Throughout the 2021 season, the New Jersey Devils ended up with the most cap space in the NHL as most teams were right up against the $81.5 million ceiling. This has been a point of contention among the some of the People Who Matter. After all, cap space does not play a position. Cap space cannot score goals or put up points or make plays. But cap space can be used to get players. And it can be used to take advantage of the many teams who do not have much of it. There will be teams who will be in a difficult position because it is not likely that the salary cap ceiling will rise above $81.5 million for next season. While the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs are on-going, we can begin to identify who the Devils can target to offer some budgetary relief - at a cost.
As one would normally I do, while Toronto was choking away a 3-1 series lead in Montreal on the night of May 29, I went to CapFriendly to see what every team’s cap projections were for 2021-22. At CapFriendly, this number includes all players on Long Term Injured Reserve and does not include any free agents or non-roster players. The majority of restricted free agents are re-signed by their teams, so the projected cap space they have may actually be smaller than it looks knowing they have RFAs to retain. Likewise, if they let all of the unrestricted free agents walk, then the team may have to sign players just to have enough players. For example, Carolina literally has no goalies on their current roster signed for 2021-22. They need to sign goalies. They have the space to do so, so they will - but that will eat into their projected cap space.
As one additional sticking point, as the playoffs are going on, there is no active roster limit or salary cap. So teams that were just eliminated like Pittsburgh or teams still active (which I put in italics) like the New York Islanders have more players called up than they normally would have. That makes their cap projection higher than what it would be during the regular season. This does not mean they have a lot of space; this is just a point of clarification.
That all stated, here is a chart organized by projected cap space as per the night of May 29, 2021 from CapFriendly for all 31 NHL teams.
2021-22 Cap Projections as of May 29, 2021
Again, both the Penguins and Islanders have way more than 23 players on their active roster. Once demotions are made, they’ll be in the black. Not that they are in any trouble.
At the opposite extreme, there is Detroit. Detroit has the most cap space in the NHL going into next season. They beat out the Devils by $11 million, which is remarkable. This is because they have just eight players signed for 2021-22. Five forwards, two defensemen, and a goaltender. That’s it so far. Of course, that will not last in this offseason. The Red Wings have 10 pending RFAs on their main roster, so they’ll be able to spend a big chunk of their $48.9 million to come close to icing an actual team.
Rather than go through all 30 teams - I went through the Devils in more detail last week with the internal RFAs - I want to highlight the teams that could use a lot of breathing room on their books for next season.
Cap-Strapped Teams Within the Division, so Unlikely to Target
While the divisional re-alignment has yet to be made official, I would expect the Devils to share the same division with the Capitals, Penguins, and Islanders in the following season. Therefore, I do not think either team wants to get help from the Devils knowing that a direct opponent could take advantage of them. Still, if I were GM Tom Fitzgerald, I would at least inquire with these three teams.
Washington - Key Free Agents: Alex Ovechkin (UFA), Ilya Samsonov (RFA)
The Capitals do not have a lot of free agents for the 2021 offseason. The issue is that should they let Zdeno Chara, Craig Anderson, and Henrik Lundqvist walk, they would need some depth players to replace their positions. Their goaltending, for better or worse, is set with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. Samsonov is a RFA this season and Vanecek will be one next season. With over $9 million in space, what’s the problem? The problem is Alex Ovechkin. He alone could command the vast majority (all?) of that space and leave the Caps in a tough bind. Ovechkin did not want to talk about his future in the wake of the Caps being eliminated from the playoffs, which is fair. I think both sides would want to keep Ovechkin with the Capitals for next season and beyond. But will Ovechkin do the Capitals a solid and take a paycut from his $9.5 million cap hit? If he does, then the Caps’ situation gets easier to manage. If not, then someone on that roster - Evgeny Kuznetsov? - is not going to be a Capital by September 15.
