The Tampa Bay Lightning will be in tough with their restricted free agents.
There have been several reports the salary cap could stay flat next season, and no rise in the upper limit will leave several teams with tough decisions ahead of the 2017-18 season.
No set salary cap figures have been released for the 2017-18 season and it’s unlikely GMs — armchair or otherwise — will know exactly what confines each team will have to work within for the upcoming campaign until after the Stanley Cup is awarded this season.
However, reports throughout this season, the most recent of which came from the New York Post’s Larry Brooks, have indicated that teams could be seeing a stagnant salary cap for the first time in several years. The last time the cap stayed flat, or close to it, was from the 2008-09 season to the 2009-10 campaign, over which time the upper limit rose by a mere $100,000. In addition, the 2011-12 cap and the 2013-14 cap, seasons which bookended the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, had matching upper limits of $64.3 million.
If it comes to pass that there’s no rise in the cap — or, worse yet, a decrease — there are several teams who could find themselves in an extremely uncomfortable bind, but there are five clubs who will be in an especially unfavorable position. So, how do those five franchises navigate some choppy cap waters?
DETROIT RED WINGS
Projected Cap Space: $6.1 million
The Red Wings find themselves in the Eastern Conference basement, but that’s not because they’ve been thrifty when it comes to stocking their roster. Matter of fact, it’s been quite the opposite, and if it hasn’t already, the big money owed to veteran players could really start to have a negative impact come next season should the cap remain relatively flat.
Currently, the two highest paid players on the Red Wings roster are 36-year-old Henrik Zetterberg and 31-year-old Mike Green, both of whom carry cap hits around $6 million. That’s not to mention the $4.75 million that’s set to be handed out annually to 36-year-old Niklas Kronwall for the next two campaigns, nor the $4.25 million owed to 32-year-old Jonathan Ericsson in each of the next three seasons. Together, those four players — all 30-plus and all exiting their prime — account for nearly 30 percent of the salary cap.
With the space the Red Wings do have remaining, they’re going to have to find a way to lock up a few key free agents, both of the restricted and unrestricted variety. Notably, RFAs Tomas Tatar and Andreas Athanasiou will be due new deals come the end of the season, as well as defensemen Xavier Ouellet and Nick Jensen. Tatar is going to be the most costly of the bunch, seeing as he’s in the final year of a deal that pays him $2.75-million, and he’s been a consistent 20-goal, 40-point player in the years since. His deal alone could account for half of what the Red Wings have available, meaning money will be tight to hand big raises to Athanasiou, Ouellet or Jensen.
There’s also UFA Thomas Vanek, who has been a revelation for Detroit after inking a one-year, $2.6-million deal in the off-season. Vanek, 33, is leading the Red Wings with 13 goals, he’s second on the team with 33 points and his points per game rate is the best of anyone on the club.
Like every team in the league, Detroit will shed one player this coming off-season due to the expansion draft, but there’s no guarantee it’s a player that helps them shed major salary. That means just about the only course of action for the Red Wings will be finding a way to clear up some space in goal. With Jimmy Howard earning nearly $5.3 million and Petr Mrazek carrying a $4 million cap hit, the Red Wings have far too much money locked up in goal for a team fighting the cap. Detroit would also do well to find some way, any way, out of the Ericsson contract. The deal has become a burden, and the younger defensemen like Ouellet, Jensen and Ryan Sproul could benefit greatly from the opportunity to take bigger minutes.
Projected Cap Space: $6.4 million
You can’t have a discussion about salary cap issues without mentioning the Blackhawks, and for what feels like the millionth time, Chicago is set to be in another bind when it comes to the cap. The Blackhawks made another short-term, two-year commitment to Artemi Panarin, inking him to a deal that pays $6 million annually. It was a necessary move for the Blackhawks — for once, they get to keep a young star around — but it ate up half of the cap space the team had heading into next season.
Where the Blackhawks are likely to benefit is from the expansion draft, and chances are Chicago opens up close to another million in cap space when the Vegas Golden Knights pluck a player out of the Windy City. The most beneficial move for the Blackhawks would see the Golden Knights select Marcus Kruger, who’s earning nearly $3.1 million this season while skating fourth-line minutes, but it’s unlikely Vegas bites on a high-priced defensive center. Selecting someone like Trevor van Riemsdyk might make more sense in the cap world.
