Last week, I broke down which teams might sustain the most damage from the flat salary cap of $81.5 million in 2020-21. But which teams stand to benefit most?
Keep in mind, there are multiple ways to reap the rewards of cap space this off-season. Some teams can flex the money muscles in traditional ways to target marquee free agents or acquire expensive but useful players from teams looking to shed salary. That strategy make sense for any Stanley Cup contenders with cap space or also-rans hoping to improve drastically next season. An alternate game plan applies to the rebuilding teams: offering the cap space as a life preserver and taking on salary from desperate teams in exchange for sweeteners such as draft picks or prospects.
So which teams are set up to have the most fun with their cap space in the year of the flat cap? Consider these five. Actually…six. I couldn’t cut one of these teams from the list in good conscience.
1. LOS ANGELES KINGS
– 16 players signed for 2020-21
– Projected cap space: $20.74 million
– Projected LTIR players: None
The Kings have the least cap space on paper of the teams on this list, partially because they have more than $11 million tied up in dead-money payouts to Mike Richards, Dion Phaneuf and Ilya Kovalchuk. But they have the most players already under contract at 16, and they have no expensive negotiations looming this summer or next. General manager Rob Blake can commit his cap space wherever he wants. But if he follows the template of his old teammate Joe Sakic, the Kings may want to stay conservative one more off-season, during which they’ll add a franchise-altering talent with the No. 2 overall pick, likely one of Quinton Byfield, Tim Stutzle, or Jamie Drysdale. The Kings are only just bottoming out – this year will yield their highest draft pick since nabbing Drew Doughty second overall in 2008. They just started breaking in center Gabe Vilardi, Alex Turcotte just turned pro, and they have seven prospects tabbed as top-100 players by our Future Watch 2020 scouting panel.
So while the Kings have the money to add impact veterans right away, it’s more likely Blake does some combination of: (a) adding a couple flippable veterans on one-year pacts, (b) targeting some younger, building-block players on teams squeezed by the cap; and (c) taking on bad contracts in exchange for draft-pick compensation. Whatever path Blake chooses, it’s a good one. The Kings are not too deep into their rebuild, just two seasons removed from their last playoff berth, so they stand to benefit from the flat cap more than most teams.
2. DETROIT RED WINGS
– 11 players signed for 2020-21
– Projected cap space: $35.24 million
– Projected LTIR players: Henrik Zetterberg, $6.08 million
Finally, the Red Wings are saying goodbye to some of the pricey veteran pacts that have clogged up their cap space over the past few years. Between blueliners Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley and goaltender Jimmy Howard, all UFAs, that’s more than $11 million. Once Zetterberg’s cap hit gets stashed away on LTIR, GM Steve Yzerman will have more than $41 million to work with. Some of that will go toward extending two thirds of Detroit’s top line in RFAs Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi, but even if they sign long-term pacts with AAVs north of $5 million, Detroit will have the space to do damage.
The question is whether it’s too soon for Yzerman to get aggressive. Signing some top-tier UFAs or trading for a bunch of veterans with term left on their deals would risk putting Detroit right back where it was a couple years ago. Then again, this Wings roster is barren of talent, fresh off the lowest points percentage by any team in 20 years. It could thus use a few talented veterans, ideally on the right side of 30, to shepherd along the next wave of prospects which includes Filip Zadina, Moritz Seider and whomever Detroit nabs fourth overall at the 2020 draft.
A perfect target could be Michigan native Torey Krug, who grew up idolizing the Yzerman-era Wings. He’d be a great addition to a D-corps that could use a second puck-mover alongside Filip Hronek. With Howard likely to walk, Yzerman will need a veteran or NHL-ready netminder to pair with Jonathan Bernier. One advantage Detroit has over some of the other rebuilding markets: UFAs will trust Yzerman and follow him into battle. The Wings are less likely to have to pay a bad-team tax.
If Detroit stays conservative in free agency, Yzerman can look to acquire some bad contracts with a single year left on them in exchange for draft picks.
3. OTTAWA SENATORS
– 9 players signed for 2020-21
– Projected cap space: $39.60 million
– Projected LTIR players: Marian Gaborik, $4.88 million
Talk about a fresh start. Ottawa owns 12 or 13 picks in the 2020 draft, including the No. 3 and 5 overall picks and possibly another first-rounder if the New York Islanders don’t win the lottery for the No. 1 selection. The Sens have only nine players signed. Their cap space already sits close to $40 million and will expand once Marian Gaborik goes on LTIR again. Even factoring in some important RFAs needing new contracts in Anthony Duclair, Chris Tierney and Connor Brown, not to mention Brady Tkachuk’s extension, which will be signable starting this off-season and kicks in for 2021-22, there’s room for Pierre Dorion to play. Eugene Melnyk pledged in February a five-year plan of spending close to the cap starting in 2021, though that was before the COVID-19 pandemic swallowed hockey revenue whole, so it’s unknown if Melynk remains as gung-ho.
