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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.

Modano returns to NHL roots in Minnesota, as Wild adviser

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Mike Modano has decided to return to his NHL roots in Minnesota.

The Hall of Fame center was named Thursday as the executive adviser to Wild owner Craig Leipold and president Matt Majka, a newly created position that Modano will assume on Sept. 1. Leipold and Modano often communicated by text message during Wild games this past season, sowing seeds for his hire.

Modano, who played the first four of his 21 NHL seasons with the North Stars before the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993, will focus on sales, corporate partnerships and community relations. Modano held a similar role from 2013-15 with the Stars, for whom he played 16 years and won the Stanley Cup with in 1999.

”I’m excited about it. I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity for a while,” Modano said. ”I needed a little space to get away. But the time has come. I’ve been itching to get back into it.”

Modano, a seven-time All-Star, had 561 goals and 813 assists in 1,499 career NHL games. He’s a native of Livonia, Michigan. He currently lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife and four children, but the family is planning to move to the Twin Cities area.

Though Modano’s assignment with the Wild will be on the business side, Leipold said he’d be available to consult with general manager Paul Fenton as needed on hockey-related matters.

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites entering Stanley Cup Final

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Now that we are through the first three rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy is really starting to sort itself out.

It is down to just two teams and both the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues have several worthy contenders that have stood out as potential postseason MVPs.

Some of them have been dominant from the start, while others have started to make their presence known over the past couple of weeks.

It is time once again to check in on the top contenders in the PHT Power Rankings.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. It is not a stretch to suggest that this is the best hockey Rask has ever played in the NHL. After allowing just five goals in the Bruins’ four game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, he now has a .942 save percentage in the playoffs and is helping to make what was an already great team a downright dominant team. He is one of just six goalies in NHL history to have a save percentage of .940 or better through their first 17 games in a single postseason, joining a list that includes only Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2002-03), Jonathan Quick (2011-12), Olaf Kolzig (1997-98), Henrik Lundqvist (2013-14) and … Rask himself once before (2013).

2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. Simply one of the most impactful skaters in the NHL. Love him or hate him, he is a total force on the ice in all three zones and he is putting together another tremendous postseason performance for the Bruins. His 18 points are second only to San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture (he finished the playoffs with 20 points in 20 games; Marchand’s per-game average is still higher) and he has already recorded six multi-point games (tied with Tomas Hertl for the most). That includes three games with at least three points, also tops in the league.

3. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. Schwartz has followed up what was one of the worst regular season performances of his career with a postseason that could be worthy of the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Blues end up winning the Stanley Cup. After scoring just 11 goals in 69 regular season games, Schwartz enters the Cup Final having already eclipsed that mark (12 goals) in the Blues’ first 19 playoff games. That includes a league-leading 10 even-strength goals, two game-winning goals, and two hat tricks. Yes, a lot of that goal-scoring spike is due to a 22 percent shooting percentage that certainly will not continue forever, but his underlying numbers are outstanding across the board. When he is on the ice the Blues are attempting more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts and generating more than 55 percent of the scoring chances. He is playing extremely well and when combined with a positive change in his shooting luck it has produced a huge postseason.

4. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. After a somewhat slow start to the playoffs, at least as it related to his point production, Tarasenko went on a tear at the absolute perfect time by recording at least one point in all six games of the Western Conference Final, finishing the series with eight total points, including three goals. He remains one of the most productive postseason goal-scorers in league history and is currently in the top-25 all-time in goals per game (among players with at least 40 postseason games). Is it a case of recency bias to have him so high at this point? Maybe, but that is how the Conn Smythe voting tends to go. He is the Blues’ best player and when he gets on a roll he can be nearly impossible to stop. Right now he is on a roll.

5. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins. It has been business as usual for Bergeron this postseason as he plays big minutes, dominates possession, shuts down other team’s top scorers, and chips in some offense of his own. Maybe the only surprise from him in the playoffs is that six of his eight goals have come on the power play. Before this season he had scored just seven power play goals in 112 postseason games.

6. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues. His overall numbers for the playoffs are not great, and are definitely lower than what he did during the regular season, but that does not mean he has not played extremely well at times. Like Tarasenko, he is doing so at just the right time to get noticed in the Conn Smythe race. He is 6-2 with a .925 save percentage in his past eight starts and has allowed just five goals in the four knockout games he has played (three games where the Blues could eliminate a team; one game where the Blues faced elimination).