Even still, the savings there will help, because Chicago has to worry about a few important pieces in the off-season. For instance, Brian Campbell, who has played well in his return to Chicago, will have the opportunity to come back next season as a free agent and backup goaltender Scott Darling, who has had some great moments as a Blackhawk, will be up for a new deal. There are also a number of RFAs who’ll be in line for raises.
Both Dennis Rasmussen and Tanner Kero have become bottom-six pieces for the Blackhawks to play with and both are due new contracts for next season, and Richard Panik, he of 11 goals and 22 points, will likely be looking for a raise on the one-year, $875,000 deal he signed to remain in Chicago.
Of course, this completely overlooks the necessary additions Chicago is going to need to make if they intend to really, truly compete for another Stanley Cup again. Another defenseman who can be relied upon for big minutes in Joel Quenneville’s system is a near must, and Bowman desperately needs to find a winger who can fit in Chicago’s top six alongside Jonathan Toews. That spot has been a revolving door since Brandon Saad left.
It’s going to be near impossible for the Blackhawks to really clear up any room for themselves, however. Niklas Hjalmarsson is the only moveable piece on the back end, and that would be an ill-advised move as he’s arguably the second-best rearguard in Chicago. And while trading Brent Seabrook would potentially work, it’s likely impossible due to his no-movement clause. And, no, the Blackhawks can’t move Corey Crawford. He’s been the backbone of the team as they start to inject more youth into the lineup.
Altogether, the tough cap situation likely means it’s going to be another year of relying on the kids for the Blackhawks in 2017-18.
Projected Cap Space: $11.4 million
Minnesota’s cap situation is tight, but their expansion draft scenarios are even worse. It’s almost a guarantee that the Wild are going to lose a legitimate top-four defenseman in order to save some of the talent they’ve stocked up on up front. For example, Minnesota needs to protect all of Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Erik Haula, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba. Those are nine, prime-aged players, and there’s simply not the room to protect them all.
Even worse, though, is that losing one of them doesn’t really help all that much in terms of the salary cap. Say the Wild lose Brodin, which seems like possibly the safest bet, at $4.17 million per season. That puts the Wild up to $15.57 million in cap space, but leaves them with a hole to fill on the back end with Brodin gone and new contracts due to three lineup regulars in Granlund, Niederreiter and Haula. None of those deals are going to be cheap. Granlund’s especially.
Through 52 games, Granlund has been on a tear, putting up 15 goals and 48 points to lead the Wild in scoring. He’s on pace for a 24-goal, 76-point campaign, and if he reaches those marks, he would almost doubled his goal output and his point total will have risen by close to 30 points. Already earning $3 million, it’s not far fetched to say he’s going to be worth $5.5 million come the off-season. That’s more than a third of Minnesota’s available cap space.
Then comes Neiderreiter, who is leading the Wild with 17 goals and is on pace for a near 30-goal season after two-straight 20-goal campaigns. Earning $2.667 million this season, he could be in line to be a $3.5 to $4-million player. That would leave Minnesota about $6 million and change to work with, and this doesn’t account for a new deal for Haula, what it might cost to bring back Mike Reilly, nor the price of inking a backup to stick around and play second-string to Devan Dubnyk.
Minnesota has to be awfully smart in how they maneuver in the off-season, too, because a longer look at things doesn’t put the Wild’s cap situation in a better light. Come 2018-19, there has to be concern about a new deal for captain Mikko Koivu, who will be coming off a $6.75-million cap hit, an RFA deal and likely raise for Jason Zucker, who is earning $2 million, and the next deal for Matt Dumba, who has a cap hit of $2.55 million this season and next. There’s not going to be an expansion draft to open up any extra funds in 2018-19, either.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Projected Cap Space: $13.8 million
Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman managed to steer his club through a tough cap situation this past off-season by signing Steven Stamkos to a relatively team-friendly eight-year, $68-million contract and failing to blink in negotiations with Nikita Kucherov, eventually signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal with an annual cap hit of $4.77 million. Yzerman likely won’t be as lucky in his negotiations this time around.
