NHL projects salary cap to increase to as much as $88.2 million – which teams will benefit the most? - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

NHL projects salary cap to increase to as much as $88.2 million – which teams will benefit the most?

That sound you hear emanating from Florida is the NHL GMs rejoicing. After some chatter the salary cap could remain flat next season, it appears it will rise by at least $2.5 million – and possibly by nearly $7 million should the NHLPA choose to use its full five-percent inflator.
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One way or another, it appears the salary cap will be on the rise next season. The only question is by how much.

Speaking with reporters Wednesday after the GM meetings that are being held in Florida, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that the spending limit for next season is projected to be anywhere from $84 million to $88.2 million.

The deciding factor? What the NHL Players’ Association chooses to do with its ability to inflate the upper limit. According to NHL.com's Dan Rosen, zero inflation by the NHLPA would result in the $84-million cap. A full five-percent inflation would raise the cap to the $88.2-million figure. Ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, the NHLPA chose to inflate the cap by one percent. A similar rise would result in an $84.84-million cap.

Don’t expect to know the exact figure for some time, however. As Rosen reported, the final cap number isn’t expected to be announced until late June, likely after the completion of the post-season. Given that’s the case, too, some teams may be muting their celebrations about such a rise. After all, it was earlier during the 2018-19 campaign that the upper limit was projected to rise to $83 million only for the NHL to eventually announce an $81.5-million cap. It may not seem significant, but the $1.5-million drop from the earliest projection to the actual figure undoubtedly wreaked havoc on some teams’ off-season plans.

That said, with the understanding that there will be at least a bit of added cap flexibility next season after some previous reports the cap could remain flat, a few teams will already be looking ahead and rejoicing. Here are five teams who will benefit most from the rise in the cap:

BUFFALO SABRES
The following are Sabres forwards under contract next season: Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo and Marcus Johansson. The list of blueliners is only one player longer. Carter Hutton is the only keeper with a contract. Altogether, there are seven pending unrestricted free agents, eight arbitration-eligible restricted free agents and, if Casey Mittelstadt is included, two notable RFAs without arbitration rights who will need pacts. On one hand, that means there’s quite a bit of uncertainty about Buffalo’s lineup next season. On the other, the lack of contract commitments makes things awfully wide open moving forward for the Sabres.

Look at it this way: Buffalo’s needs are plentiful. Eichel requires support up front. The defense has to be bolstered. Jettisoning Hutton for a more reliable No. 1 or split-time starter would also be advisable. And given the breathing room GM Jason Botterill is expected to have – right now, nearly $37 million in projected cap space – he could make some big moves. Among UFA forwards who could be available are Mike Hoffman, Evgeni Dadonov, Tyler Toffoli and Mikael Granlund. Blueliner Tyson Barrie could be had on the free agent market, as could Kevin Shattenkirk, Sami Vatanen, Travis Hamonic or T.J. Brodie. Is a Robin Lehner reunion possibly in the cards? Or maybe Anton Khudobin or Jacob Markstrom become targets.

The Sabres could also use the additional cap space to try to land a big fish. An additional $2.5 million on top of the oodles of spending room could give Botterill the chance to throw an absurd contract at Taylor Hall. Imagine Hall on a line with Eichel. Extra cap space might help make that a reality.

ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Blues will have one goal and one goal only heading into the summer: get captain Alex Pietrangelo to put pen to paper on a new deal. The pending UFA is set to command a hefty raise, particularly considering his potential to end up in the running for the Norris Trophy. And a rising cap, particularly if it goes above and beyond the low-end estimate of $84 million, will do wonders for the Blues’ ability to retain Pietrangelo without sacrificing other pieces of their roster.

At present, the Blues are projected to have in the neighborhood of $10.2 million in cap space should the cap rise to $84 million. While true that should be enough to re-sign Pietrangelo, it doesn’t take into account subsequent moves that must be made. Consider that three recent top-tier blueliners who signed extensions – Roman Josi, Thomas Chabot and Jacob Trouba – did so on new deals that carry cap hits exceeding $8 million. Pietrangelo, with a Stanley Cup and possibly a top-three Norris finish in his back pocket, should be looking for more than that, possibly even a pact commensurate with the $9.059-million deal Josi signed with the Predators.

