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Deep defense and lots of questions: Examining Arizona Coyotes’ cap situation

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A shift is happening with the Arizona Coyotes, and if this summer is any indication, this might not be a slow evolution.

Faces of the franchise such as Shane Doan, Mike Smith, and (former) head coach Dave Tippett are gone, but just as importantly, the Coyotes are beginning to use their cap space to add NHL-ready players, rather than absorbing other team’s mistakes or problem salaries in exchange for assets.

This post discusses how the acquisition of Jason Demers makes this Coyotes team one to take more seriously in 2017-18, but let’s go the extra mile and examine the team’s salary structure.

(For cap analysis on a growing number of NHL teams, click here.)

That defense

Let’s start with a unit that’s rising among the league’s best, though still a tier below, say, the Nashville Predators’ impressive group.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: 26, $5.5 million cap hit through 2018-19

You know a defenseman is a deadly scorer when a 12-goal year is a letdown. For “OEL,” 2016-17 probably qualified as much, and yet he’s still an off-the-charts guy. One of the potential bonuses of a competent Coyotes team would be Ekman-Larsson getting more attention as a true star on the blueline.

About the only problem with Ekman-Larsson is that, like fellow high-scoring Swede Erik Karlsson, that bargain deal won’t last much longer. OEL will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Coyotes snatched him up in the summer of 2018. Really, they’d do so if they’re as smart as they seem.

Alex Goligoski – 32, $5.475M through 2020-21

For all the excitement that surrounds the Dallas Stars seemingly every summer, it sure seems like they might have dropped the ball by letting “Gogo” go. He’s a transition gem and an underrated all-around player; hopefully his game will age well, but at the moment, Goligoski’s a very nice value for Arizona. With 36 points, he wasn’t far behind OEL last season.

Niklas Hjalmarsson – 30, $4.1M through 2018-19

Maybe Connor Murphy will pan out for Chicago, but the Coyotes were reasonable in trading some potential for a “sure thing.” It’s difficult to believe that Hjalmarsson is only 30, considering his remarkable achievements.

As one of the best examples of a modern “defensive defenseman” alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Coyotes can lean on Hjalmarsson for tough matchups, freeing more offensive-minded guys to focus on scoring.

The only bummer is that he, too, only has two years remaining on his resounding bargain of a contract.

Demers – 29, $3.938M through 2020-21

Personally, shaving off 12.5 percent of Demers’ cap hit makes it more palatable by an almost odd degree. He’s another Coyotes defenseman who subtly impresses, and at a reasonable price, one made even more reasonable in parting ways with an expendable piece in Jamie McGinn.

The Coyotes have room to either fill in gaps or, if they need to, replace players who get too expensive.

Jakob Chychrun suffered an injury setback, yet there’s still time to assess where he figures into the bigger picture. Adding some firepower also allows him to ease into the mix in a more organic fashion. GM John Chayka can determine if Luke Schenn, Kevin Connauton, and/or Adam Clendening figure into the equation, as all of those guys are on expiring contracts.

Few teams enjoy defense corps as promising as the Coyotes,’ which must be frustrating for other teams, considering that many of these players were available through trades or free agency (or falling a bit in the draft, in the case of Chychrun).

Flexibility but uncertainty in net

In many cases, you’ll see a team immediately sign an acquired goalie to a new deal or an extension. One fresh example is Frederik Andersen, who signed a five-year, $25M contract before he stopped a single puck for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Chayka didn’t do that, or at least hasn’t done so yet, after acquiring Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers.

That could cost the Coyotes some extra cash if Raanta converts his strong backup numbers to full-time expertise, yet it also gives Arizona room to maneuver if Raanta doesn’t pan out. This also opens the door for Louis Domingue to prove that he’s either a) more than a backup or b) a backup worthy of another contract.

Cheap, young forwards

The Coyotes’ forward group feels a bit like Derek Stepan, Dave Bolland‘s cap hit, and a bunch of potential.

Max Domi enters the final year of his rookie deal with considerable dollars to either gain or lose, especially if Arizona rides it out without an early extension. Anthony Duclair is just one of other forwards with something to prove.

Dylan Strome could be a nice little bargain if he finally works things out. The Coyotes managed to give him a look without burning a year off of his entry-level contract, so they could get three years at a bargain rate if it all starts to “click” at the NHL level.

