Pressure ratchets up on already cap-strapped teams

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News of a lower-than-expected salary cap for the 2019-20 season would have put a damper on the 2019 NHL Draft over the weekend for some NHL outfits.

The number, $81.5 million, came down shortly after the conclusion of the final round of Saturday’s seventh round and was $1.5 million shy of what was expected to be around $83 million since December.

For some, they leave Vancouver unperturbed by the news. Not every team is experiencing a cap crunch this season. But for others, the flight home may have been slightly sweatier, and not because of any in-flight turbulence, but rather the increased instability on the balance sheet heading into next season.

Let’s take a look at a few teams who are feeling the squeeze the most with the news.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs 

For a team that still has a player hoping to make $11 million at least, it’s not ideal that even with the trade of Patrick Marleau, there’s only $13.5 million to play with and roughly $7 million of that expected to go to Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen as soon as Sunday. Toronto’s price to shed Marleau came in a future first-round pick, which came along with Marleau to Carolina. That means Kyle Dubas needs to trim even more fat off his roster to make way to accommodate Marner’s Auston Matthews-like cap hit.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

As of Sunday, the Golden Knights have $0 in cap space. In fact, they’re over the limit. And they still have William Karlsson, a restricted free agent, to pay, and perhaps Brendan Pirri, and unrestricted free agent, too. Someone’s got to go.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

The sell-off began on Saturday when J.T. Miller and his $5.25 million contract was shipped to Vancouver. The Lightning must make room for Brayden Point, who is going to command a pretty penny. With Miller’s departure, they have just over $10 million to spend, with most, if not all, going to Point. And it gets worse for Tampa next season when Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s time as a very underpaid Vezina winner comes to an end.

4. Winnipeg Jets

Perhaps the best example of building through the draft and then having to consider parting ways with players they’ve pumped all sorts of development into, the Jets have been forced into making decisions such as trading Nikolaj Ehlers (along with trading Jacob Trouba, although in a much different scenario).

The Jets have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor this offseason, two deals that could combine for $18 million or somewhere in that region. Winnipeg has $23 million to throw around at the moment, but Laine and Connor are just two players on a roster that only has 14 signed so far for next season. Like it has in the past, the Jets will employ the services of players they’ve developed after drafting them.

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It’s hard not to sympathize with teams who draft well, develop better and then have to sell off those players or others as a punishment for doing a good job as an organization.

But the realities of a capless world means teams with owners that have the deepest pockets would most likely reign supreme.

Perhaps there’s a compromise? What about teams not having to count players they draft and develop against the cap? Or perhaps only a portion of their salary, so they don’t have to sell off those players down the road because they’re forced to be cap compliant?

For now, every team dealing in the upper limits is forced to adapt.

We saw that on Saturday with the trade of P.K. Subban out of Nashville to the New Jersey Devils. We saw it with the aforementioned Lightning and Miller. And we will see more of it in the days and weeks to come with other teams plastered to the ceiling.

“I know we’ve taken a good player off our team so I can’t sit here and say we’re a better team for doing that,” Preds GM David Poile told the media in Vancouver on Saturday.

“We had to make a business decision. With an aim at strengthening our forward corps this offseason, and the continued strength of our defensive group, we felt it was necessary to clear up salary cap space this way.”

Parity in the NHL comes at a cost, but one has to wonder if that cost won’t become a point of contention somewhere down the line.

Being penalized for drafting well or pulling off a shrewd move or two shouldn’t sit well for teams in an uber-competitive league, where every advantage is needed to get ahead.

At the moment, it’s a feeding frenzy for bottom-feeding teams who can absorb large contracts and get immediately better — see: New Jersey. The Devils could go from a terrible team in 2018-19 to a playoff contender with Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban. Meanwhile, a team like the Predators — a legitimate Stanley Cup contender — perhaps ceases to be that caliber of a team, at least for now.

Nobody said life was fair.

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
• Shero on Subban trade, Hall’s future with Devils
• 
Round 1 draft tracker
• Rounds 2-7 draft tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.