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Cap crunch: The teams set up for long-term success, and the ones that are doomed

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If you were trying to project a potential 2018 Stanley Cup Final matchup at this moment two of the teams at the top of your list should probably be the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators.

They are currently two of the best teams in the league (first and fourth in points percentage respectively) with the Lightning running away with the Presidents’ Trophy race and the Predators less than a year removed from actually being in the Stanley Cup Final.

Hopefully you enjoy watching them play because given the roster construction of both teams they both have a chance to be really good, for a really long time.

Looking at both rosters it is incredible to see not only how much talent they both have, but how much of it is already signed to long-term contracts. While the Lightning will have to deal with new contracts for restricted free agents Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov, and the Predators will have to deal with unrestricted free agencies for Pekka Rinne and Ryan Ellis, there aren’t really any other significant core players that will eligible for unrestricted free agency at any point over the next three years.

Their cores are in place for the long haul and both teams are in pretty strong shape when it comes to building within the constraints of the salary cap.

But how do they compare to the rest of the league?

Let’s take a look at some of the teams that are in the best — and worst — shape when it comes to their long-term outlook under the salary cap.

I tried to take into account how many players are signed long-term for each team, what those salary cap commitments are, the age of the players that are currently signed long-term, and what new contracts are going to need to be signed in the coming seasons.

Some of the more notable teams…

No team is in a better position than the Predators

Let’s start with the Predators, because there might not be a team in the NHL that is better set up for sustained long-term success than them.

They already have 13 players under contract for the 2019-20 season, more than any other team in the league. Eight of those players are signed through 2020-21 (tied for second most in the league) and seven of them are signed through at least 2021-22 (tied for most in the league). What’s amazing about those number isn’t just the quantity of players under contract that far in advance, but also the quality of said and how affordable they all are against the cap.

In the table below we see the teams that already have the biggest cap commitments for 2019-20, how much money they have invested in those players, how many players they have signed, how old those players will be that season, as well as the cost per player. The Predators already have more than $53 million committed to players for the 2019-20 season, which is the fifth largest number in the league at this point. Seems like a lot. But look at not only how many players they signed for that season (more than any other team in the league — and one of only five teams that has more than 10 players signed), but also the quality of those players, how little they are signed for, and how young they all still are.

That $4.14 million per player is the third lowest number of any team in the league as far as current 2019-20 commitments go(behind only the New York Islanders and Arizona Coyotes) while those players will have an average age of only 28.8 (11th youngest).

The players they have signed through at least 2019-20: Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Victor Arvidsson, Craig Smith, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Calle Jarnkrok, Auston Watson, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin. That is a hell of a core (three outstanding centers down the middle; three outstanding defenseman including a potential Norris Trophy winner this season) and not only leaves them with only complementary roster spots that need to be filled in the coming years, but what should be plenty of salary cap space to do it.

The only players eligible for unrestricted free agency before 2021 are Scott Hartnell, Cody McLeod, Alexei Emelin, Pekka Rinne, Ryan Ellis and Anthony Bitetto.

Rinne and Ellis are obviously the two big ones, but both are still signed through at least next season.

When you take into account the age of their core, how good it is, and how long it is locked in place it is hard to argue that there is a team in the league set up for better long-term success than the Predators.

Things look pretty good in Florida … for both teams

Seriously. Both teams.

As mentioned above Tampa Bay is in a pretty good position as well with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Alex Killorn all signed long-term. Things are going to get tight in the very near future with some big restricted free agents, but the core guys are locked in and they are all still at an age where they can be the foundation of a great team for a long, long time.

The team that kind of a surprised me a bit was the Florida Panthers, and while it might be easy to dismiss them because of the past season-and-a-half, some of the most important pieces are already in place.

At the moment they have Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad, Keith Yandle, Michael Matheson and both goalies signed for at least the next four years. Six of those players are still age 24 or younger, and there are a lot of really good players within that group.

Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck are all scoring at close to a point-per-game pace this season, while Barkov has blossomed into one of the best two-way centers in the league.