Really, the Coyotes are counting on some ifs turning into an emphatic “Yes” or two. Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller, and Brendan Perlini all have at least two years left on their ELCs, opening the door for the Coyotes to at least fill out roster spots at a discount.

How effective can this group – which also includes some fledgling veterans – be as soon as 2017-18? If nothing else, they should get a real boost from defensemen who can move the puck.

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Overall, the Coyotes are in an intriguing spot, even if they’ll need to battle to make the playoffs.

From a long-term perspective, the real question might come down to the team’s internal budget. If this team starts to make serious gains, will ownership be able to pay up to keep OEL, Raanta, Domi, and other players?

If the answer isn’t positive, the Coyotes might find themselves in rebuild stages over and over.

At least the foundation looks sturdy this time around.

Winnipeg Jets salary cap outlook after Little signing

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Even stretching back to when he was a member of the Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets forward Bryan Little has long been a worthy addition to any “underrated players” list.

While it wasn’t the sort of deal that’s guaranteed to collapse your salary structure, Little’s six-year, $31.75 million contract extension should ensure that he isn’t on many underpaid players lists.

PHT’s been mowing through many teams’ salary cap situations during this off-season, so why not continue with Winnipeg?

A unique challenge

Sometimes it’s fairer to “grade on a curve” when it comes to judging a team’s situation.

In the case of the Jets, it’s no secret that they sometimes face an uphill battle when it comes to drawing in free agents. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov.

Now, such thoughts don’t totally excuse the near-immunity that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice seem to enjoy, but it’s worth noting that the Jets might have more incentive than other teams to keep players in the fold because it’s not always so easy to draw people in.

Young players with dollars to earn

It’s been said before, and it’s true: patience is running low for the Jets. Well, aside from the whole “handing the GM and head coach an extension even though the franchise has never won a playoff game” thing.

Anyway, this is a key season in many ways, including deciding which players to add to the core.

This post goes into great detail on Jacob Trouba likely costing the Jets a lot of money in the future, but there’s little doubt that, if they want to keep him – and they should – it probably won’t be so cheap this time around. Trouba, 23, will see his $2.81M cap hit expire after this season.

There are some expendable veterans with expiring contracts, but to keep this post from being Byfuglien-sized, let’s consider the most important players with short deals.

One interesting guy is Nikolaj Ehlers, whose rookie deal runs out after 2017-18. He’s shown serious potential already; if I were in Cheveldayoff’s shoes, I’d strongly consider signing him now rather than allowing him to pull a poor man’s Pastrnak/Draisaitl and drive up his value.

There’s not much they’ll likely be able to do to keep Patrik Laine from costing a lot, but at least he has two years left on his entry-level contract. (These are the windows that contending teams exploit, so we’ll see if Winnipeg can take advantage.)

Joshua Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck are other especially interesting pending RFAs to watch; long story short, the Jets have a lot of them to consider.

Key veteran decisions

The good news for Winnipeg is that the Ondrej Pavelec nightmare is over.

It’s also mostly good news that, unlike other NHL teams, they’re not tied to a goalie long-term. That could make for very helpful flexibility in this league.

Still, many GMs get queasy over uncertainty in net, so Hellebuyck only being under contract for one year and Steve Mason only having two covered might make some nervous. (Personally, it seems like a refreshingly positive situation.)

One really big consideration is Blake Wheeler.

Wheeler, 31, is worth a lot more than the $5.6M per year he’ll fetch for two more seasons. He’s getting up there in years, and if the Jets continue to struggle, it could be a tough call for both sides.

Tyler Myers‘ seemingly eternal $5.5M cap hit expires after two more seasons. What does the future hold for the towering 27-year-old?

The Jets should expect some relief when Toby Enstrom‘s $5.75M cap hit evaporates. He’s been a good soldier for Winnipeg/Atlanta, to the point that it’s surprising he’s only 32. If he’s back, one figures it would be for a steep discount. Chances are, the Jets will appreciate that extra money with some important, core players needing deals.

Worries

Dmitry Kulikov is settled in with a three-year deal, but he has a lot to prove.

Dustin Byfuglien is a force of nature, and a guy who deserves a Phil Kessel-type renaissance after frequently being a scapegoat (and also often being snubbed by Team USA). Even so, that huge frame could become a problem as he ages – Buffy is already 32 – and his $7.6M carries through 2020-21.