Pittsburgh - Key Free Agents: Zach Aston-Reese (RFA), Teddy Blueger (RFA), Radim Zohorna (RFA), Cody Ceci (UFA)
The Penguins currently have 20 forwards, 11 defensemen, and 5 goaltenders on their active roster. Getting under the $81.5 million is easy. It will not be easy to make those demotions and have enough money left to pay their RFAs. One of the Penguins’ strengths over the last 15 years has been identifying players in their system that can perform better than expected and have them thrive in the right situations. The problem is that those players will need to get paid. While each of Aston-Reese, Blueger, and Zohorna should not be too pricy to retain on their own, together it may all but take up whatever space is made from cutting the roster down to 23 players. This would lock out any potential improvements from the free agency market. Between this and Tristan Jarry’s playoff performance, I think some moves are going to be made in Western Pennsylvania to make the most out of Evgeni Malkin’s and Sidney Crosby’s twilight years.
New York Islanders - Key Free Agents: Anthony Beauvillier (RFA), Adam Pelech (RFA), Ilya Sorokin (RFA), Casey Cizikas (UFA)
I would worry about your cap, Lou. Look at those key free agents. Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech, and especially Ilya Sorokin have been the key reasons why the Isles made the playoffs, why they beat the Penguins in the first round, and why they may compete with Boston in the second round. As with the Penguins, cutting the roster down to 23 will open up space. But those RFAs, among the other ones, will command a lot more money. Beauvillier has flourished as a scoring forward; Pelech has become an important member of the blueline, and Sorokin is the #1 goalie on Long Island now. A lot of money will be spent on those three alone; money that may not be so available. Sure, letting the rented players like Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac walk, is doable. But that UFA list includes that vaunted member of the team’s Identity Line, Casey Cizikas. Making him a cap casualty will not be well received. This is where decisions like the J-G Pageau contract really start to rear their ugly head. It is party time now, but clean up is coming soon and no one likes to clean up.
Cap-Strapped Teams Outside of the Division, so Likely to Target
Tampa Bay - Key Free Agents: Blake Coleman (UFA), Barclay Goodrow (UFA), Cal Foote (RFA), Curtis McElhinny (UFA)
Oh, Tampa Bay. Even if the Lightning let all of their free agents go - which are not that significant beyond Coleman although they will need a goalie to back up Andrei Vasilevsky - they are projected to be $5 million over the cap. Even if they demote players to meet the 23 man roster limit, they likely will still be over as most of those non-roster players called up for the playoffs as spares need new contracts and therefore do not count against CapFriendly’s projection. Julien BriesBois of Tampa Bay knows this. There was a reason why Tyler Johnson and his $5 million cap hit was placed on waivers back at the Trade Deadline in April. The Lightning need to make space. And it may cost them a player (or players) since the Lightning just have their 2021 third rounder, 2022 first rounder, and 2023 picks within the first three rounds of the next three drafts. Of all 30 teams, Tom Fitzgerald should be targeting the Lightning first.
Chicago - Key Free Agents: Alexander Nylander (RFA), Nikita Zadorov (RFA), Pius Suter (RFA), David Kampf (RFA), Adam Gaudette (RFA)
Unless all of their RFAs want to sign for cap hits under $1 million, the Blackhawks will not have enough space to retain their RFAs. Given that Kampf had a $1 million cap hit last season and Zadorov had a $3.2 million cap hit, they do not have enough space. This is a bad spot for a bad team like Chicago to be in. Their team is not that good; their core is aging or injured; and they do not have the room in their budget to make significant improvements. A team with a ton of cap space could do the Blackhawks a favor - for a favor in return. A team like New Jersey could absolutely do that. I think they should. And since I would imagine draft picks would be off the table, perhaps inquiring about players like Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik, or Dylan Strome would be worth exploring. If they need to be sold on it, remind them that they need cap space for this season’s free agents and room for Adam Boqvist’s next contract in 2022.