The results aren’t there yet on a team level, but the hardest pieces to get (top line players) are already in place.

With a few of the right tweaks around the edges this could be a pretty good team in short order. It’s just a matter of making the right moves to complement them. That is sometimes easier said than done.

Toronto, Winnipeg and the Islanders have some work to do

These teams aren’t necessarily in trouble, but their front offices have a lot of work to do in the next couple of years.

At the moment all of them are in really good shape under the salary cap in the short-term because they have minimal long-term commitments.

But look at who needs to be signed for each team in the coming years:

Toronto: James van Riemsdyk (UFA after this season), Tyler Bozak (UFA after this season), William Nylander (RFA after this season), Mitch Marner (RFA after next season), Auston Matthews (RFA after next season), Jake Gardiner (UFA after next season).

Winnipeg: Tobias Enstrom (UFA after this season), Jacob Trouba (RFA after this season), Blake Wheeler (UFA after next season), Patrik Laine (RFA after next season), Kyle Connor (RFA after next season).

New York Islanders: John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey, Jaroslav Halak (All UFA after this season); Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle (both UFA after next season).

Those are all major players and that salary cap space is going to disappear. Quickly. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

There is always a panic when teams have to pay big money to their star players and how much salary cap space they take up, but it’s not uncommon. Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles have shown us over the past decade that teams can win Stanley Cups (multiple Stanley Cups, too) with significant chunks of their salary cap going to a small number of players. The problem Chicago is going to run into in the future (and we discussed this here a few weeks ago) is that a lot of their core players are starting to get older. Pittsburgh will get there eventually, too. That’s a small price to pay for multiple Stanley Cups in a short window. Keep the superstars even if it it’s expensive and rebuild the depth around them. It’s a hell of a lot easier to find another third-line center or second-pairing defenseman than it is to find another Sidney Crosby or Auston Matthews.

That brings us to…

The Oilers

We’ve already concluded that the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers are a raging inferno of a dumpster fire and there doesn’t seem to be anything that is going to put it out. They have wasted Connor McDavid‘s cheapest years and now the people that couldn’t build a winner with him on an entry level contract have to try and do so with him making $12 million per season.

Looking a few years into the future the Oilers are already the near the top of the league in terms of future financial commitments. In 2019-20, for example, the only two teams that have more financial commitments that season are the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins.

There are 13 teams that have either as many players signed (nine players) as the Oilers currently do, or more.

That means the Oilers have some massive contracts on their books.

McDavid is going to start making $12 million a year next season. Leon Draisaitl is making $8.5 million a year already. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins makes $6 million a year. They have a bunch of defensemen  of varying skill levels signed for multiple years.

The Oilers’ future issues are a lesson when it comes to roster construction in the salary cap era. It’s not the superstars that cause salary cap issues. It’s paying a combined $10 million a year to an aging Milan Lucic and Kris Russell that causes salary cap issues. Those issues are only magnified when you trade Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson and Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome so you can sign Milan Lucic and Kris Russell.

The Red Wings Are Doomed

I really don’t want to overstate things here, but the Red Wings are a mess.

Remember that table we looked at up above with the Predators for two years in advance? Well, take a look at the Red Wings on that list. They already have more than $44 million committed to eight players for 2019-20. For a team that is already in the bottom half of the league in terms of performance that is a lot of long-term commitments, and it’s even worse than it seems because all of them are old (by NHL standards).

The players signed through the end of 2019-20 in Detroit: Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley.

Here is that same table sorted by average age for players under contract in 2019.

Bad, expensive, and old is no way to build a team.

Even if you remove Henrik Zetterberg from that list (he will be 39 in 2019-20) the Red Wings would still have the highest average age in terms of commitments for that season. Astonishing.

The handful of good young players on the team (Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou) will all be restricted free agents after this season. All will certainly be re-signed and get raises. But it’s the long-term deals to players in the late 20s and 30s that are going to be killer.