At least for one more off-season, the Senators still give off a scorched-earth-rebuild vibe rather than a flip-the-switch-and-contend vibe. They’re constructing an absolute monster of a prospect pool, soon to get even stronger after the 2020 draft. They thus seem more likely to go the route of taking on some salary to relieve troubled teams in exchange for more futures. Then again, you can only amass so many good young players, and Ottawa has a lot of them, including top defenseman Thomas Chabot, AHL rookie of the year Josh Norris and blue-chip blueliner Erik Brannstrom. So there’s something to be said for adding some helpful veterans to the room to help the kids learn how to win.
Since the franchise in its current state isn’t likely to attract big-ticket UFAs, Dorion’s best bet may be to make some trades. Ideal targets could be young-ish RFAs whose next contracts will price them out of their current cash-strapped markets: players like Tony DeAngelo, Kasperi Kapanen or Dylan Strome, for instance. That’s not to say those names are on the block – I’m just giving examples of the types of players Dorion could chase.
4. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
– 13 players signed for 2020-21
– Projected cap space: $26.25 million
– Projected LTIR players: none
Tom Fitzgerald, officially transitioned from interim GM to full-time GM, can focus his energy on an extension for breakout RFA goalie Mackenzie Blackwood – and there won’t be much heavy lifting to do with New Jersey’s existing roster after that. Say Blackwood signs a two- or –three year extension similar to, but likely cheaper than, what Matt Murray and Jordan Binnington got in recent seasons after winning Stanley Cups. Fitzgerald will have more than $20 million at his disposal, with only depth players like John Hayden or pre-breakout guys like Jesper Bratt to re-sign.
The Devils thus have potential to be a big stack at the poker table with their money…if they want to be. The last time they used their cap space to land a star player in hopes of seriously improving their playoff chances was last summer, when they got P.K. Subban. Since that move blew up in their faces, will the Devils be more tentative this time? Then again, acquiring Subban was previous GM Ray Shero’s move. Will it be a clean slate for a new GM to do whatever he wants? Like Yzerman in Detroit, Fitzerald could break either way, choosing to add talent in hopes of improving the Devils’ playoff odds or adding expiring deals to secure more draft-pick capital. It’s nice to have options.
5. COLORADO AVALANCHE
– 14 players signed for 2020-21
– Projected cap space: $22.36 million
– Projected LTIR players: none
The Avalanche are already one of the best teams in the NHL. In Future Watch 2020, our scouting panel ranked Colorado’s prospect group No. 1 in the NHL, led by Bowen Byram. On top of that, GM Joe Sakic has the amount of cap space typical of a rebuilding team, not a contender. It’s a fun time to be an Avalanche fan.
Colorado does have some important RFA contracts to figure out. Defenseman Ryan Graves broke out as a stay-at-home complement to Cale Makar’s swashbuckling game. Right winger Valeri Nichushkin, the fallen prospect, is a great post-hype story, emerging as one of the NHL’s top two-way forwards. Andre Burakovsky brought excellent secondary scoring and showed the ability to play higher in the lineup when injuries struck. Towering Nikita Zadorov brings physicality to the blueline in a depth role, though his future with the team is murky after multiple benchings by coach Jared Bednar this season.
Aside from perhaps Burakovsky, it’s likely none of that group, not to mention RFA Tyson Jost, has done enough yet to earn a long-term extension. Sakic can get them signed and still have money left to chase one more major addition. He’ll still have to set aside money for Makar, who will be eligible to sign an extension starting this off-season, and for Gabriel Landeskog, who enters the final season of his deal. Might Colorado thus be the perfect home for a top-end UFA looking to sign a one-year deal and try again at a big long-term pact next summer? A la Marian Hossa in 2008?
6. BUFFALO SABRES
– 10 players signed for 2020-21
– Projected cap space: $34.48 million
– Projected LTIR players: none
It should be an interesting off-season for Kevyn Adams, handed his first chance at being a GM after the Pegulas fired Jason Botterill. Buffalo has just four forwards signed for next season. Adams has a few important RFAs to sort out: Sam Reinhart has earned a long-term extension, Victor Olofsson has played his way into a bridge-deal raise, and 1A starting goalie Linus Ullmark needs a new contract. But if that trio combines to take up, say, $12 million in cap space, Adams will have plenty of cash left over.
What to do with it? The Sabres, like so many of the rebuilding teams, could use their cap space to bail teams out and score picks. But captain Jack Eichel’s public exasperation after opening his career with five straight playoff misses likely puts the heat on Adams to make this team a winner ASAP. That means Buffalo might be sneaky-aggressive in trades and free agency this summer. Then again, with so few bodies signed, it could be risky to break the bank on one or two impact players. And with the bad PR surrounding the team in recent months (years?), the Sabres also might have to overpay to lure any top-end UFAs.