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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.

‘Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour’ billboard starts popping up in Edmonton

Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton
via CJAY 92
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Fans must wait about a week for the next round in the “Battle of Alberta,” but if they need a reminder, the “Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour” billboard began showing up in Edmonton on Wednesday.

Calgary radio station CJAY 92 made it happen, and also helped to make this Tkachuk-centric trolling effort turn into a boon for charities. The billboards hype up the next meeting between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, which happens in Edmonton on Jan. 29. Deliciously enough, the two teams then meet again in Calgary on Feb. 1. Think of all of the opportunities for friendship.

Take a look at the Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton

CJAY 92 shared photos of the billboards that began sprouting up:

You may, however, notice an omission. The final version includes Tkachuk’s name, the amusing “friendship tour,” and his jersey number. It does not, however, feature Tkachuk making a face like he smelled something rancid, or really didn’t appreciate that pun.

Yeah, that bitter beer face plus the heart background did kind of tie the billboard together.

That said, there’s the real fear of Oilers fans defacing the image in Edmonton. Heck, there’s the risk of someone getting injured trying to vandalize a billboard with Tkachuk’s actual face on it. Maybe it was also a rights issue with getting that picture?

So … yes, it’s a very, very mild letdown. Nonetheless, this adds another wrinkle to this fun, silly rivalry within a rivalry.

Recap of feud with Kassian

As a reminder, the ball got rolling as a feud formed between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian. Tkachuk delivered multiple hits — ones that Kassian found dirty — and then Kassian ragdolled the pesty winger. You could say that Tkachuk got the last laugh, as the Flames scored the game-winning goal during power-play opportunities stemming from Kassian’s penalties. The two also traded trash talk after the game.

After letting the two-game suspension sink in, Kassian warned that Tkachuk “messed with the wrong guy.” Kassian implied that the previous outing was merely a skirmish in a larger war (or, you know, “Battle of Alberta”).

This feud would rank as one of the most glorious in hockey if it stayed onto the ice. Yet, off ice moving and shaking really brings this to another trolly, splendid level.

Tkachuk billboard becomes a boon for charities in Edmonton and Calgary

Once CJAY 92 took care of the more fun aspects of the Tkachuk billboard, Mohamed Elsaghir’s Go Fund Me drive instead focused on raising money for ALS. Between that drive and a $10K donation by entrepreneur W. Brett Wilson helped bump the total contributions above $20K.

While that charitable run came via Flames fans, Oilers devotees made waves for a good cause, too. What started with a fun tweet and $25 donation from Oilers fan Samantha Costa ended up being a boon, too.

Brown Bagging It, one of the benefiting charities, summed everything up nicely:

***

Overall, great stuff. It makes you wonder: could enterprising Oilers fans come up with a billboard idea for the next game on Feb.1? Maybe something along the lines of, “Thanks for James Neal?”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Most dangerous lead in hockey? This season, it’s all of them

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Joel Quenneville remembers years past when NHL teams leading going into the third period could feel comfortable chalking up two points. A win was a pretty sure bet.

Earlier this season, his Florida Panthers erased a four-goal deficit to win a game. And then they did it again. Even the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach didn’t see that coming.

”We didn’t envision coming back either game,” Quenneville said.

It’s becoming easier than ever to envision. There have already been five four-goal comeback wins this season, the most in NHL history. And the 18 three-goal comebacks are the most through the same number of games in 30 years.

No lead is safe.

”Used to be the dreaded, two-goal lead is the most dangerous in hockey, but now it seems like the four-goal lead’s the hardest one to hold on to,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”Teams believe they can come back at any time.”

Coaches and players point to a number of different factors for all the rallying going on, ranging from rules designed to create more offense to better power plays, more skill and talent, and human nature when t comes to holding a comfortable lead or facing a difficult deficit.

”It’s very difficult to hold leads now just with some of the rules that have been added,” said coach Todd Reirden, whose Washington Capitals recently erased a three-goal deficit to beat the New York Islanders. ”Just different little nuances that have helped scoring increase in the league. It’s just the way that penalties are called, too, and the league wants offense and they love that aspect of teams coming from behind like that.”

Those rules include more penalties called for obstructing, hooking, holding and slashing and increased advantages on faceoffs for the offensive team. Just like the standings that are set up to be neck-and-neck down the stretch to the playoffs, the modern game is designed for no team to be out of a game.

When David Quinn’s New York Rangers went down 4-0 at Montreal this season, the second-year coach considered it a little unfair based on their effort. They won 6-5 in regulation.

”One of the things we talked about in between the first and second period was: ‘Don’t play the score. If you do the right thing over and over again, the game will reward you,”’ Quinn recalled. ”And I thought that’s what happened. Within a game, you’ve got to be mentally tough, and you’re going to have to have resiliency.”

See the Panthers, who stunned Anaheim and Boston with those four-goal comebacks. Quenneville has been behind an NHL bench for a long time and doesn’t have a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.

”You get a fortunate break on a bounce here, and it can really shift the momentum,” Quenneville said. ”There’s been a lot of offense in this year’s game, teams going for it. You’ve got a 4-0 lead, whether you take your foot off the pedal and all of a sudden you maybe relax a little bit, but the other team’s pressing, they’re pinching, they’re taking more offensive zone chances and thinking that way. You get a couple of breaks and all of a sudden, the other team’s on their heels.”

Much of it is psychological. Players after building a big lead could naturally think their heavy lifting is over for the game. Those on the other side are just getting started.

