James Neal Image by: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images
The Nashville Predators have never had to worry about going over the salary cap. But after their playoff run to the Stanley Cup final, that's about to change.
Space under the salary cap has never really been an issue for the Nashville Predators. For many years they were too busy just trying to survive, never mind getting anywhere near the upper limit of the salary cap.
But it looks as though those days may be coming to an abrupt end, which is one of the byproducts of getting to the Stanley Cup final. With solid ownership in place and a good sponsor base, sellouts every night and 11 home playoff dates, spending is no longer the issue it once was in Music City. But getting under the salary cap? Well, that promises to be a different story, one that should play out in a fascinating way between now and the NHL draft.
So if it turns out the Predators do end up leaving James Neal exposed in the expansion draft, it won’t be because they don’t like him as a player. It will be more because he’s scheduled to make $5 million next season, while a player such as Calle Jarnkrok would be more valuable to them because he has four years left on his deal at just $2 million per season.
Prior to the Stanley Cup final, Predators GM David Poile was talking about how teams often get squeezed by the salary cap. “You can see it around the league,” Poile said, “and I’m not saying we’re not going to be there at some point. We’re going to be there very quickly. I mean, we re-sign (Ryan) Johansen and (Viktor) Arvidsson and we’re right there. We’re planning for it. Each year there are probably 10 or 12 teams that have cap issues that restrict them from doing certain things.”
And as Poile said, that day of reckoning is coming for the Predators. And soon. As it stands right now, the Predators have approximately $16.5 million in cap space remaining for next season. But that does not include contracts for restricted free agents Johansen, Arvidsson, Austin Watson, Pontus Aberg and Frederick Gaudreau. The Predators would also like to re-sign captain Mike Fisher, who’s an unrestricted free agent. So that money is going to go really quickly.
Let’s start with the two big fish, Johansen and Arvidsson. With Johansen, things are fairly straightforward. In his last contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, which came after long, ugly and protracted fight with the team, Johansen’s agent negotiated a deal that would see him make only $3 million in each of the first two years of the deal, a salary which went up to $6 million this season. That’s significant because with Johansen one year away from unrestricted free agency, the Predators are going to have to give him a qualifying offer of at least one year at $6 million to keep his rights. If they want to negotiate a longer-term deal with him, say five or six years, the cap hit might even be higher than that. If it’s the full eight years, it might be a little lower, but you’re looking somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million.
Arvidsson has arbitration rights and is coming off an outstanding breakout season, but probably doesn’t have enough experience to hit the same kind of home run in arbitration. It’s more likely that Arvidsson signs a longer-term deal for between $4 million and $5 million a year. So that’s somewhere in the $11-million range for two players right there.
That leaves Watson, Gaudreau and Aberg, all of whom were brilliant at different times during the playoffs. Gaudreau and Watson both have arbitration rights, but neither is likely to go because neither has a very good case. (Although the Predators could take one of them to arbitration if they choose.) Aberg has no arbitration rights, so he’s basically going to have to take what the Predators give him or sit out.
Then there’s Fisher, who earned an average of $4.4 million last season and turned in a very respectable 18-goal, 42-point performance in his first year as captain after taking over for Shea Weber. He didn’t score a goal in the playoffs, but Preds coach Peter Laviolette lauded him throughout the post-season for his defensive play and leadership. And whether the Predators will admit it or not, the fact that he is married to country music superstar Carrie Underwood is a huge public-relations boon for the team, one that probably can’t be quantified strictly in dollars. Chances are, though, at the age of 37, Fisher is going to have to take a hometown discount to stay in Nashville, and he likely will.
But even if that’s the case, that cap space is going to go pretty quickly, which means it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Neal might be exposed. In any event, the Nashville Predators have grown up and are about to experience the financial issues that come with that.