(All salary, salary cap data via capfriendly.com)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Detroit Red Wings at Philadelphia Flyers

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Projected Lines

Detroit Red Wings

Forwards

Gustav NyquistHenrik ZetterbergJustin Abdelkader

Tomas TatarDylan LarkinAndreas Athanasiou

Darren HelmFrans NielsenLuke Glendening

Anthony ManthaMartin Frk

Defense

Danny DeKeyserMike Green

Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley

Niklas KronwallNick Jensen

Luke Witkowski

Starting Goalie: Jimmy Howard

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Philadelphia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierWayne Simmonds

Michael RafflValtteri FilppulaJakub Voracek

Jordan WealNolan PatrickDale Weise

Taylor LeierScott LaughtonTravis Konecny

Defense

Ivan ProvorovAndrew MacDonald

Robert HaggShayne Gostisbehere

Travis SanheimRadko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Brian Elliott

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Spark Penguins need might already be in organization

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are in need of a spark, and general manager Jim Rutherford seems to know it.

On Wednesday he told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is close to considering a “major” trade to potentially shake things up if things do not start to turn around on their upcoming three-game road trip. It is a bold statement from the general manager of a team that has won the past two Stanley Cups, but nearly halfway through the season it is becoming increasingly clear that this team is lacking … something.

That something could be any number of things.

Defensively they have not been great. They have been plagued by dreadfully slow starts in recent games. They lost a ton of depth over the summer with the free agency departures of Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey (as well as the expansion draft departure of Marc-Andre Fleury), and while their power play is as dangerous as any team in the league, they have been one of the absolute worst teams in the league when it comes to scoring during 5-on-5 play.

Put all of that together and you have a team that enters play on Thursday sitting on the playoff bubble in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division.

I have already written about the Penguins’ depth issues this season, and in the weeks since then the gap between their top-six production and their bottom-six production has only widened. That is a big problem.

The greatest strength the Penguins had the past two years on their Stanley Cup runs was their forward depth and every line’s ability to contribute to the offense. As great as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are they are not going to score every single night. There has to be some offense coming from the other two lines, and this season the Penguins are not getting that. Even with the concerns on the blue line (made worse now by the injury to Justin Schultz) this seems like the biggest area to address.

It might also be the easiest because the solutions might already be knocking on the door.

In each of the past two seasons the Penguins have received huge contributions from call-ups from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team. In 2015-16 it was Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and even Tom Kuhnhackl helping to bring a spark to the team.

Last season it was Jake Guentzel, joining the team around this time of year and the scoring 29 goals over 65 games, including a league-leading 13 in 25 playoff games. Finding that sort of cheap production from young talent is essential for teams like the Penguins given their salary cap situation. They do not always have the flexibility under the cap to swing a major trade without giving up a major piece in return.

They might have a couple of options that could provide similar value and a similar spark this season in Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong, both selected in the 2015 draft.

Simon, who had 16 points in 20 games in the AHL before his recent recall, has been a bright spot in his first two games with the team. He recorded a pair of assists in his season debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs and eventually found himself skating on a line with Crosby. He was one of the few players that seemed to be a real threat to score in their 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche earlier in the week and demonstrated some real skill as a playmaker.

Take, for example, this play where he set up Crosby for a one-timer opportunity in the third period.

A little better shot placement, or a goalie that wasn’t as locked in as Jonathan Bernier was that night, and we’re talking about a highlight reel goal right now.

During Wednesday’s practice Simon was skating on a line with Crosby and Guentzel and seems poised to play there on Thursday night when they take on the Vegas Golden Knights.

Following Saturday’s loss against Toronto Simon spoke about playing alongside Crosby and called it, “unbelievable,” adding that “he makes the game so much easier for you. If you lose the puck, he’s there to support you. It felt great.”

It seems, at least in the short-term, he is going to get an opportunity to keep playing on that line. It would be the third time in as many years a call-up gets that chance alongside Crosby as Simon tries to follow in the footsteps of Sheary and Guentzel.

That brings us to Sprong, the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and currently its top prospect.