Little is a quality player, but his age and history of injury issues makes his contract a bit of a gamble.

Shrewd with Scheifele

Overall, there’s a lot to like with Winnipeg.

Mark Scheifele‘s deal might honestly deserve its own section. Scheifele, 24, has dreams of matching Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, but he’s already developed into a legitimate top-line center. He’s entering the second year of a contract that carries just a $6.125M cap hit, and it runs through his peak years (ending at 2023-24).

Expect that contract to climb the biggest bargain ranks, especially once we see Erik Karlsson and John Tavares get new deals.

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All things considered, the Jets’ situation looks very good.

That said, much like on the ice, some of the most important moments lie in the future.

Big, bad contracts? Bruins’ salary cap situation after Pastrnak signing

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With a $6,666,666 cap hit, David Pastrnak‘s six-year contract might seem like a deal with the devil for the Boston Bruins. All things considered, it’s actually pretty reasonable, though.

Pastrnak is 21, and he only reached the legal drinking age in the U.S. on May 25. His youthful potential makes him stick out like a sore thumb on a Bruins roster that is, well, a little … veteran-heavy.

(It’s really experienced; yeah, that’s the way to put it.)

This Pastrnak contract seems like a solid excuse to examine the Bruins’ salary cap structure, continuing what’s become a running series at PHT.

Expensive old guys (and David Pastrnak)

Let’s begin with aging players whose contracts aren’t so scary … at least not right now.

Patrice Bergeron – 32 years old, $6.875M cap hit expires after 2021-22

Here’s a quick summation of my opinion regarding Bergeron: I once argued on Rotoworld’s Podcast that he probably belonged on the NHL’s list of the 100 greatest players of all-time. Bergeron can do it all, and figures to remain a serious difference-maker for some time.

Even so, Bergeron’s dealt with some troubling concussion issues, and has a lot of NHL mileage on his body. He’s been a fixture since 2003-4, after all.

There’s some concern that he’ll regress sharply, but here’s the thing: Bergeron is a steal right now, so the Bruins might just have to pay more in the future for getting a huge bargain in the past.

Pastrnak – 21, Mark of the Beast cap hit runs through 2022-23

It’s a near-certainty that Pastrnak’s numbers were inflated by his time with Bergeron and Brad Marchand, but such logic didn’t hurt Leon Draisaitl‘s wallet (i.e. the Connor McDavid bump), now did it? Injuries and other bad bounces can change things fast, but as it stands, this seems like a nice value.

Marchand – 29, $6.125M through 2024-25

The Bruins must have breathed a sigh of relief that they were able to re-sign Marchand at a reasonable cap hit, even as he was erupting from “really good and really annoying” to “really, really, REALLY good and really annoying.”

It’s easy to forget how frequently Marchand’s name landed in trade rumors when his points-to-agitation ratio wasn’t quite as helpful to the Bruins’ cause.

Right now, Marchand is a steal, probably an extreme one. He’s dangerously close to 30, and that’s a long contract, so that deal could be a problem in the future (especially considering how he likes to mix it up).

Tuukka Rask – 30, $7M through 2020-21

As the Bruins have declined from a contender to a team scraping to make the playoffs, the hype has fizzled for Rask to an extent. That’s just a nature of hype, though, because Rask remains one of the best workhorses in the game.

The problem remains similar: he’s getting up there in age. The term is both good news (not agonizingly long if he really slips) and bad news (four years, so if he does slip, the Bruins must find answers in net).

Old, expensive guys: part yikes

Matt Beleskey might not qualify as “old” at 29, but his contract is aging like reverse-wine with three years left at $3.8M. David Backes is 33 and costs $6M for four more years. Yeah, not good.

David Krejci straddles the line between those two groups. He quietly had a solid season in 2016-17, but at 31 and with a $7.25M cap hit, his contract might be something the Bruins regret. Especially if he really starts to hit a wall with four years remaining.

Decisions on defense

Reports indicate that the Bruins have at least discussed an extension with 40-year-old, bedrock defenseman Zdeno Chara. His $4M cap hit for next season is very nice, yet you wonder if Boston would be dancing around mines if they pull the trigger on a deal without being confident about his long-term viability.

