It wouldn’t be all too surprising to find a handful of the league’s GMs sleeping easier over the past couple of nights. As the GM meetings concluded in Boca Raton, Fla., NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly indicated that after all the talk of a potentially flat salary cap next season, the league could be looking at an increase between $2.5 and $3 million in time for next season, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. Nothing is set in stone, of course, and there’s the possibility the increase won’t be quite that much with dependance on the NHLPA using its cap escalator. However, there seems a greater chance now than there was earlier in the season that GMs will have more money to work with.
For teams up against the salary cap, that’s no small deal. When the flat cap was the talk of the league, we looked at which teams would suffer the most if there was no increase in teams’ spending limit. And while $2.5 million may not seem like some grand increase that’s going to save any team from having to jettison players in the name of staying under the cap, it’s enough that a few teams who were going to have to make tough decisions will have a significantly easier time managing their budget for next season. Heck, for some of them, it even means making an addition or two might be feasible.
There’s no more telling situation of how a slight rise in the upper limit can benefit cap-strapped teams more than the Lightning. Tampa Bay’s situation has been one to watch and the salary cap going forward has been of some concern for almost the entire campaign. It was hard for the cap issues not to be front and center when it took until zero hour for the Lightning to ink Nikita Kucherov, the team’s 23-year-old leading scorer, to a three-year contract extension. When the deal was signed, it was the talk of the league that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman managed to get a consistent 30-goal scorer under contract for three years at less than $5 million.
Even with Kucherov signed to a team-friendly deal, though, there was still concern. The Lightning are about to enter into what are sure to be tough contract negotiations with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, there’s the matter of locking up Jonathan Drouin to a new deal and Yzerman is also going to need to find a way to add a few more pieces — and potentially bolster his defense — by the time 2017-18 rolls around. But a savvy move at the deadline to ship out Valtteri Filppula cleared $5 million. Add in the potential for an extra $2.5 million in spending room, as well, and a once troubling cap situation has somewhat cleared up.
Per CapFriendly, the Lightning project to have nearly $18 million in cap space and that’s before any rise in the ceiling. If Johnson and Palat land matching $6 million contracts, which is a high estimate, that still leaves Tampa Bay with $6 million to ink Drouin and others. Drouin is unlikely to earn more than Kucherov, especially without arbitration rights or much negotiating power, so a $4.5 million deal leaves Yzerman with $1.5 million to play with. Add in the projected cap increase, though, and he’s got somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in cap flexibility.
The Lightning are just one example of a team that stands to benefit big time from any rise in the cap, though. The Chicago Blackhawks have lived with cap concerns for several seasons now, with GM Stan Bowman consistently managing to find some way through the flames, and the cap rise may be his way out of another tough spot. Bowman doesn’t have to deal with the same headache of high-priced RFAs that Yzerman is facing, but he will have to consider new deals for Richard Panik, Tanner Kero, Tomas Jurco, Dennis Rasmussen and Michal Kempny. That’s not to mention the possibility of bringing back UFAs Brian Campbell, Scott Darling and recently acquired Johnny Oduya.
With Artemi Panarin’s massive raise set to kick in — he’s going from an $812,500 to an even $6 million next season — the Blackhawks needed all the cap help they could get. They project to have a mere $6 million in space heading into the summer, but a boost up to $8.5 million offers Chicago the chance to add to their D-corps, add a veteran to their bottom-six if they so choose and even possibly enter the 2017-18 campaign with, dare we say, some cap flexibility. An unfamiliar spot for the Bowman’s Blackhawks, to be sure.
There may not be any team as thankful for a potential uptick in the upper limit as the Washington Capitals, though. The Capitals’ $22 million seems like a boatload of cap space heading into the summer, but it’s going to disappear in a hurry. Evgeny Kuznetsov could be a $6 million player next season, T.J. Oshie will be due a raise as he hits UFA status and the likes of Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik and Karl Alzner will also be eligible to hit the open market. Keeping them might come at a premium. That’s not to mention potential deals for Dmitry Orlov, Brett Connolly and Philipp Grubauer.
As colleague Ken Campbell pointed out, Washington is stacked right now and their Stanley Cup window has been blown wide open by the wealth of talent they possess, which was made all the more impressive with the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk. But the window is going to close at a rapid pace as players price themselves off the Capitals. That said, an increase in the cap of $2.5 to $3 million could allow Washington to hold onto one additional player from their extra group. Add in a cheap, effective addition or a standout season from a young player and the Capitals are right back in contention next season. It doesn’t hurt having a core group that includes Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, either.
These aren’t the only teams who will be thankful for an increase, however. The Detroit Red Wings need money to make some moves if they have designs on competing for a post-season spot next season and a cap increase could offer GM Ken Holland that flexibility. The Minnesota Wild need to worry about how much signing standout RFAs Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter is going to cost, and $2.5 million would ease GM Chuck Fletcher’s worries. The defending champion Penguins have 12 players — eight UFAs, four RFAs — hitting free agency in the summer. Adding a couple million to GM Jim Rutherford’s off-season fund could help him keep the secondary talent that makes Pittsburgh so strong.
And none of this is to even mention the expansion draft. While the Vegas Golden Knights aren’t likely to do anyone a favor by taking ugly, high-priced deals off the hands of some of the league’s best teams, the cap space teams clear by losing a roster player to Vegas could be enough to add another $1 million or more to the off-season coffers.
There’s no way to know exactly how much the cap will rise and Daly’s projection is only that, a projection, at this point. But with talk of a flat cap fading away, the collective sigh of relief from the league’s GMs could be near audible when next season’s cap figure is officially revealed.
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