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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    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

    NEW COACHES

    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

    CAMP TRYOUTS

    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

    EARLY START

    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”