(It would also provide cruel comedy if they’re proactive in re-signing a 40-year-old man after waiting until training camp to sign a 21-year-old rising star.)

Boston’s defensive future is fuzzy, as they only have two blueliners (Torey Krug and Kevan Miller) locked down for three years. Everyone else is on one or two-year pacts.

There are other young players to assess, from prospects to Ryan Spooner and Frank Vatrano.

(Opinion: Vatrano could be in for at least a moderate breakthrough in 2017-18, so the Bruins might be wise to at least explore a cheap extension sooner rather than later. Or, you know, they could pay a lot of money for another rare, precious young scorer. That seems to be going well for them.)

***

So … yeah, the Bruins seem like a mess, at least when you take a view beyond the next season or two.

On the bright side, their best players are locked up at good-to-great rates, at least as of 2017. It’s not all bad, but you still have to wonder if management has the right vision for the future of this franchise.

Blue Jackets face big cap decisions after Wennberg signing

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Aside from some concerns about his numbers being inflated by a robust Blue Jackets power play, the majority of the reviews were very positive for Alex Wennberg‘s new deal with Columbus.

(Read more about his six-year deal with a $4.9 million cap hit here.)

Locking up the intriguing 22-year-old talent settles a big question for the Blue Jackets, but after looking at their salary structure, some agonizing decisions remain. Let’s look at some of those situations and their cap future overall, with help from Cap Friendly’s always-helpful listings.

Commitments

Wennberg is signed through 2022-23, making his deal the longest-standing contract on the Blue Jackets’ roster right now. There are other significant deals, though.

The best one, for my money, is Seth Jones: his $5.4M cap hit runs through 2021-22. The 22-year-old is already starting to put together the numbers (career-high 12 goals and 42 points last season) that make him more than what he already was: a developing star. Even if he bounces somewhere between “very good” and “legit star,” just about any team would fork over $5.4M per year for Jones.

David Savard isn’t too shabby at $4.25M through 2019-20, standing as the only other blueliner with a lengthy deal for CBJ.

Wennberg’s deal stands along with two other forwards as far as lengthier contracts go. Nick Foligno ($5.5M through 2020-21) really improved his standing in the league last season, while Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85M through 2020-21) poses some concerns considering his rougher style and the fact that he’s already 31.

(Then again, you can have worse things on your resume than “Premium Sidney Crosby Disturber.”)

Contract years

Several Blue Jackets face especially fascinating fork-in-the-road seasons.

Cam Atkinson exploded with an All-Star output last season, finishing with career-highs in goals (35), assists (27), and points (62). Ten of his goals and 21 of those points came on that power play, and being that he’s already 28, Columbus might be right to see if he slips a bit before making a big investment.

That said, Atkinson probably ranks as an underrated player, or at least he once did. This marks four straight seasons with at least 21 goals and 40 points.

The question isn’t about Atkinson getting a raise, but instead the keys are “How much of a raise?” and “For how long?” Atkinson carries a $2.9M AAV and would be an unrestricted free agent.

(More on Atkinson’s contract year here.)

After a surprising 30-goal season in 2015-16, Boone Jenner went to 18 goals and 34 points last season. At 24, he’s in an interesting spot as an RFA carrying a $2.2M cap hit.

Ryan Murray ($2.825M) and Jack Johnson ($4.357M) round out the headliners among the contract years, with all due respect to Matt Calvert and Oliver Bjorkstrand.*

Both defensemen are intriguing. Murray, 23, has experienced a frustratingly stilted development thanks to injuries. Johnson, 30, draws plenty of criticism for his defensive play, and one would guess that Columbus would prefer to get a discount on another deal if they bring him back.

(Here’s hoping Johnson sticks around the NHL one way or another, considering his financial/familial mess.)

Huge decisions

As significant as those expiring deals are, the two-year contracts stand as the biggest choices.

A year after injuries and inconsistency made Sergei Bobrovsky‘s $7.425M cap hit look questionable, a brilliant Vezina year (albeit somewhat tainted by playoff struggles) make that price look like a borderline bargain. Still, “Bob” is 28, so he’ll be 30 at the end of his current contract. If he wants a significant raise on a fairly significant clip, will Columbus be on board?

There’s some room for intrigue, as Joonas Korisalo’s $900K deal goes away after two years, as well.

