Salary cap management defines 2022 NHL free agency

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Neither Nazem Kadri, Johnny Gaudreau nor John Klingberg could sign with the Flyers even if they had their sights set on Philadelphia.

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.

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    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

    METROPOLITAN DIVISION

    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

    ATLANTIC

    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

    CENTRAL

    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

    PACIFIC

    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”