After ripping apart the QMJHL the past three years (and getting a brief cup of coffee with the Penguins to start the 2015-16 season) Sprong is currently into his first full year of pro hockey. It has been a mixed bag of results at times. He has been streaky at times and he was a healthy scratch a couple of weeks ago, but he is only 20 years old, already has 14 goals in 23 games and is leading the team in both goals and total points by a pretty significant margin.

A couple of weeks ago Rutherford commented on Sprong’s development and said he had received no indication from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff that he was ready for a promotion to the NHL.

Given the aforementioned healthy scratch it is clear that his game is not perfect at this point.

Even with that being said he can still do something — or at least has the potential to do something — a lot of current players on the Penguins roster right now can not do. That, of course, is having the ability to put the puck in the net.

No matter how much the Penguins try to make him one, Sprong may not ever be a great defensive player. But you still need to score goals, and right now the Penguins have a lot of forwards in their lineup that can play a safe, responsible, defensively sound game but are providing them with absolutely zero offense.

They have Ryan Reaves playing five minutes a night providing … well … whatever it is he provides. For whatever reason, NHL teams seem to prefer that sort of one dimensional play (whether it be the dimension Reaves provides, or the play-it-safe, all defense, no offense dimension) over the one dimensional play that can change a game with a quick goal.

It would not hurt the Penguins at all to remove a Reaves or even a Carl Hagelin to insert somebody that can potentially inject some offense into the lineup. At the moment a team that has two top-lines and two fourth-lines. That is not the type of balance they need to compete for another Stanley Cup, let alone win one.

At some point before the trade deadline they are are probably going to have to address the third-line center spot from outside the organization. Even with a couple of goals in his past few games Riley Sheahan is probably not the answer there (though, he might be a decent fourth-line option).

But they can still make some in-house changes on the wings to potentially spark the offense without having to swing a major trade, something that at this point is probably easier said than done. A real look for Simon and perhaps Sprong at some point could potentially balance out the lineup a lot more than it currently is, whether it be with one of the younger players getting a look at the bottom of the lineup, or somebody else getting bumped down a spot while the youngsters get a look up top. Keep in mind the fourth line in their Stanley Cup clinching game this past spring had Matt Cullen (13 goals in 72 games), Bryan Rust (15 goals in 57 games) and Chris Kunitz (nine goals in 71 games, and more than 250 career goals) skating on it.

They need to find that sort of balance again. Before they turn to a trade, it might be wise to see if their own in-house prospects can help deliver it.

It has worked for them before.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Detroit Red Wings

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PROJECTED LINES

BRUINS

Forwards

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciAnders Bjork

Danton HeinenRiley NashDavid Backes

Tim SchallerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Defensemen

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykPaul Postma

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask 

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RED WINGS

Forwards

Anthony ManthaDylan LarkinTomas Tatar

Justin AbdelkaderHenrik ZetterbergGustav Nyquist

Luke GlendeningFrans NielsenDarren Helm

Martin FrkAndreas AthanasiouLuke Witkowski

Defensemen

Danny DeKeyserMike Green

Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley

Niklas KronwallNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Jimmy Howard

The Penguins have some major depth issues that need to be addressed

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Nearly one quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season and the Pittsburgh Penguins are probably not exactly where they want to be at this point.

Entering play on Tuesday, when they will host the Buffalo Sabres, they are 17th in the NHL in points percentage, they have the third-worst goal differential (minus-18, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes) after losing games by margins of 10-7, 7-1 and 7-1, and are only a middle of the pack team in terms of their shot attempt and possession numbers. Their goals against numbers overall are ugly (largely due to the three blowout losses), but they are also only 25th in the league in goals per game.

None of that is great.

There are a lot of factors here.

The early season schedule to this point has been brutal, having already played six sets of back-to-back games (often against rested teams — including some of the best teams in the league). For a team that has played 214 games the past two seasons that is a tough way to open the season. Their backup goaltending situation early in the season was a disaster with Antti Niemi giving up goals in bunches.

