The NHL salary cap is a hard cap with plenty of nuances that every NHL team takes advantage of one way or another. As cap compliance is a daily requirement, it can explain why some players get called up or demoted, and others do not. As teams are limited to 50 contracts on the books, that may explain why a random minor leaguer you probably have not heard of was thrown into a trade. As a trade deadline gets closer, chatter about teams being on the market to move an otherwise useful player increases because it is possible that team cannot afford him in the future. The salary cap plays a role in a lot of what a team does.
For as much as one can be critical of Ray Shero and Tom Fitzgerarld, they have been very wise to watch their spending as the team’s re-build has continued. One of the worst positions for a team to be in is to be bad and unable to do too much to make it better because of too many contracts on the books taking up too much money. Once again, the Devils are in a position to enter this offseason with a plethora of cap space. I will point out that the Devils will not be - and were not last season - one of the teams with most space available. New contracts for Jesper Bratt and Miles Wood alone will eat up a good chunk of the $25 million in space projected for next season. But they should have more than enough to be a player in free agency, acquire a player on a sizeable contract, or even acquire someone who will command a hefty sum based on their qualifying offer alone. It is not the old days of being willing to take on a bad contract for a sweet draft pick, but it is leveraging their cap space to make a deal that some other teams may not be able to offer.
This brings us to the recent rumors for Kevin Fiala. It is more than just New Jersey involved. According to CapFriendly, if Minnesota does absolutely nothing this offseason, then they will have roughly $3.5 million in cap space. They obviously will re-sign some of their restricted free agents and fill in any gaps from unrestricted free agents leaving the team. The problem is that Fiala is one of those restricted free agents. He made $5.1 million last season. His qualifying offer -the amount the Wild have to offer to keep his rights - must be $5.1 million. The Wild do not have $5.1 million in cap space. That is the problem - and the whole league knows it. Add in the fact that Fiala just dropped a 33-goal, 85-point season and many teams are absolutely preparing offers for his services. The Wild could keep him. However, they would have to create more space to do so as well as have the space to do all of the other signings they need to make to have a full roster. Again: The salary cap plays a role in a lot of what a team does.
The Wild are not alone as a team that will need to be very judicious with their spending this offseason. This past season saw nearly half the league be compliant on the basis of using Long Term Injured Reserve to grant temporary space to stay under the $81.5 million limit last season. This season’s ceiling will be $82.5 million. Except it will be less for the several teams with bonus overages. The Wild are not the only team with cap problems that a team like New Jersey can exploit to make themselves better. As of Thursday night, I pulled the following information from CapFriendly to identify who those teams are.
- The projected cap number is based on who is up with the NHL team. As the playoffs are ongoing, this number may change for a few of them. Not by much as most call-ups are on relatively cheaper deals, but it may add some slight breathing room.
- The projected cap number assumes that anyone who is a free agent is not signed and therefore does not count against it. For example, Bratt, Wood, and Zacha (among others) are not signed so they do not takeaway from the $25 million or so the Devils have.
- Teams are allowed to go above the cap ceiling by 10% in the offseason. They must be compliant before the regular season.
- Some teams will use Long Term Injured Reserve to grant temporary relief. The player has to be judged as unfit to play to do so.
- Teams are limited to 50 standard player contracts (SPCs). 18 and 19 year old players who have entry-level contracts can not be counted against the 50 contract limit, provided their ELC slides. Keep this in mind as prospects and minor leaguers get NHL deals. This number can shoot up fast if not kept in check.
This is all to say that much can change between now and July 13 and later September 15. Use the following a guide as well as a rationale as to why the Wild need to move someone if not Kevin Fiala.
I have shaded teams in red, yellow, and green. Red for the teams with very real cap issues on the surface. Yellow for the teams that could be in trouble and may want some extra room. Green for the teams that are generally OK for the moment. That I can name 10 teams out of 32 with cap issues gives you a sense of how many different directions the Devils could go in helping someone else out. Likewise, do not bother with trying to give relief to Arizona, Detroit, or Anaheim with their $30+ million in cap space. Pittsburgh, Calgary, and Colorado - well, that if only they splash an exorbitant amount of money with their re-signings.
The Teams With Apparent Cap Issues
I already went over Minnesota. Here are some takes on the other nine teams I put in red.
- Montreal technically has no space for next season already. They finished 32nd. This is Bad. Sure, Shea Weber can be put on LTIR and that will help with Shane Wright’s ELC and some other minor signings. But really bad teams should aim to be better and not having any room to do so is A Problem. Fitzgerald, Take Note: Montreal is a great reason why you do not want to overpay or overcommit to mediocre players. Those deals to Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, Joel Armia, David Savard, and Joel Edmundson look rough now.
