape? Not really, and they’re going to have to move one or two of the veteran core guys sooner or later (if they can). But like the Blackhawks, that core did bring them two titles. They’re probably in slightly better shape than Chicago, and maybe that’s just the best we can expect from a champion in the cap era.

Good: Montreal Canadiens

When he was hired in 2012, one of GM Marc Bergevin’s first big challenges was to get a deal done with restricted free agent P.K. Subban. It took a while — Subban sat out the first few games of the season — but Bergevin eventually got his star defenseman to sign what seemed like a very reasonable two-year bridge deal. The move backfired, as Subban exploded into a Norris winner and the Habs ended up having to break the bank for him last summer.

As a result, Subban is making $9 million against the cap until 2022. It’s a number that other stars will catch up to and pass soon enough, but for now it’s the biggest cap hit of any defenseman in the league, and it’s the sort of deal that should throw a wrench in the rest of the cap situation.

Instead, Bergevin has been busy making a series of smart signings to keep the rest of the roster intact. Useful pieces like David Desharnais, Brendan Gallagher, Alexei Emelin, and Lars Eller have all signed deals in the $3.5 million to $4.1 million range, and Max Pacioretty’s $4.5 million through 2019 looks like one of the better deals in the league. Then there’s Carey Price, who gets $6.5 million through 2018 — fair value, and without the risky term that other top goalies have.

Bergevin isn’t batting 1.000; giving a 35-year-old Andrei Markov $5.75 million for the next three years was a gamble, and Sergei Gonchar at $4.6 million isn’t great. But even that one made sense; Bergevin traded another iffy contract in Travis Moen for Gonchar, knowing that the veteran defenseman comes off the books next year.

Add it all up, and you’ve got a pretty good core locked in, with enough money left over to resign Alex Galchenyuk and maybe go out and add a key piece or two. That’s not bad at all.

Bad: Philadelphia Flyers

My favorite part of having the Flyers here is that I guarantee that plenty of their fans were reading through this post and getting mad that they hadn’t made an appearance on the bad list yet.

And deservedly so, because in recent years the Flyers have taken over the Rangers’ role as the league’s kings of the outrageous contract. They had the Ilya Bryzgalov disaster, the Daniel Briere debacle, and a Chris Pronger deal that should be costing them but isn’t, yet, thanks to his ability to retire without really retiring.7 And that’s just the players who aren’t there anymore.

Of the guys who are still on the roster, a few of the deals look downright ugly. The whole blueline is a mess, highlighted by Andrew MacDonald still being owed $5 million through 2020. The forwards feature Vincent Lecavalier, a healthy scratch who’ll make $4.5 million until 2018, as well as R.J. Umberger at $4.6 million through 2017.

It’s not all bad. Jakub Voracek at $4.25 million through next season is a fantastic value, and Claude Giroux’s $8.275 million through 2022 is the going rate for elite forwards. Even Steve Mason’s deal looks OK if you squint hard enough (and ignore his career numbers before he arrived in Philadelphia).

But this team has a ton of holes and very little room to address them. There are no big deals coming off the books this season, and no team has more money committed to next year than the Flyers. Looking ahead, Voracek, Brayden Schenn, and Sean Couturier will all need big raises after next year. If Pronger ever decided to officially retire,8 they’d be screwed.

Could they trade their way out of this mess? Maybe, although they’ll likely have to take some bad deals back to make it happen. I’ve always admired the Flyers’ approach, in a way; they’re certainly not afraid to roll the dice. But sometimes when you gamble you lose big, and that leaves you with a price to pay. The Flyers are paying it now, and probably will be for years.

Filed Under: NHL, Tampa Bay Lightning, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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