Before any of the top NHL free agents had agreed to a deal this week, general manager Chuck Fletcher declared the Flyers out of contention for all of them because of “the reality of our cap situation.”
“We don’t have the cap space to pursue those high-end type of free agents,” Fletcher said. “It probably precluded us from looking at some of the more expensive options in the market.”
If that sounds depressing for Flyers fans, it is. But it was also the grim reality for a number of teams across the NHL grapping with a salary cap ceiling that rose only $1 million this year as the league rebounds from the financial impact of the pandemic. It was the first increase since 2019.
Being locked in salary cap jail prevented the Flyers from bringing home Gaudreau, the MVP-caliber star who grew up just across the river in New Jersey. Similar issues forced the Vegas Golden Knights to essentially give away six-time 30-goal scorer Max Pacioretty for nothing, and the New York Islanders were never able to really enter the Gaudreau sweepstakes.
Thing is, other teams navigated this landscape just fine.
Columbus got Gaudreau, New Jersey added two-time Stanley Cup champion Ondrej Palat and Detroit signed a handful of players by taking advantage of cap space. Some teams clearly did a much better job managing the tight market.
“If you didn’t have room or a potential to make room, you wouldn’t have this type of opportunities,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said Thursday while sitting next to Gaudreau, who signed a $68.25 million, eight-year deal with Columbus. “It’s not an easy world when you have good players. It’s a great problem to have if you have too many good players and then time comes, especially in these days when the salary cap’s been flat, that something has to give.”
[NHL free agency tracker 2022: Full list of offseason signings]
Sure, that’s the case for the 2020 and 2021 champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who watched Palat and dependable defenseman Jan Rutta depart in free agency while extending three younger members of their core.
The Flyers, on the other hand, lack high-end talent and are burdened by big-money contracts despite missing the playoffs each of the past two seasons. Gaudreau’s desire to leave Calgary and play for the team he grew up rooting for seemed to make it a natural fit, and they even started clearing room by buying out fan favorite, 25-year-old cancer survivor Oskar Lindblom.
In the end, Philadelphia couldn’t shed the $7 million final season of James van Riemsdyk’s contract or make other moves to land Gaudreau.
“You’d have to move multiple contracts to be able to do that,” Fletcher said. “You have to have a team (willing to take them). In some cases, contracts are extremely hard to move.”
Based on the $9.75 million cap hit Gaudreau agreed to with the Blue Jackets, the Flyers would have had the room had they simply decided not to double down on underachieving defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen during the season by signing him for $5 million annually, or ink Tony DeAngelo last week for the same rate after sending second-, third-, and fourth-round picks to Carolina for his rights.
The Hurricanes gladly took that draft capital and pounced when cap-strapped Vegas needed to clear space to re-sign Reilly Smith. Carolina got Pacioretty and young defenseman Dylan Coghlan for “future considerations” because Vegas was in a bind.
“We needed to create some flexibility to sign some young players in our hockey club,” Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon told reporters. “We identified this as being the best path.”
Montreal GM Kent Hughes put it this way: “Heck, Carolina, picked up two pretty good hockey players for very little.”
Pacioretty’s contract having the same cap hit and length as van Riemsdyk’s made the Flyers’ inability to clear the decks for Gaudreau, Kadri, Klingberg or another top free agent stand out even more, even if the players don’t have the same track record in terms of production.
Asked about not being willing to part with a first-round pick to free up money, Fletcher said that in some cases it would have cost even more.
“I talked to a lot of teams over the last little while about maybe ways to get cap flexibility,” he said. “We looked at some different options, but the price of moving contracts is really expensive.”
More expensive in the long term might be a half-empty arena in a sports-crazy town that has become apathetic about its hockey team. The climb back to relevance is just beginning for the Red Wings, who shelled out contracts worth more than $60 million on Wednesday alone.
It’s something GM Steve Yzerman — who built up the Lightning before leaving to go back to Detroit — was able to do because he managed the cap so well. Three years ago, he decided not to spend a lot of money and picked his spot.
“We have roster spots, we have cap space — there were players there that we felt would help us and not really deviate from what we’re trying to do, but also not necessarily give maximum term and maximum dollar to players,” Yzerman said. “With the cap situation the last couple of years, it has had an effect on what some teams can do and some teams want to do.”
Or, more notably, what they might want to do but can’t. Kekalainen made sure the Blue Jackets were ready when Gaudreau was available.
“We had to crunch numbers and look at different things, and we all agreed that we just can’t pass on an opportunity like this,” he said.