Salary cap economics squeezing out NHL’s middle class

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Stanley Cup-winning experience isn’t worth what it used to be. Neither is experience of any kind.

As NHL teams move toward paying their stars more money and relying on young players to fill the gaps, hockey’s middle class is being squeezed out. Veterans like 2018 Washington Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly are finding it increasingly difficult to land guaranteed contracts and are often forced to go to training camp on professional tryout agreements, which cover potential injuries at camp and not much else.

Hockey perhaps more than any other professional sport has put a premium on veteran players over the years. Guys who have been there before, have some grey in their beards and are valued at least as much for team chemistry in the locker room as they are for what they do on the ice.

Adding the salary cap in 2005 began the process of devaluing these so-called ”glue guys” because there is only so much money to go around. This year, that cap is $81.5 million for a team and there is no wiggle room – teams are not allowed to play if they are over the limit.

”It’s sad because these veteran players are monumental to the team,” St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Especially these guys that have won, too, like Devante Smith-Pelly. He’s been in every situation. He’s a guy that you’d want to have because he’s going to help and he’s been in these situations. When it comes around again, it’s not going to faze him.”

Smith-Pelly and Andrew MacDonald in Calgary, Troy Brouwer in Florida, Matt Read in Toronto and Drew Stafford in Minnesota are among the experienced NHL players on camp tryouts this year. Even more are settling for one-year, prove-it contracts like 2019 Cup winner Patrick Maroon (31 years old) and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (30) with Tampa Bay, Derick Brassard (31) with the New York Islanders, defenseman Ben Hutton (26) with Los Angeles and forward Riley Sheahan (27) with Edmonton.

Shattenkirk went from making $7 million last season with the Rangers to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million.

”There’s something for me to prove,” Shattenkirk said. ”I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now.”

This is all related to how the salary cap is managed.

Across the league, there are 32 players who chew up 10% or more of his team’s $81.5 million salary-cap space – with more potentially on the way when Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine sign deals. For example, Connor McDavid accounts for over 15% of Edmonton’s cap space.

It is a trend that shows the value of elite talent but it means there is less money to go around for complementary players who are not on entry-level contracts. A handful of players also have expressed concern that restricted free agents are making more out of their entry-level contracts than ever before, further scrambling available money for support players.

”Teams, they want to take a shot on a young guy that has got an upside they see,” O’Reilly said. ”It’s tough because there’s so many good players out there that aren’t getting jobs because of it.”

Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, 31, and Patrick Kane, 30, eat up almost 26% of the Blackhawks’ cap space. They combined to win the Stanley Cup three times, but their deals and rich ones given to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to be blamed for a lack of depth in Chicago, which has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Toews said he understands the economics of the league aren’t getting any easier for players as they get older.

”It’s tough,” Toews said. ”It just goes to show you can’t take anything for granted, even though you’ve been in the league or you’re a proven player at this level. You start getting into your 30s … you realize that the league’s only going to get younger, it’s only going to get stronger, it’s only going to get better.”

It’s not just older players, either. Smith-Pelly is 27, Joe Morrow is 26 and trying to make the Rangers and fellow defenseman Alex Petrovic is 27 as a long shot to get a contract with Boston.

Grinding forward Garnet Hathaway played the past two seasons on one-year deals in Calgary making under $1 million each year. He went into free agency a bit nervous but was able to land a four-year, $6 million contract and some security with the Capitals, who also signed Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal and Richard Panik for four years after each player had bounced around the league.

”Contracts are hard to come by in this league,” Hathaway said. ”It’s such a competitive league. Guys I know personally that have gone through it, they’re some of the most competitive guys. It’s guys who have played in this league a long time and have great careers. You wish them the best of luck, but it’s competitive.”

Our Line Starts podcast: Montgomery’s firing; drafting the All-Decade Team

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the surprise firing of Stars coach Jim Montgomery. The guys also give their takes on Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to handle abuse. Pierre McGuire sits down with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger to talk about his time in Europe and his path from the Premier League back to the NHL. Plus, Jones and Sharp reveal their top defensemen and goalies of the decade. Do you agree with them?

Start-0:45 Intros
0:45-7:25 Reaction to Dallas firing Jim Montgomery
7:25-14:10 Gary Bettman and the NHL’s 4-point plan
14:10-32:50 Pierre interviews Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
36:05-End The guys begin to draft their All-Decade Team

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

The Buzzer: Avalanche keep rolling; Capitals clip Bruins

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Three Stars

1. T.J. Oshie, Washington Capitals.

With only one goal in his previous 10 games, Oshie scored two beautiful goals in the Capitals’ 3-2 win against the Bruins on Wednesday Night Hockey. The American forward recorded a power-play goal early in the second period to knot the score 1-1. Oshie rang a shot off the crossbar after a crafty deke and then found the loose puck behind Jaroslav Halak to pick up his 12th of the season. Then, Oshie scored the goal of the night when he avoided Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton and converted a breakaway opportunity to give Washington a 2-1 lead.

2. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche.

In his sixth game back since suffering a lower-body injury that kept him out of the lineup for 16 games, Rantanen notched two goals to help the Colorado Avalanche earn a 3-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Finnish forward tapped in a pretty pass from Nathan MacKinnon to extend the Avalanche advantage to 2-0 in the second period. In the third, Rantanen sealed the game after Nazem Kadri delivered a perfect pass. Colorado has kept pace in the competitive Central Division with Rantanen sidelined, but will now look to emerge as the class of the division with the return of its star forward.

3. Cayden Primeau, Montreal Canadiens.

The first NHL win for any goaltender is always a special moment. Primeau made 35 saves as the Montreal Canadiens skated to a 3-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators.  Primeau, 20, was the No. 199 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft and is the son of former NHL All-Star forward Keith Primeau. He was recalled from the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate on Tuesday after Montreal placed Keith Kinkaid on waivers.