It is not wrong to think that a better backup goaltending situation to start the year could have maybe produced an extra win, or that once the schedule calms down a little they will start to get back on track a little.

There is another issue at work here too that is going to need to be addressed in a meaningful way: The bottom of the roster, which was decimated by free agency and the salary cap over the summer, is giving them almost no offense to speak of. Or anything, really.

This brings back a problem that plagued the Penguins between the 2010 and 2015 seasons when they were getting bounced early in the playoffs despite having a group of All-Stars at the top of the roster.

Over the past two years general manager Jim Rutherford did a ton of work to build that depth back up and it resulted in back-to-back Stanley Cups.

This past summer a lot of that depth walked out the door in free agency with Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators), Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning), and Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) all moving on. That also does not include the exit of Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, a pretty significant departure given how bad Niemi turned out to be.

That is a lot of depth to replace in one offseason, and to this point the Penguins have struggled to do it.

Instead of Bonino and Cullen at the third and fourth center spots they opened the season with Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney (currently injured), then traded for Riley Sheahan, a player that has not scored a goal in 97 of his past 98 games.

Ryan Reaves, brought in to add toughness, is playing just seven minutes per night and has replaced Kunitz.

Looking at it from a numbers perspective it is not hard to see how much of a drop this is has been for the offense.

Let’s break their forwards and their production down into two groups of six: The top-six in terms of ice-time and the bottom-six in terms of ice-time.

During the 2016-17 season the Penguins forwards that were 7-12 in ice-time averaged .445 points per game as a group.

So far this year? The 7-12 group is at just .201. A player that averages .201 points per game over 82 games scores just 16 points in a season. A .445 player scores 36.

That is a pretty substantial drop. To be fair we are also comparing a 19-game sampling with a full season. A lot can happen over the next few months. The table below breaks down the past two full seasons, as well as this one, to show where the Penguins were after 19 games and where they ended up.

In each of the past two seasons both groups were slow starters relative to where they ended up at the end of the season. But it wasn’t just a matter of players getting better or seeing their production in crease. In both instances there were pretty significant changes made to the roster.

In 2015-16 pretty much everything about the team changed after the first quarter of the season, from the head coach (Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan) to almost half of the roster (Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Justin Schultz all being called up or added to the roster during the season).

In 2016-17 it was the call-up of Jake Guentzel that ended up making a huge difference (as well as the return of a lot of injured player).

The point here is if the Penguins are going to have any chance of another repeat run they are going to need to make similar changes at some point before the trade deadline.

In their two years as the Penguins’ third-and fourth-line centers Bonino and Cullen each averaged 15 goals and between 30-40 points.

Right now McKegg and Sheahan are on a four-goal and 11-point pace … combined.

The Penguins didn’t go from postseason disappointments to Stanley Cup champions the past two years because players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin got better or became better leaders or became more clutch. They were the same as they have always been (great). They became Stanley Cup champions again because players like Crosby and Malkin were still great, and they had a great supporting cast of players around them.

This is not to suggest the Penguins would necessarily be in a better situation with Bonino and Cullen and Kunitz at this point. Cullen is 41 years old and has one goal so far in Minnesota. At some point he will slow down. Bonino has played in just five games for the Predators due to injury and the Penguins never could have matched that contract offer under the salary cap. (Keeping Kunitz instead of adding Reaves probably would have been smart).

Their production from the past two seasons still existed and was a big part of the Penguins success. That is production they are not getting and are unlikely to get from the current cast of players in those roles as replacements.

There are some areas where improvement can come from. Sidney Crosby is going to play better. Kris Letang can (and probably will) play better. Prospect Daniel Sprong is off to a great start in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and could be on the Guentzel path to the NHL at some point later in the season.

The third-and fourth-line center spots, however, have become offensive black holes and with Reaves only playing seven minutes a night (sometimes significantly less) they are pretty much playing with an 11-man forward group.

All of those areas need to be addressed if another postseason run is going to happen this season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.