Come the off-season, two of the Lightning’s best young players, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, will be RFAs, and with both already earning $3.333 million, you can bet they’re in line for a raise that would earn them close to $4.5 million each. That alone accounts for $9 million of any available cap space the Lightning have next season, and that’s only the start of the tough negotiations. Once Johnson and Palat are signed, Yzerman’s focus will need to shift to Jonathan Drouin, who is also set to become an RFA and is in the midst of his breakout season.
So far, through 46 games, Drouin is the third-highest scorer on the Lightning with 34 points, his 16 goals are second only to Nikita Kucherov and Drouin’s 18 helpers are fourth on the team. He’s consistently skating second line minutes, has been dynamite on the power play and is a near constant offensive threat. He’s in line for a raise, and it could cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million on a short-term bridge deal to get Drouin back next season.
Those three RFA contracts combined will eat up just about all the cap space the Lightning have free, and that’s before second pairing defenseman Andrej Sustr gets his new deal, before the Lightning get themselves a backup goaltender for Andrei Vasilevskiy and before Tampa Bay even is able to consider bringing back veteran center Brian Boyle.
Unlike the Wild, it’s no given the Lightning can find the room to maneuver through a flat cap thanks to the expansion draft. The likely targets for the Golden Knights will be low-cost young players, which means one of Vladislav Namestnikov, J.T. Brown or Cedric Paquette could be a target.
What the Lightning need to do is find a way to get rid of Valtteri Filppula or Ryan Callahan. Combined, the two 30-plus players earn $10.8 million, and Filppula, who has been the more effective of the two players over the past few seasons, is actually the cheaper of the pair. He’d be easier to move, too. The trouble is that his trade options are limited to less than half the league thanks to a no-trade clause, and moving a $5 million cap hit is never easy. But if the Lightning want to ensure they can keep the band together for years to come, Yzerman might need to do whatever it takes to ditch one of the high-priced veterans.
Projected Cap Space: $21.94 million
How exactly is a team with nearly $22 million in cap space in a bind for next season, you ask? Well, consider the amount of players set for new deals come the 2017-18 season and you’ve answered your own question. Altogether, the Capitals have four lineup regulars set to become UFAs and six regulars who will become RFAs, five of whom will have the option of salary arbitration in the off-season. It’s a pretty stacked list of free agents, too.
The biggest fish for the Capitals to fry will be RFA Evgeny Kuznetsov. After a breakout season in 2015-16, he looked like he was going to take a step back and possibly lessen the blow of his RFA deal come 2017-18. However, he’s heated up as the second half of the campaign approached and is now on pace to near the 20-goal, 70-point mark. Another season like that and he could be due in the range of $5.5 million. That’s a significant payout and eats up a quarter of what Washington has available. Other RFAs include Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer, and while they’ll come cheaper, they won’t exactly come cheap.
Keeping around the UFAs could be extremely costly, too. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik and defenseman Karl Alzner can all walk free come July 1.
There’s about no chance the Capitals let Alzner, who is the team’s No. 3 blueliner, walk without some serious contract discussions, and you can be sure that he’s not going to come cheap. In the final year of a deal that pays him $2.8 million, a raise for Alzner likely takes him up above the $4-million mark. Oshie also seems a safe bet to return given he’s a 20 to 30-goal player, and those don’t grow on trees. Already earning upwards of $4 million, let’s say he gets $5 million and change on his next deal.
All told, signing the Kuznetsov, Oshie, Alzner, Burakovsky, Orlov and, say, Grubauer could stand to cost the Capitals almost every bit of space they have. If there were no arbitration, maybe that’s not the case, but Kuznetsov and Orlov will get raises, no doubt, if contract talks get to arbitration.
Getting through the cap situation is going to require some tough decisions, though, and that likely means letting Williams and Winnik walk. Winnik might be able to be had cheap, and if that’s the case, by all means bring him back, but Williams is set to turn 36 before the start of next season. He has 18 goals and 31 points, sure, but he’s playing bottom-six minutes and there are some young players who can step up and potentially fill that role.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)