NHL Power Rankings: Teams hit hardest by flat $81.5M salary cap

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As focused as NHL teams are on the present with the ambitious return to play, the CBA extension introducing a flat salary cap for 2020-21 leaves GMs (and fans) with plenty to think about.

Sure, there are NHL teams who can take advantage of a flat salary cap. That’s a post for another day — maybe a future edition of PHT’s power rankings?

But, overall, there are plenty of NHL contenders and hopefuls who are sweating that flat salary cap far more than there are those ready to circle like vultures. At minimum, the flat NHL salary cap presents huge obstacles for 2020-21. The ripple effects of COVID-19 could affect multiple seasons, especially if the world continues to struggle to contain the coronavirus.

Let’s power rank the five NHL teams hit the hardest by the flat $81.5 million salary cap, then. While the larger future will be considered, these rankings weigh the offseason heading into 2020-21 most heavily.

Frankly, plenty of teams will sweat this situation, so the honorable mentions section is quite robust.

[At least there’s the NHL return-to-play schedule to look forward to.]

Power rankings: 5 NHL teams hit hardest by the flat salary cap

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Even in an ideal, pandemic-free world, the Lightning would need to tighten their belts. This franchise is a lot like the dynasty-era Blackhawks when it comes to perennial cap crunches, only they sadly don’t have the jewelry to show for it. But with the NHL salary cap flat at $81.5M? That belt-tightening morphs into the potential for painful surgeries.

After all, with about $76M already devoted to 15 players (give or take), things would be snug. Then you factor in talented RFAs Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev deserving significant raises, and … yikes. It’s the sort of thing that might make you want to jet ski out of town.

(Cirelli can’t wait tables forever.)

Infomercial voice: But that’s not all.

To make matters worse, Lightning GM Julien BriseBois faces potential hurdles in no-trade/no-movement clauses. Via Cap Friendly, supporting cast members such as Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn all own such clauses. So, it’s not just about who you’d want to move out (as painful as that already would be), but it’s also about who you could convince to leave.

Even by their frequently cap-challenged standards, the Lightning have their work cut out for them.

2. St. Louis Blues

The Lightning and Blues could really be a 1a/1b situation.

Much like Tampa Bay was expecting struggles even with a cap increase, the Blues likely knew that it would be difficult to keep Alex Pietrangelo. With about $79.45M devote to their roster, how could St. Louis afford a Norris-level defenseman like Pietrangelo? Heck, how can they make it work to keep underrated RFA blueliner Vince Dunn?

Also like the Lightning, it might come down to the Blues convincing players to waive clauses, or finding snug fits to places they’d accept.

Maybe the Blues could make it work by moving a combination of Alexander Steen, Jake Allen, and/or a more painful loss like Brayden Schenn or Jaden Schwartz. Or maybe the Blues lose Pietrangelo, still need to make an uncomfortable decision or two, and need to find a way to stay afloat?

Good thing they won at least one Stanley Cup, eh?

3. Arizona Coyotes

It’s OK if you’re doing a double-take at the Coyotes now. Aren’t they supposed to be a team barely making it to the floor? Weren’t they putting Chris Pronger and Pavel Datsyuk on their cap just to get there?

Well, over the years, the Coyotes have quietly been getting more and more expensive. They haven’t always got what they paid for, but this isn’t a wholly cheap team. (Although there’s still a Marian Hossa here or there on LTIR.)

Cap Friendly places Arizona’s cap allocation at almost $80M devoted to 17 players.

And that’s without Taylor Hall. Trading for Hall represented a statement that the Coyotes want to be taken seriously. Making him more than a rental would really cement that, but could Arizona really make that work — assuming Hall would return?

The Coyotes might deal with many of the same trade clause headaches as others (Phil Kessel, Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski, Carl Soderberg), although bribing someone to take on Derek Stepan‘s $6.5M could be key. It may not be easy to find an oasis in this salary cap desert.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are like a family trying to divvy up a pizza pie. You already had some hungry siblings who were going to leave little more than toppings and crust (see: expensive stars Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner). Now concerned parent/GM Kyle Dubas must deal with being delivered a medium pizza instead of the extra large he was expecting before the flat NHL salary cap.

At least in this coming offseason, he doesn’t have too many overly important mouths to feed.

(Yes, that lengthy pizza parallel is my hunger staining this conversation like grease on a pizza box.)

The flat salary cap hurts the Maple Leafs hardest in trying to make more aggressive moves toward improving. Maybe they can stem the tide of losing flawed-but-featured defensemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci. But will they get better in hoping internal options like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren can sink, not swim? That remains to be seen.

But Dubas would also probably be wise to get proactive, because the bill is coming soon for key players. If the Maple Leafs want to keep one or more of Frederik Andersen (contract runs through 2020-21) and Morgan Rielly (through 2021-22), it will probably mean making some painful trades during the offseason.

The long-term outlook for the Maple Leafs is bumpy. They’re placed slightly lower in these specific power rankings because other teams face even more immediate concerns, though.

5. New York Islanders

Unlike others on this list, the Islanders aren’t already almost bumping their heads on that flat NHL salary cap ceiling. That said, their almost cozy-looking space (Cap Friendly puts them at about $73.4M pledged to 19 players) could get claustrophobic quickly.

Most importantly, the Islanders need to reach a deal with pending RFA star Mathew Barzal. Back about 20 years ago (OK, March), Lou Lamoriello said that the Islanders would match an offer sheet for Barzal. That’s comforting for Islanders fans who may still smart from losing John Tavares, but that doesn’t mean Barzal will be cheap. Frankly, his talent and importance to the Islanders probably justify a salary far exceeding their cap space.

Even at a discount, the Islanders won’t have much space to retain another important player in RFA defenseman Ryan Pulock. They’ll probably need to find a way to move some shaky contracts (such as those of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk), which is easier said than done, even for a master of the dark GM arts like Lamoriello.

Some teams below might technically face more immediate, in-your-face challenges. On the other hand, the uncomfortable thought for the Islanders is that they might face big bills with diminishing returns.

Quick thoughts on other teams likely to be hit hardest by flat NHL salary cap

You might believe that others deserve a mention, so feel free to chime in via the comments. A few quick hits before we go:

  • The Boston Bruins might rank as the biggest honorable mention. Even if you disagree, you’d likely admit that some pain may come. If they keep Torey Krug around, then Don Sweeney deserves a raise.
  • Then again, the Bruins aren’t alone in the honorable mentions. Much has been made of the Vancouver Canucks, who may feel enough of a squeeze to explain those Brock Boeser trade rumors, even if someone else ends up being the one standing at the end of flat NHL salary cap musical chairs.
  • The Washington Capitals face a conundrum with Braden Holtby, for sure. They also must try to figure out the future for Alex Ovechkin, whose lengthy contract wasn’t as lifetime as it seemed (it ends after 2020-21).
  • The Chicago Blackhawks are required to have cap issues. That’s simply the rule we must all abide by. In the latest iteration, it’s difficult to tell what might happen with their goaltending situation.
  • Again, this might be fodder for a future post, yet opportunistic rebuilding teams could feast if they’re creative. Why not take some short-term pain in the form of shaky contracts to earn long-term gains in future assets, particularly if you don’t expect your team to be very good anyway? A little further down the line, the flat/barely moving NHL salary cap could be a huge boon to the Seattle expansion team, too.

Who else will feel the crunch? Would you rank honorable mentions in the top five, or bump others out? Do tell.

MORE NHL POWER RANKINGS FROM PHT:

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.

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