In signing a deal that rich, Pietrangelo would chew up almost every morsel of cap space available to the Blues, but RFAs Vince Dunn and Sammy Blais, the latter eligible for arbitration, will also need deals. But given there’s still some flexibility under the cap, St. Louis should be able to get away with moving out secondary players instead of prime pieces to free up cap space. If the cap would have stayed flat, St. Louis would have had to get much more creative – and potentially sacrifice an important player.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
That the ceiling is set to rise is maybe more important heading into this summer than it has ever been for the Bolts. Under a flat cap, the Lightning would have entered the off-season with less than $5.3 million with which to work. That it could rise to $84 million or more gives them additional wiggle room they desperately need.

A rising cap won’t cure all cap-related ills in Tampa Bay, though. Even if the cap hits the $88.2-million figure, which would give the Lightning in the neighborhood of $12 million in cap space, GM Julien BriseBois enters the summer with two major restricted free agents to re-sign in Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev, and the Lightning will also need to supplement their blueline with at least two more players. Erik Cernak can be one, without question, and he could come somewhat cheap. But that still leaves one vacancy on the blueline for the Bolts and likely less than a few million to use in order to fill that void, even in the best-case scenario.

So, yes, the cap space will help, but the increase in the cap alone won’t get the Lightning out of the jam completely. Except at least one notable move. Alex Killorn, who has a $4.45-million cap hit through 2022-23, could be a prime trade candidate. His no-trade clause becomes limited this summer.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Maple Leafs’ desire come the off-season is no mystery. Toronto wants to land a blueliner and they’re going to go hunting for one. Finding a top-four – and possibly even a top-two – defender who fits the bill won’t be cheap, however, especially if the Maple Leafs go about adding such a rearguard by way of the free agent market. Pietrangelo has long been a rumored target and it seems likely Toronto would kick the tires if he became available. Brodie, Chris Tanev and Brenden Dillon could also be targets.

The biggest hurdle is going to be cap space, though. Even with a rise in the cap to $84 million, the Maple Leafs are projected to have only $6.2 million in cap space. At maximum, Toronto will have in the neighborhood of $10.4 million. That’s not an awful lot of flexibility, especially with potential contract considerations for RFAs Ilya Mikheyev, Travis Dermott and Frederik Gauthier. If the additional cap space is paired with a cost-cutting move, however, the Maple Leafs should be able to manage a notable addition to their ‘D’ corps.

The other avenue the Maple Leafs could pursue is a trade, which would send dollars out and have potential to offset some or all of the additional cap burden. Issue is that shipping out a piece of the forward group to add a defender likely means Toronto will want to use that cap space to add a depth piece up front. Still, the extra cap space will offer more freedom that the Maple Leafs wouldn’t have had otherwise.

WINNIPEG JETS
Count the pending free agents. All told, there are a dozen players who have appeared in the Jets’ lineup this season who are set to become UFAs at season’s end. Another four players will become RFAs, one of whom, Mason Appleton, has arbitration rights. And while all that money coming off the books would seem to suggest Winnipeg is going to have an abundance of cap space come the off-season, that’s not at all the case. As it stands, an $84-million cap is projected to give the Jets somewhere in the neighborhood of $10.5 million to spend, while an $86-million cap gives them $12.5 million and an $88-million cap gives them $14.5 million. But even if the cap does rise to the higher figure, it’s not an awful lot with which to work given Winnipeg will need to fill seven forward spots, three blueline spots and one spot in goal.

That’s the bad news. The good news? It seems as though it’s only a matter of time before Dustin Byfuglien’s contract situation is resolved, and if he comes off the books entirely, the Jets will have an additional $7.6 million in play. That’s upwards of $18 million in cap space.

Still, the Jets will need to spend very wisely and find some cost-effective additions if they’re going to make the money work. A rising spending limit is a bonus, but it doesn’t solve the problem entirely.

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