It wasn’t the biggest news to come out of the NHL’s Board of Governors meetings — that title is held by the announcement and confirmation of expansion to Seattle — but commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday that the league could be in for another significant rise in the salary cap.
As has become routine at the Board of Governor meetings, Bettman met with media after the opening day to discuss a variety of topics, including, but not limited to, the future spending limit that will be imposed on teams. And asked to give a ballpark salary cap figure for the 2019-20 campaign, Bettman suggested that GMs can look towards a future with a maximum budget of $83 million.
“We looked a little bit at numbers, trying to refine our projections a little more in terms of what we think next year’s cap will look like for planning purposes, and while it’s an estimate, and some would call it a guess although we’ve been pretty good about this, we think it will be about $83 million, give or take,” Bettman told reporters. “Could be a million more, could be a million less.”
As Bettman noted, though, the $83-million figure is simply an estimate at this point in time, and while he seemed confident in the projection, there is still room for variance depending on how the rest of the season shakes out. He is correct, however, in asserting that the league has been fairly accurate when assessing the future cap at these meetings. But those taking that to mean that the cap is destined to rise the full $3.5 million from its current $79.5-million limit may want to exercise some caution.
Combing through past projections, the numbers offered either by Bettman at the Board of Governors meetings or reported in or around December of the season prior have often been very close to the actual number come the next season. For instance, last season’s projection was that the 2017-18 salary cap of $75 million would rise into the $78 million to $82 million-range come the 2018-19 campaign. It fell almost exactly between those two figures, too, with the current season’s cap set at the aforementioned $79.5-million limit. But it has often been the case in the past several seasons that the spending limit does fall slightly short of higher early season estimates.
To wit, the 2014-15 projection was $71 million, but the actual cap was set at $69 million. Likewise, projections pegged a potential rise to $73 million for the 2015-16 season, when the actual limit was $71.4 million. The next season, the league fell short of a reported $74 million projection, landing at on a $73 million cap for the 2016-17 campaign. In fact, the rise to $75 million ahead of the 2017-18 marks the only time the increase in the spending limit really exceeded expectations. On average, the actual salary cap has fallen roughly $800,000 short — little more than the cost of one league-minimum player — of the commonly projected figures across the past five seasons.
In saying that, though, it should be noted that a rise of $3.5 million that brings the league to an $83-million cap would actually represent a decline in the size of the cap increase. This season, following the introduction of the Vegas Golden Knights last season, the league saw a $4.5 million increase in the salary cap from the previous $75-million figure. That was the second-largest rise since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign and the biggest since the 2014-15 season. A $3.5-million increase would be somewhat in line with the $3.1-million average increase the league has seen since the salary cap was introduced in time for the 2005-06 season, as well.
So, while we won’t know the actual spending limit until sometime following the 2018-19 campaign, recent estimations compared with actual spending limits would point to Bettman’s announced $83-million projection being a good starting point. As he said, though, expect that to fluctuate a million dollars, maybe more and maybe less.
WHO BENEFITS THE MOST?
Not all teams will be impacted the same by an increase in the salary cap. Over the past several seasons, teams such as the Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators have repeatedly floated closer to the NHL’s spending floor than ceiling, and the projected addition of $3.5 million in cap space isn’t going to influence several teams — particularly those with internal budgets below the limit — all that much.
For several teams, however, extra cap space comes at a premium, and the opportunity to add a million dollars here or there can be the difference between retaining a quality player or needing to find a more cost conscious option, be it from the minor leagues, free agency or the prospect pool.
With that in mind, and using current salary cap projections for next season via CapFriendly, which five teams stand to benefit most if the NHL’s salary cap rises to $83 million?
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
No team is going to need spending space more than the Maple Leafs. After signing William Nylander to a six-year pact worth a hair shy of $7-million per season, Toronto is in line to have $56.28 million committed to 12 players next season and a handful of high-priced restricted free agents that will need new, big-money deals. Primarily, the Maple Leafs’ concerns are signing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and there’s little doubt the duo could cost upwards of $20 million.
With a flat cap, that would leave the Maple Leafs with $3.2 million to spend, so an additional $3.5 million could go a long way, especially with Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson and Igor Ozhiganov also due new deals as RFAs, not to mention Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey eligible for unrestricted free agency.