Las Vegas - Key Free Agents: Alec Martinez (UFA), Mattias Janmark (UFA), Tomas Nosek (UFA)
The Las Vegas Golden Knights are really here because they have less than $3 million in cap space. They could let their pending UFAs walk and be generally fine. Their core is still intact. They are still a very good team with and without Martinez, Janmark, and Nosek. Still, offering them a little more relief could be something they may be interested in. They would need to should they want to be more active than trying to get their few pending free agents on cheaper deals, if at all. It is not until 2022 when things get a little more complicated for them anyway, but more cap space will also open up.
Teams with Under-the-Radar Issues to Target
Colorado - Key Free Agents: Gabriel Landeskog (UFA), Phillip Grubauer (UFA), Brandon Saad (UFA), Cale Makar (RFA), Tyson Jost (RFA)
With nearly $20 million cap space, what’s the issue with Colorado? The issue is that the money will go fast. Landeskog, Grubauer, and Saad could take up the lion’s share of that space just to keep them in Denver instead of hitting the open market. Landeskog has been the team’s captain for quite some time; he should be retained and will be paid handsomely to do so. With only Justus Annunen and Pavel Francouz on the books in the net, the Avalanche will need to pay Grubauer real well to keep that part of their team strong. Saad is part of the reason why the Avalanche are considered elite; he makes their team deeper and more offensively threatening. Makar and Jost should get big raises as their ELCs end this Summer. Those five alone will likely take up a lot of that $20 million. They could use some breathing room to either make a deal happen to improve their team or keep up with the rest of the league’s transactions. The Devils can help them out should they want it.
Vancouver - Key Free Agents: Elias Pettersson (RFA), Quinn Hughes (RFA), Alexander Edler (UFA), Travis Hamonic (UFA), Brandon Sutter (UFA)
Vancouver has $14.9 million in projected space to give deservedly large contracts to Pettersson and Hughes (their stars to lead them in the future) and either retain or replace Edler, Sutter, and Hamonic among others. Pettersson and Hughes alone will take up a massive chunk out of that near $15 million in cap space. And even if they let their UFAs walk, it will be a challenge to find suitable replacements at a reasonable cost. Throw in the fact that Vancouver has been consistently active, for better or worse, in free agency in recent seasons and this projected cap space is not that large. The Devils may be able to take advantage here. No, they will not get Quinn Hughes; but they could bring back some wingers. Perhaps some picks to go with it.
Florida - Key Free Agents: Sam Bennett (RFA), Anthony Duclair (RFA), Alexander Wennberg (UFA), Chris Driedger (UFA), Brandon Montour (RFA)
The Florida Panthers may be able to retain both Bennett, Montour, and Duclair for less than $9.6 million combined. A number that could rise as they reduce their roster to 23 men. They will each get deserved raises. It will be tough but it is possible. The issue is that it may come at the cost of other free agents within the team. Among them, Driedger was a revelation in the net and a stark contract to the $10 Million Anchor that is Sergey Bobrovsky. Spencer Knight could succeed him, but that is an unfortunate circumstance to see a player breaking out and then having them hit the market. At least that would allow Wennberg to possibly get a deserved raise? Maybe? If only there was a team with a lot of cap space in another division that could help reduce the difficulty of Florida’s choices for this and next season. A team like the Devils, perhaps.
Teams Stuck in the Doldrums to Target
San Jose - Key Free Agents: Ryan Donato (RFA), Patrick Marleau (UFA)
The Sharks have a bit over $11 million and plenty of pending RFAs to sign. Most will end up with the Barracuda in the AHL and almost all of them should be cheap to retain. The cap on its own is not an issue. The issue with San Jose (and the other two teams in this section) is that they are stuck in this position. Their locked into their core players. They may have enough space to maintain the status quo, but what’s the point of maintaining the status quo? The Sharks missed the postseason in their last two seasons and short of a rejuvenation of their big-money players, they are not likely going to make it any time soon. This is where the Devils can come in and “offer to help” them get started on the re-build the organization likely needs.