- Tampa Bay also technically has no space for next season already. They are contending for Cups, though. And I presume Brent Seabrook will go right back to LTIR. Even if they want to let Jan Rutta, Nick Paul (the Hero of Game 7 in Toronto), Riley Nash, and Ondrej Palat walk, they still need space to sign players and $6.875 million may be tight to do it.
- Las Vegas cracked $91 million in cap used for 2021-22, had 6 players on LTIR, and missed the postseason. Those 6 may be back and healthy, so room is going to be needed. Evgeny Dadonov was to be traded at the deadline, but that was cancelled. Moving his $5 million cap hit is a start. I would expect some others to be made (Robin Lehner? Chandler Stephenson? Alec Martinez?).
- Boston is the first team on this list with a little room for next season. Less than $2 million is little. This number will go up a little when guys are re-assigned to Providence, but not by a whole lot. Remember that their projected cap space assumes their free agents are not signed, so if Patrice Bergeron calls it a career, it does not help Boston here. I see some Bruins defenders making a not-insignificant sum of money that could be moved, but that’s a guess. They could also move on from Craig Smith or Erik Haula for more relief. The major forwards will be harder to move as they each have some kind of clause.
- Toronto lost in the first round of the playoffs. Again. In a Game 7. Again. On their home ice. Again. Toronto was outstanding in this season but something surely has to give, right? Even after demoting their Marlies call-ups, the team is only going to have a couple of million dollars more to play with than the $2.2 million they have now. They still have to pay Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin, Tim Liljegren, and Pierre Engvall; figure out their goaltending as Jack Campbell is a pending UFA; find replacements for some of the other UFAs moving on; and try to do something to change something in Toronto. The William Nylander Rumor Mill may heat up again. And maybe even more if management wants to change more than just a few spare parts. If they blow it all up out of frustration, then the Devils may want to be there to pick up a piece or two.
- Everyone will bag on Minnesota for a stupefying amount of dead cap space. But did you know that Florida is a runner up in that category? That $6.575 million doing nothing will hinder attempts to get better. Thanks Keith Yandle and Scott Darling. They thankfully do not have too many RFAs that need to get paid. I am going to suggest they should try to keep Claude Giroux, though. And their entire depth on defense. Their projected $3.9 million in space may not be enough to do that, much less add anyone from the open market this July.
- Oooooh, San Jose. Doug Wilson stepped down in April. The team is clearly in a state where they need to start over and build from anew. Having just $5.667 million in space to start is not optimal. They also have 8 pending RFAs. Some will be demoted to the Barracuda, but if they call up players to replace them, then that takes up space too. The combined $25.5 million in space between Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic for the next four seasons is a painful weight on the books. This may mean the Sharks may need to make space elsewhere. Surely, the Devils should ask about Timo Meier’s availability? He’s under contract for one more season and another $6 million in space should suit a re-building team like San Jose nicely. I am sure Nico Hischier would put in a good word for Meier.
- Philadelphia is not a likely trade partner. And they are just barely in the red on the account of having less than $6 million in cap space while also being a bad team. They could re-sign their RFAs without getting too close to the ceiling. They could also get better with a healthy Ryan Ellis and Sean Couturier. But they cannot get a whole lot better because they are mostly stuck with a heap of bad contracts. Like the Rasmus Ristolainen deal (He’s extended at $5.1 million! Why!), Kevin Hayes ($7.142 million per season for five more seasons! Why!), Cam Atkinson ($5.875 million for the next four! Why!), and even the deals for Oskar Lindblom and Scott Laughton (30ish point seasons for $3 million per season! Why!).
- Dallas is in the red? Yes. While they have $13 million and change in projected space and can pick up a couple more after demotions to the Texas Stars, their RFAs include Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger. One of their top scorers (and someone who helped rejuvenate Joe Pavelski) and their #1 goalie. Those two alone can (and should!) eat up a massive part of that projected cap space. Enough to make them concerned about their breathing room. Enough to mean John Klingberg (among others) may have to walk this Summer. If they have designs on competing for the playoffs again and hoping for a run, then they may need to make some additions this offseason - and offload some talent to do it.
The Teams With to Watch for Developing Apparent Cap Issues
I highlighted four teams as teams to watch for. They have plenty of space that I think they can be OK with the status quo. But if they start to spend extra or decide that, well the playoffs did not go so well in 2022, so they must do more than the status quo, then they could hit a ceiling real fast.