Highlights of the Night

Oshie performed a nifty deke around a Bruins defender, then converted a breakaway while drawing a penalty.

Carter Hart submitted another candidate for the save of the year with this impressive glove save.

Factoids

  • Carlson (33 GP) required the fewest games by a defenseman to record his 45th point of a season since Al MacInnis in 1990-91 (32 GP w/ CGY). [NHL PR]
  • Carlson’s five game-winning goals (33 GP) are one shy of the Capitals single-season franchise record by defensemen (Kevin Hatcher: 6 in 83 GP, 1992-93). [NHL PR]

  • Only four goaltenders in Canadiens history recorded their first NHL win at a younger age than Primeau. [NHL PR]

  • Primeau is the second goalie in as many seasons to record his first NHL win prior to his 21st birthday. The other: Carter Hart on Dec. 18, 2018 w/ PHI (20 years, 127 days). [NHL PR]
  • Rantanen has collected 20 points in 15 or fewer games for the second time in his career [NHL PR].

Scores

Capitals 3, Bruins 2

Canadiens 3, Senators 2 (OT)

Avalanche 3, Flyers 1

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

Rantanen’s goals help Avalanche defeat Flyers, extend point streak

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Mikko Rantanen scored twice and the Colorado Avalanche extended their point streak to eight games with a 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Matt Calvert also scored, and Pavel Francouz made 32 saves in Colorado’s seventh win over the past eight games.

Claude Giroux scored the lone Flyers goal late in the third period and Carter Hart made 25 saves, but the Flyers fell in regulation for only the second time in the previous 10 outings (7-2-1).

Francouz provides boost between the pipes

With Avalanche starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer sidelined with a lower-body injury, Francouz made his fourth straight appearance and collected his eighth win of the season with a strong performance against the Flyers.

After a rocky showing against the Flames earlier this week which resulted in a 5-4 overtime loss, Francouz bounced back and was a steadying force in the crease. Claude Giroux ended Francouz’s shutout bid late in the third period, but the Czech goalie held off a late push from Philadelphia.

After a second-round defeat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avalanche have eyes on home-ice advantage in the 2020 postseason. If Francouz can provide consistent goaltending when called upon, they certainly have the star power up front to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

Kadri acquisition paying early dividends

Colorado general manager Joe Sakic acquired Nazem Kadri this past summer to help the Avalanche become a deeper team with improved secondary scoring. With 21 points in 28 games this season, Kadri has added another element to Colorado’s dynamic offensive attack.

Early in the third period Wednesday, Kadri patiently waited behind the Flyers’ net until Rantanen skated into position to convert a one-timer to give Colorado a three-goal third-period lead.

The Avalanche’s top line is one of the most lethal trios in the NHL, but Colorado is that much more dangerous if Kadri continues to provide an extra boost.

Looking ahead for Flyers

The Flyers began a three-game road trip against Central Division opponents with a loss against the Avalanche, but cannot let one game ruin the momentum they have generated with strong play in recent weeks. The Flyers will travel to Minnesota and Winnipeg over the weekend and need to continue to secure points to keep pace in the Metropolitan Division.

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

Oshie, Carlson lift Capitals over Bruins in mid-season test

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The 82-game regular season is a marathon for NHL teams, but at various points of the season you want to measure yourself up against a top team in your conference.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals defeated the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins 3-2 at Capital One Arena.

John Carlson scored the go-ahead goal 4:42 into the third period to help propel the Capitals. T.J. Oshie scored twice and Braden Holtby made 30 saves as the Capitals collected their seventh win in the previous eight games.

David Pastrnak scored his NHL-leading 26th goal for Boston but the Bruins have dropped four consecutive games (0-3-1).

Oshie often overlooked

Whether it’s Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Carlson or Holtby, Oshie is often neglected when listing the Capitals’ star power.

Since being acquired in July of 2015, Oshie has been a consistent offensive threat for the Capitals in the previous four-plus seasons. He has averaged 25.5 goals and added his 12th and 13th of this season in stellar fashion on Wednesday.

Oshie made a quick deke to his forehand before ringing a shot off the crossbar, but then finished his own rebound to even the score early in the second period.

Oshie gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead with a highlight-reel goal. The American forward danced around Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton before converting a nifty deke 3:30 after his first of the game.

While other players in Washington’s lineup receive credit for the Capitals’ strong play in recent years, Oshie should not be forgotten about as he has proven to be a key piece to the puzzle in Washington.

Pastrnak remains red-hot

The Czech winger has solidified himself as one the best pure goal scorers in the NHL today and recorded his 26th goal of the season on Wednesday. No. 88 is on pace for 67 goals this season and has helped the Boston Bruins secure a 10-point lead in the Atlantic Division.

Pastrnak tallied a short-side snipe to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead against the Capitals Wednesday. Defenseman Charlie McAvoy was able to complete a cross-ice pass because centerman Patrice Bergeron skated hard to the net in order to create an open passing lane.

If Pastrnak is able to continue this torrid pace, he could be in line to collect a lot of hardware at the NHL Awards show and help the Bruins collect a trophy they fell just short of last season.

Ovechkin’s office

The sign of dominance in any competitive sport is if you can continue to repeat an action while your opponent is aware of what is coming.

For Alex Ovechkin, his presence from the left circle throughout the course of his career has been spectacular. The captain of the Washington Capitals has recorded 299 of his 679 goals (44%) from the left circle or above. And since the 2012-13 season, 54% of his goals have come from that spot on the ice.

NHL teams will continue to game plan and know exactly where No. 8 will be on the ice, especially when Washington is on a power play, but his excellence from that area should be viewed in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky’s operation from behind the net.

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