Calgary - Key Free Agents: Juuso Valimaki (RFA), Dillon Dube (RFA), Derek Ryan (UFA)
With $13.7 million in projected cap space, the Flames should have no issue retaining all of their RFAs and keeping even some of their pending UFAs like Derek Ryan. But for what? Like with San Jose, they have the space to keep everyone together but to do exactly what? To make a late charge to the playoffs and get bounced in the first round like in 2019-20? To miss the playoffs by quite a bit in 2021? It will not be until 2022 when some of the bigger contracts on the books will be coming off. When fans express their fear of a team being mediocre, a team too good to be truly bad but not good enough to even contend in the playoffs, then this is the squad they should be thinking of. As with San Jose, the Devils can come in to assist the rebuild this team likely needs. Or at least change something with them. Unless the owners are happy with being the less frustrating to follow team in Alberta, something surely has to change in Calgary, right?
Edmonton - Key Free Agents: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (UFA), Mike Smith (UFA), Tyson Barrie (UFA), Adam Larsson (UFA) Alex Chiasson (UFA), Dominik Kahun (RFA), Kailer Yamamoto (RFA)
It is rough to be an Edmonton fan. The organization has arguably the best player in the world in Connor McDavid, Germany’s answer to Jari Kurri, a 39-year old goalie playing out of his mind (and out-playing the 32-year old with a $4.5 million cap hit), and the team just got swept by Winnipeg. The frustration is real; just go read The Copper & Blue and feel the heat. I emphasize this because GM Ken Holland’s post-playoff press conference suggested that he thinks the team is good enough as-is and only needs tweaks. I guess? As it is, he wants to bring back Smith, kept calling Ryan Nugent-Hopkins “Daniel,” and admits to wanting more veterans. Yikes.
But the Oilers’ impending failures can be the Devils’ gains. Sure, they do not have any veterans to give them; but they can take the players Holland may be willing to sacrifice in the name of progress. As with Colorado, this is a team whose sizeable projected cap space could go away real fast. It is not so much with the RFAs, but should Holland bring back Smith and bring back others like Barrie, Larsson, Chiasson, and Nugent-Hopkins, the cap space will go real fast - and make James Neal’s and Zach Kassian’s contracts look even dumber on the books. The Devils can sell them on some relief. And with Edmonton owning all three of their top three picks in the 2022 draft, the Devils can try to improve themselves and load up for what could be a loaded 2022 draft class.
Wild Card Target Pending Tomorrow’s Results
Toronto - Key Free Agents: Travis Dermott (RFA), Zach Hyman (UFA), Nick Foligno (UFA), Alex Galchenyuk (UFA)
If Toronto blows a 3-1 series lead to Montreal and gets eliminated tonight, then Fitzgerald should immediately get on the phone with GM Kyle Dubas (or an assistant in line to replace Dubas) to “help” the panic that would likely erupt in that organization. Their cap isn’t so much a concern (or their pending free agents; they could all walk and be mostly fine), but selling them on the idea that getting rid of one of their big money players could show that you mean business in the wake of a playoff embarrassment could work. Don’t forget to ask for retained salary if it does. Hint: Mitch Marner and William Nylander do not have trade clauses.
Of course a lot can change between now and the beginning of the free agency period on July 28. Teams can find relief through dealings with others, not qualifying certain free agents, identifying players for LTIR status, or just dealing with being up against the salary cap ceiling. But the main point remains: there are multiple teams that the Devils could work with to turn New Jersey’s cap space into bigger gains. Some are within the division, some are outside of it, and some are not as obvious as it may be. Whether or not they do is up to Tom Fitzgerald, the other teams, and whatever is happening at the time of the conversations - should they happen.
Now I turn to you. Which cap-strapped teams do you want the Devils to target in 2021-22? Who or what should the Devils try to pry away from those teams? Were there any other teams I missed that will or could have cap issues this Summer? Do you even want the Devils to use their cap space as an asset in this offseason? Please leave your answers and other related thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.