”The team that’s ahead, as much as you fight it, there’s a natural instinct to just ease off the gas a little and give (up) opportunities,” said Matt Niskanen, whose Philadelphia Flyers recently beat the Bruins in a shootout after trailing by three goals. ”Mentally, you tell yourself, ‘Don’t let up, keep playing the same way because we’re having success for a reason.’ It’s a really hard thing to fight.”

After reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins lead the Atlantic Division at the All-Star break despite a penchant for blowing leads (and their 0-7 shootout record isn’t ideal).

”We’ve got to bear down,” Boston center Patrice Bergeron said. ”You can’t just have a good effort, be satisfied with that, and then just play for a half a game.”

Half a game isn’t enough, especially since hockey has moved toward more offensively skilled players and away from those tasked with keeping the puck out of the net. There’s also the fact that 25 of 31 teams are either in or within 10 points of a playoff spot, and it’s hard for teams to dominate a whole game — let alone a season.

”It just shows the parity of the league and that on any given night, everybody can beat somebody else” Reirden said ”It’s extremely competitive.”

Carlson, Makar, McDavid among PHWA 2020 midseason award winners

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For the third year in a row the Professional Hockey Writers Association has released midseason awards as its members submitted ballots in the days leading up the 2020 NHL All-Star break.

“We’re proud of the work our members put in throughout the entire season, crunching numbers, following trends and speaking to sources to gather the best ballot possible,” PHWA president Frank Seravalli said. “The Midseason Awards are the latest example of that, beginning an independent evaluation process in January that won’t conclude until early April when the real ballots are returned.” 

There were 117 writers representing all 32 PHWA chapters who cast ballots for 10 awards, including the Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng, and Selke.

There were also votes for the Vezina Trophy, GM of the Year, as well as two non-traditional awards, including the Rod Langway Award, for best “defensive defenseman,” and Comeback Player of the Year, awarded to a player who has returned to a previous high level of performance that was interrupted by subpar play, long-term injury or major illness.

Here are the results:

Hart Trophy to the player adjudged to be most valuable to his team.
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
3. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins 

Norris Trophy to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-round ability in the position.
1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
3. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes 

Selke Trophy to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.
1. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
2. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
3. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues 

Calder Trophy to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition.
1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres 

[NHL AWARDS: PHT hands out hardware at the All-Star Break]

Lady Byng Trophy to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.
1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues 

Vezina Trophy to the goaltender adjudged to be the best at his position.
1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
2. Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars
3. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes 

Jack Adams Award to the coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.
1. Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins
2. John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets
3. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues 

Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award to the General Manager adjusted to have contributed most to his team’s success.
1. Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche
2. John Chayka, Arizona Coyotes
3. Doug Armstrong, St. Louis Blues 

Rod Langway Award to the defenseman who best excels in the defensive aspect of the game.
1. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators 

Comeback Player of the Year Award to the player who returned to a previous high level of performance that was interrupted by subpar play, long-term injury or major illness.
1. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
2. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators
3. Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights 

Established in 1962, the Professional Hockey Writers Association is dedicated to preserving the rights and improving the access for members of the North American- based media who cover ice hockey. The PHWA is comprised of approximately 300 dues-paying members in NHL markets who write about the sport for newspapers, magazines and online media. PHWA members vote on the following seven NHL Awards: Hart Trophy, Calder Trophy, Selke Trophy, Lady Byng Trophy, Norris Trophy, Masterton Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy, in addition to NHL All-Star and All-Rookie teams.

PHT Morning Skate: Mystery of McDavid’s knee injury; Should Penguins make trades?

McDavid knee Morning Skate
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Don’t be surprised if the elite women’s hockey 3-on-3 ends up being the best part of the 2020 NHL All-Star Game. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Solving the mystery of Connor McDavid‘s knee injury. (Edmonton Journal)

• Arguing in favor of the Penguins being aggressive and making a trade to improve their supporting cast. Sidney Crosby is 32, while Evgeni Malkin is 33. Kris Letang is also 32. You never know when your championship window is truly going to close, so why not go for it? (Pensburgh)

• What the Maple Leafs can learn from the hated Bruins. (The Star)

• Could the Jets’ slippage cost Paul Maurice his job? The fellow is basically a coaching vampire, so I’ll believe it when I see it. (National Post)

• Rick Tocchet feels like most of us about replacing Gerard Gallant as Pacific All-Star coach because the latter was fired: weird. (Ottawa Sun)

• Justin Williams exceeded expectations during his return to the Hurricanes. (Charlotte News & Observer)

• Comparing Alex Ovechkin‘s remarkable 2019-20 season to his other best sniping years. He’s basically a Terminator robot on skates … right down to some good one-liners. (Japers’ Rink)

• Which forwards should the Ducks look to trade? I agree with Jake Rudolph that trading Ryan Getzlaf would be wise, and also agree that getting Getzlaf to sign off on a trade is a whole other ballgame. (Anaheim Calling)

• Gus Katsaros explores why the Islanders haven’t drawn many penalties. (Rotoworld)

• The Blues are showing off impressive depth during what’s been a strong title defense so far. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Larry Brooks argues that a lack of urgency might submarine the Rangers’ playoff hopes. Personally, I think “rarely having the puck” and “being bad at defense” rank higher on their list of worries. (New York Post)

• Breaking down the coaching job Alain Vigneault is pulling off with the Philadelphia Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Can the Coyotes use the All-Star break to regroup? They’ve slipped a bit lately. (Five for Howling)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.