The First Word: Cheap vets over young bucks

Given the cap crunch a number of teams are facing this season, veterans on value deals are earning spots over rookies on their entry-level deals. The slight financial gain makes the difference and has capologists making the calls over coaches.
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Recycling is big these days. Even in the NHL. Don’t be surprised to see a multi-year low number of rookies break into the NHL this season. Strangely, in our annual Prospects Unlimited issue that trumpets the up-and-comers, the next wave, the fresh faces, this instead has become the season of the recycled veteran.

Blame this one-year aberration on a salary cap that didn’t go up a whole lot from the previous season. And it’s many of the high-profile rookies who are feeling the squeeze.

Most teams expected the NHL salary cap to rise from $79.5 million in 2018-19 to north of $83 million this year. That was the indication throughout last season. (After all, it did rise six percent from $75 million to $79.5 million the season before.) But the increase was only 2.5 percent to $81.5 million. That left a lot of teams forced to pinch the pocketbook, play hardball with free agents and consider cheaper alternatives at the bottom end of the roster.

So instead of the door being wide open for top-end first-rounders to challenge for roster spots, many NHL teams have instead given the opportunity to veterans or fringe players to win jobs based on the fact they earn a couple hundred thousand less than young players on entry-level deals.

First-rounders generally sign three-year deals at the current rookie cap of $925,000 – Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, Moritz Seider, Philip Broberg, Victor Soderstrom, Kirby Dach and many more 2019 picks did so in the off-season. Some have a lot of bonuses built into their contracts which further complicate their chances of making it this season. The exceptional teenagers made it right away. But further down the first round the past few seasons, the prospects have hit a bump in the road for now.

The NHL minimum salary this season is $700,000. The difference between a hotshot young gun making it and a recycled vet is $225,000 or more. That’s huge for the 15 NHL teams who are within $200,000 of the $81.5-million cap.

Calgary signed Tobias Rieder, Zac Rinaldo and Michael Stone for the league minimum in September because every buck counts. That will likely delay Glenn Gawdin and Alexander Yelesin from playing their first NHL games this season, and it bumped Dillon Dube back to being a prospect. They simply earn too much. It’s the same story with several other teams.

If Boston needs a D-man, league-min Alex Petrovic gets the call over heralded prospects Urho Vaakanainen or Jakub Zboril because of money. Go down the list. Mark Letestu, Gabriel Bourque and Anthony Bitetto in Winnipeg get dibs over Kristian Vesalainen and Logan Stanley. There’s Chris Stewart in Philadelphia, Patrick Marleau in San Jose, and Jason Spezza, Nick Shore and Kevin Gravel in Toronto. The capologist makes the call ahead of the coach.

Last season, 207 rookie skaters played in the NHL. The three seasons before it was 226, 235 and 205. Through the first few weeks of 2019-20, that number is at just 74. It will go up but probably won’t eclipse 200. Dozens of prospects will have to remain as prospects.

In a billion-dollar industry where the lexicon of language is in millions, the relative pocket change of tens of thousands has become crucial. There’s no doubt that young players who are destined to play in the NHL will get there. Just not as many now.

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