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better special teams?
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Islanders sign Brock Nelson to six-year contract

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After a stunning 2018-19 NHL season that saw them reach Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the New York Islanders have some big work ahead of them this summer as they not only work to add some firepower to their lineup, but also keep some of their most important players in place.

Forwards Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Brock Nelson — three of the team’s top-five scorers this season — as well as Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner are all eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer. That is a lot of big names to keep while also maintaining enough flexibility under the salary cap to build around them.

On Thursday, they made sure at least one of those players will remain with the team when they announced a six-year contract extension for Nelson.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed by the Islanders, but it is reportedly worth $6 million per season according to The Athletic’s Arthur Staple.

The 27-year-old Nelson is coming off of a career-year that saw him score 25 goals (second best on the team) and finish with 53 total points (third on the team).

Originally a first-round pick (No. 30 overall) by the Islanders in 2010, Nelson’s career has been about as steady and consistent as a player can be. He has missed just 12 games since entering the NHL during the 2013-14 season (with 10 of those coming during his rookie season) and has been a lock for at least 20 goals and 40 points every season. You know he is going to be in the lineup and you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get from him offensively.

Is that level of production worth $6 million per year? It might be pushing it and it might be a slight overpay from a team standpoint, but the Islanders didn’t really have many other options here. If they had let Nelson walk they would have needed someone to replace him and there weren’t many (if any) realistic options on the free agent market that are going to outperform Nelson for a better price, and they only have five draft picks in their 2019 class to use as trade chips.

With Nelson’s contract now completed, the Islanders have 17 players under contract for the 2019-20 season at a total salary cap hit of $53.7 million. Assuming an $83 million salary cap that still leaves them with more than $29 million in cap space to fill out the remainder of their roster.

That should be more than enough to re-sign Lee, Eberle and Lehner if they choose, while also working out new deals for restricted free agents Anthony Beauvillier and Michael Dal Colle.

Mathew Barzal, who has one-year remaining on his entry-level contract, will also be eligible to sign a new contract on July 1.

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.

 

Backes ready to face former team in Stanley Cup Final

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The friendships that David Backes still has with members of the St. Louis Blues — three years after he left to sign with the Boston Bruins — will be on hold for the next few weeks as the 35-year-old forward seeks his first Stanley Cup title.

“It would have been fine to make the Final in different years and then you could have each had a shot at it, maybe, but now it’s all about what’s in this room,” Backes said. “One of my best friends [Alex Pietrangelo] is on that team, he’s the captain of their team. I told him I love him now, I’m going to love him afterwards, but I’m going to hate him for the next three weeks here. I think that’s a mutual decision.”

Backes has played with a number of current Blues players, so there is some familiarity, but as he said on Wednesday, he doesn’t necessarily own the “secret sauce” that will figure them out over the course of a seven-game series.

While most of the focus during the NHL conference finals was on the potential of Joe Thornton facing off against the team that drafted him in the Cup Final, the Backes vs. Blues storyline mostly flew under-the-radar, except in the veteran forward’s house. He tried not to think about the possibility, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off the television as the Western Conference Final played out.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Now that the matchup is set, it’s a simple situation.

“There’s going to be heightened emotions,” said Backes, who captained the Blues from 2011-2016. “It’s a binary decision now: It’s us or them. There’s no third party. No ties, none of that stuff. One of us is going to win the Cup. Either the St. Louis Blues or the Boston Bruins.”

After 10 seasons and 928 games in St. Louis, Backes signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the Bruins in free agency in 2016. But in those three seasons since his production and ice time have dwindled as he’s battled through injuries. This past season, he found himself a healthy scratch on multiple occasions and sought out a new role within Bruce Cassidy’s lineup.

Backes has sat for six games this postseason, but has played the entirety of the Bruins’ current seven-game winning streak. He’s scored twice, including the Game 6 goal that sealed their Round 2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, and added two assists over that stretch.

“Where he is at this stage of his career — and anybody’s, really — but particularly him who’s been through it, he doesn’t know when he’s going to get another kick at the cat here,” Cassidy said. “I think that’ll be the biggest motivating factor for him, get his name on the Stanley Cup.”

Backes will get that opportunity in the storyline-filled matchup.

“I didn’t make it [to the Cup Final] in my 10 years there or my first two years here, and my first opportunity in Year 13 in the league is their next opportunity after the ’70s,” he said.

“The stars have aligned for this to be one heck of an event. We’re just going to embrace it and throw what we have out there in every shift and every moment of every game. I love this group. I wouldn’t want to be in the Finals with any other group.”

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.