“Cost certainty” was a theme of the Blackhawks’ explanations for their sometimes-shocking summer swaps, and that thought stands out in what Columbus got back in trading Brandon Saad, whose $6M cap hit expires in 2020-21. Artemi Panarin, meanwhile, is only covered through 2018-19 at the same $6M clip.

If Panarin proves that he can generate a ton of offense without Patrick Kane, his price tag could be significant; he’d only be 27 and is slated for UFA status. *Gulp*

The good news is that Zach Werenski (or Zachary?) stands as a tremendous rookie-deal-steal at $925K for two more seasons. The bad part is that Werenski would be in line for a big raise in 2019-20 and beyond.

With Bobrovsky, Panarin, and Werenski all having two years remaining on their contracts, it’s clear that Columbus has some decisions to make, whether they hand out extensions in the summer of 2018 or wait until deals expire.

***

Considering how dour things seemed for Columbus just a summer ago, the outlook is a lot sunnier today.

Even so, GM Jarmo Kekalainen faces some crucial choices in the next year or two. Which ways would you lean?

* – Some Blue Jackets execs might root for a Bjorkstrand breakout in 2018-19.

Daunting Drew Doughty decision looms for Kings

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This post is part of Kings Day on PHT…

Out of context, re-signing Drew Doughty is as close to a no-brainer as it gets in the NHL.

A resounding resume

The Norris Trophy winner and elite defenseman has been a rock for the Los Angeles Kings, and his significance might only become more pronounced as the franchise deals with big changes (and losses on the blueline) in 2017-18.

Now, $7 million is undoubtedly a lot of money, but Doughty would command a (flinches) king’s ransom on the open market. So, when that cap hit expires in 2018-19, Doughty will get paid. It’s remarkable that, considering his robust resume of accomplishments, Doughty is now just 27 and will be 29 when his current deal expires.

Fixer upper

The question the Kings face isn’t really about re-signing Doughty.

Instead, it’s the difficult riddle of trying to squeeze out more runs with this current core or giving a rebuild a bold shot in the arm by – wait for it – trading Doughty sometime during the next season or two.

Los Angeles could conceivably gain a lot in trading Doughty, especially if GM Rob Blake is creative. In making such a courageous move, the Kings could enjoy some combination of:

  1. Salary cap relief, in convincing a trade partner to eat ugly deals in Dustin Brown ($5.875M through 2021-22) and/or Marian Gaborik ($4.875M through 2020-21) as part of a Doughty deal.
  2. Gain precious draft assets and/or prospects. Much like other contenders, the Kings’ farm system took some hits as they angled to contend with this current group. It was generally worth it, but now Blake & Co. need to pick up the pieces.
  3. Trading for roster players who are young and cheap.

Why they must ponder the seemingly unthinkable

Let’s not forget just how old this team looks. By the end of Doughty’s contract, Brown and Jeff Carter will both be 34. Anze Kopitar, who just turned 30, will be 32. Jake Muzzin will be 30 and will only have one year remaining on his bargain $4M deal. Alec Martinez will be 32. Jonathan Quick will be 33. Gaborik will be 37 and, barring a buyout or move, will still be on the books for two more seasons.

We’ve already seen Kopitar struggle, and while Carter’s been resoundingly productive at a great rate, Father Time seems to punish snipers as much as anyone.

Even Doughty would be close to 30 by then.

It’s unclear how many of these Kings deals are easy to move, and to some, that might serve as a signal to just go for it and then suffer through a rebuild.

Still, you wonder how desirable it would be for Doughty to stay if Los Angeles really starts to slide, although it wouldn’t be surprising if he remained loyal to a squad he won two Stanley Cups with.

A matter of time

On the bright side, the Kings have a full season before they can even sign Doughty to a contract extension, so 2017-18 could serve as a helpful barometer for this situation. Even so, you never know when an optimal trade offer might come; a team could conceivably be willing to give up far more for Doughty if it means getting him for a season or more at such a valuable rate.

It’s all a lot to take in, and trading Doughty would almost certainly stand as a wildly unpopular move with Kings fans, even if the returns were solid and the logic is sound.

At minimum, it’s something management should think long and hard about. It could be one of the most fascinating situations to watch, especially if you’re the type of hockey fan who pines for rare big trades after seeing that mammoth Kyrie Irving – Isiah Thomas trade in the NBA.