Salary Cap Was Big Winner of NHL Free Agency

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The NHL Offseason is hitting the point where things are slowing down to a crawl after the intial surge of the Free Agency period opening on July 1st.

Throughout the years we have seen a lot of mistakes made on July 1st as teams over spend for players and then within a year or two are looking to dump their contract onto someone else. However, this season without a strong free agent class, one thing has been noticeable how tight teams are being with their check book.

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A big reason for that is the salary cap. As it was announced prior to the NHL Draft the salary cap was only going up by a $1 million this year from $82.5 million to $83.5 million. While the number might seem large to the normal person, in the NHL world that is not much at all.

Thus we have seen teams prior to the start of NHL Free Agency find new ways to find that extra money necessary to keep their team together. Some teams have been luckier than others, but most of the contending or playoff teams from a year ago are right up against the salary cap.

Thus we have seen teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers sign players to league minimum deals to fill out their roster. For example, the COVID salary cap has hit the Lightning the hardest. Over the years, we have seen them lose players like Ryan McDonagh, Corey Perry, and Pat Maroon via trade with Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn leaving via free agency.

That is because the NHL salary cap is the biggest winner of the Free Agency period. It is not one team. Though some teams made good signings adding some nice players. However, the salary cap has limited what other teams can do. Thus those contending teams scratching and clawing to find that extra dollar.

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In the offseason teams can go over the salary cap by 10 percent. However, once the season begins they have to be cap compliant. And then the salary cap goes away in the playoffs. And while fans get on certain teams cases about using LTIR (long-term injured reserve) it is all legal on the CBA (collective bargaining agreement).

But back to NHL Free Agency for a minute. We have seen a team like the New Jersey Devils who had $34 million in cap space get dwindled down to about $5.6 million because of the players they re-signed (Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier) and traded for in Tyler Toffoli and Colin Miller. Other teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Arizona Coyotes, and Anaheim Ducks are signing players to bigger contracts just to get to the cap floor.

Then there are the players betting on themselves and looking ahead to when the salary cap does go up for next year’s NHL Free Agency period. Take the examples of Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, Dmitry Orlov, and Jason Zucker. There are others who did the same thing or were only offered one-year deals because of the salary cap, but let’s focus on those players for a minute.

All four of those players wanted long-term deals, but instead opted for one-year deals at good money. Though all four players wanted a better AAV on their contract, but the salary cap just wouldn’t allow it. Orlov might be the exception getting $7.75 million on an AAV with the Carolina Hurricanes over two years. But again it is just a two-year contract. He was looking for a longer deal with Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins just could not afford him.

The salary cap is also affecting the potential trades we thought we were going to see during the NHL Draft and the start of free agency. Yes, Ryan Johansen, Kevin Hayes, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Toffoli got moved. However, three of those trades teams really did not get anything in return. The Dubois trade Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff got the most he could get, but the value coming back was not equal to the talent of Dubois.

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Thus Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson, and Alex DeBrincat have yet to be moved. Teams are trying to figure out ways to get their contracts in and what extensions will be like not knowing how much the salary cap will go up over the next several seasons. This is another reason why we have yet to see Vladimir Tarasenko and Matt Dumba sign with a team yet. Not to mention the other notable players still on the free-agent market.

Yet, the Vegas Golden Knights find a way. So it can be done. But in the current world the NHL lives in, no one team won NHL Free Agency. It was Commissioner Gary Bettman’s salary cap that did.