- Edmonton should have enough space to re-sign Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Ryan McLeod. Their pending UFAs will all mostly walk. But if they are retained all but Evander Kane could be had for cheaper than their current deals. They may have enough in their system to replace them without missing too much of a beat. Yet, if Edmonton feels they need to spend big on a goalie or give Kane a hefty sum of money to stay or do something more to Get Where They Want to Be, that projection of nearly $7.2 million may get real tight, real fast. NJ can help with this.
- NJ will not likely help Our Hated Rivals. And why should they? Sure, their projected number will rise a bit after some guys get sent back to Hartford. Even without that, they could likely re-sign Kaapo Kakko, Alexandar Georgiev, Libor Hajek, Samuel Blais, Julien Gauthier, and Tim Gettinger to new deals for all less than $7.3 million. It may be tight but they can do it. Their issue is the UFAs. Ryan Strome, Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, and Justin Braun can all walk if they wanted to. One could argue that they should not. But they might be able to get away with it. And should they move Georgiev, then they will have the space to keep one (two?) of those. This is a situation that could go red fast, but may not.
- Washington is another division opponent and therefore is not a team the Devils need to “help” as their suffering would help New Jersey. The Caps got beaten in the first round of the playoffs by Florida. As good as they were, they still had the final seed in the East. The team’s best players are not getting any younger. And their pending RFAs are the two goalies that few have confidence in: Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. If they can be had for relatively cheap deals, then their $8.9 million projected cap hit will not likely be an issue. They may even have the space to keep Justin Schultz from hitting the open market. But if the goalies want more, or the Caps management feel they need to do more to shake up an aging core, then that money can also go fast.
- Carolina is similar to Dallas in that their projected cap hit number is high - but anyone who looks at their pending free agents knows that number will not be that high for 2022-23. Carolina’s RFAs include Anthony DeAngelo, Ethan Bear, and Martin Necas. Those three alone will take up a hefty chunk of that pending cap space of nearly $19.3 million. Their pending UFAs include Nino Neiderreiter, Vincent Trocheck, and Max Domi. Neiderreiter has been a mainstay of the Canes for the last three seasons. Trocheck seemingly fits their team like a glove. Domi may have earned a raise just for his brace in Game 7 alone. That $19.3 million could go away real fast. They may need some relief depending on how aggressive they want to be on the market.
I neatly put St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Colorado, and Calgary in this area. St. Louis has less than $10 million in projected cap space. They do only have two RFAs to re-sign in Scott Perunovich and Niko Mikkola. Their UFA list is more substantial in David Perron, Nick Leddy, and Ville Husso. But the Blues may let some go and have the money to keep a few if needed.
Also: I nearly did the same for Pittsburgh, Colorado, and Calgary. I did not as each have well over $20 million in projected cap space for next season. They also have some massive players coming out of contract. Pittsburgh’s UFAs include Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust. Colorado’s include Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Darcy Kuemper, and Valeri Nichushkin. Calgary has Andrew Mangiapane (who just dropped 35 goals and 55 points) Matthew Tkachuk needing a new deal as a RFA and their other 100+ point scorer, Johnny Gaudreau, is a pending UFA. Oh, and half of the Flames blueline are also coming out of contract. These teams should probably keep these players as they are really good and have been good for them. These players will not return cheaply. In fact, they may not all return due to potential cap constraints. That would beef up the UFA market for July 13. But if these teams are able to come to terms, then they may need to make some space elsewhere. And, again, a team like the Devils can swoop in. The main point remains: The salary cap plays a role in a lot of what a team does.
While I expect Fiala rumors to keep going for the next two months, I hope this post shows that the Devils do not need to necessarily pick apart the Wild for players. There are several other teams who will have some real tricky offseasons when it comes to managing their salary cap. There are even a few teams that could make it work as-is but could quickly need relief if they are not careful.
Even with the Devils’ own free agents to sign, I expect Fitzgerald to be fairly prudent with respect to the cap. Enough so he can take advantage of teams who have not been for a variety of reasons. Fitzgerald and the team has repeated the line about wanting to do whatever it takes to get better. This is one way to do so. Knowing which teams may be uncomfortably close to the cap ceiling for next season as right now in May will help with that.
What do you think of the list of team’s projected cap hits for next season? Do you agree that the teams in red can be exploited? Or that the teams in yellow should be careful? Is there another team that could be targeted in this way that I may have missed? Who else should the Devils inquire other than Fiala from Minnesota? (My first choice: Meier from San Jose.) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about teams to target for trades in the comments. Thank you for reading.