GM Kyle Dubas is going to need to get creative and make some sacrifices. He’ll welcome any additional spending room with open arms, but even that might not be enough to ensure no major changes come to the Maple Leafs’ roster.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff isn’t in quite the same boat as Dubas. He doesn’t have a pair of league-leading point producers that he needs to get under wraps before next season. He does, however, have to secure one of the top young goal scorers in the world, Patrik Laine, and then take care of a contract for Kyle Connor, a top-six scorer who is coming off of a 30-goal season.
Laine’s contract will be especially pricy, particularly if he continues to tear apart goalkeepers and chases down the Rocket Richard Trophy this season. Some project him to be another player who lands in the $10-million range, which seems all the more likely if he maintains his current 66-goal pace. As for Connor, his current pace, which puts him in line for another 30-goal season and a career-best 76 points, is going to see him command Nylander-esque payment. There’s almost no avoiding that comparison.
It’s not as if Winnipeg has much room with which to work, either. The Jets have $56.4 million tied up in 11 players for next season, leaving Cheveldayoff $23 million in wiggle room. And once he locks up Laine and Connor, the Jets GM still has to worry about RFAs Jacob Trouba, Nic Petan, Andrew Copp, Brendan Lemieux and Joe Morrow, not to mention a group of four UFAs that includes blueliner Tyler Myers.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Lightning are a usual suspect in these salary cap conversations, yet they’ve consistently managed to avoid any real trouble despite consistently being up against the upper limit. After years of suggesting a core piece might have to move, though, GM Julien BriseBois may be tasked with doing just that if he wants to avoid any drawn out contract battles with Brayden Point.
Tampa Bay’s versatile, high-scoring RFA forward has seen his stock shoot into the stratosphere thanks to a hot start and yet another season of solid two-way play for the Lightning, and that he could be in line for a raise into the $7 million-range, if not higher, is worrisome. If the cap were to stay flat, the Lightning wouldn’t have enough cap space to sign Point if he demanded more than $6.38 million. That makes Tampa Bay one of the few teams that, right now, would literally require a rise in the cap in order to retain one of their top players.
But signing Point and Point alone won’t be all the Lightning need to do. They’ll also have further RFA and UFA concerns to address, including a potential contract extension for veteran Anton Stralman. Having an additional $3.5 million in spending room would give the Lightning $9.8 million with which to work, but that won’t be enough to keep the entire group together. Someone will have to go.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
It all comes down to UFA decisions. Unlike the Lightning, Jets, Maple Leafs, whose biggest concerns are young players due raises, the Sharks have to battle against the open market and possible bidding wars when they look to retain the services of a few key players.
The most expensive deal of the bunch is likely to be that of Erik Karlsson, who has played excellently despite a lack of overall offensive production in San Jose. At the price the Sharks paid to land Karlsson, one would expect that management is going to be all-in on trying to retain his services, but there’s a good chance that his salary demands will be similar to that of Drew Doughty. That’s to say Karlsson could be seeking $11 million annually, which would consume nearly half of the Sharks’ projected cap space and leave $13.1 million to sign the following UFAs: Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi, Lukas Radil and Marcus Sorensen. The big concerns, obviously, are Pavelski and Thornton, who are earning a combined $11 million this season. A raise for one or both almost certainly runs the Sharks out of money.
San Jose can probably trim some fat and get creative to get around the constraints of the cap, but it’s not going to be easy, which is why a decent-sized rise in the spending limit will be a gift for GM Doug Wilson.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The big concern entering the off-season is the contract due to William Karlsson, who isn’t quite tearing up the scoresheet like he was last season but remains one of the most sneaky-good two-way pivots in the league and is on pace for another 25-goal, 60-point season. If he puts up points at that rate, he’s going to be in line for a long-term deal that pays him more handsomely than his current one-year, $5.5-million pact, and that’s not great news for a team with $7.3 million in cap space.
Let’s say Karlsson’s next pact takes up $6.5 million. That leaves Vegas with $800,000, which is projected to rise to $4.3 million with the cap increase. The Golden Knights will need to use that money to either retain UFAs Oscar Lindberg, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Daniel Carr, Ryan Carpenter and Deryk Engelland, as well as RFAs Malcolm Subban and Tomas Nosek, or let them walk.
That leaves no room for off-season improvement, either, at least not without some wheeling and dealing by GM George McPhee. He, like several other of his team-building counterparts, is going to want as much wiggle room as he can get.