David Backes

Bruins face plenty of salary cap pressure

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

The Bruins have been a contender for quite some time in the NHL. Inevitably, that comes with the price tag of salary cap headaches.

On the bright side, they’re in a better spot than many of their peers. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand don’t just comprise arguably the best all-around line in the NHL; they’re also all getting paid far less than market value. Those values are the headliners, yet they also have other team-friendly deals with Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Charlie Coyle.

Yet, as fair as it is that Don Sweeney won GM of the Year, he faces some tough work ahead — during the rest of this offseason, and also through the next one.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | X-factor] | Three questions]

By Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Bruins have approximately $7.294M in cap space heading into 2019-20, but that number is misleading, because key RFA defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo still need to get paid.

Bruins legend and exec Cam Neely spoke of what Sweeney and the team are currently going through in an interview with NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty.

“Across the league, [negotiations with RFAs] has been like sweeping mud. Unfortunately, it’s still status quo [with Carlo and McAvoy],” Neely said. “The history since Don [Sweeney] has been here is that when we negotiate, we do it from a position of fairness. We do a lot of work at comps around the league and try to get a deal done that’s fair. We start with initial offers that are fair and that’s been no different with Brandon and Charlie.”

One can debate McAvoy’s value – he’s a star in my opinion, while the Bruins argue that injuries hurt his case – but the bottom line is that a defenseman of his caliber could eat up close to $7M alone, even without the (dubious) threat of offer sheets.

Recent history shows that the Bruins have deftly found ways to use their own limitations and leverage to get bargains. The dream is probably for McAvoy to sign the sort of relatively cheap bridge deal Torey Krug did, as Krug signed for just $5.25M per year when things were tight in 2016.

The downside of bridge deals is that they only buy you so much time, and the bill is coming for Krug, as he’s entering a contract year. So, beyond finding immediate answers for McAvoy and Carlo, the Bruins must also ponder their approach for 2020-21.

For all of Sweeney’s many wise decisions, contending teams feel the sting of mistakes.

  • David Backes struggles to even crack the top 12 forwards, and while his contract only lasts for two more seasons, it comes at the whopping cost of $6M. If his rugged career isn’t enough to eventually land him on LTIR, then he’s the biggest headache going forward. Maybe the expansion draft would save Boston, even if it meant bribing Seattle and convincing Backes to waive clauses?
  • John Moore would be another bribe case, although his $2.75M AAV lasts through 2022-23, which is tough to fathom.
  • Moving Kevan Miller seems the most doable, as his $2.5M cap hit expires after 2019-20.

Chances are, the Bruins will find a way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Will they eventually need to wave goodbye to Charlie Coyle, whose bargain $3.2M cap hit evaporates after 2019-20? Could we see David Krejci trade rumors crop up again?

It’s one thing to get under the cap, yet the Bruins also want to contend, making this a challenging juggling act. To the Bruins’ credit, they’re at least not juggling chainsaws like peers who are in even bigger binds, but they’ll need to exhibit serious skill (and enjoy some serious luck) if they’ll end this exhibition with the crowd going wild.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Jets, Lightning still have big RFA challenges to deal with

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This year’s restricted free agent market has been one of the most intriguing ones we have seen in years. Not only is it loaded with players that already among the league’s best, but we already saw an offer-sheet come in when the Montreal Canadiens attempted to snag Sebastien Aho away from the Carolina Hurricanes. It was an offer that was quickly matched by the Hurricanes. As things stand on Saturday, Aho is the only one of those top RFA’s that has a new contract while Mikko Rantanen, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Patrick Laine, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, Brock Boeser, and Kyle Connor (among others) all remain unsigned, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.

Some of these situations will easily get resolved. The Avalanche have more salary cap space than any team in the league and no other significant contracts to work out, so while Rantanen will get a huge pay raise, the Avalanche have more than enough space to work it out. The same is true in Columbus with Werenski where they still have more than $15 million in cap space after their free agent exodus.

Beyond them, most of the focus with the RFA market has been pointed in Toronto’s direction where the Maple Leafs have to re-sign Marner and (hopefully) avoid a repeat of last year’s William Nylander situation. But for as complicated as the Marner contract has been and still might be, the Maple Leafs still have more than $10 million in LTIR contracts to stash at the start of the season with David Clarkson and Nathan Horton.

It is going to be difficult, but it may not even be the most difficult one in the league.

Here are four teams that might have might even more headaches to deal with.

Winnipeg Jets

Good news: The Jets have more salary cap space ($17 million) than all but one team in the league, which would seem to put them in a really good position under the cap.

Bad news: As of Saturday they only have 17 players under contract for the 2019-20 season (no other team in the league has less than 19) and have two major RFA’s in need of new deals in Laine and Connor.

Laine is already one of the NHL’s most lethal goal scorers and is coming off a 30-goal season that was universally considered to be a “down” year for him, while Connor has scored at least 30 goals himself two years in a row. There have only been 17 players to top the 30-goal mark in each of the past two seasons, and the Jets not only have two of them, but they are both in need of new contracts right now.

Unless one (or both) is willing to take a significant discount on their next deal the duo is likely to cost the Jets at least $14 million against the salary cap. Those two deals are going to eat up almost all of their remaining cap space while they still have to fill out a roster around them. Even with some free agent departures this summer the Jets are still in a position where they are going to have to do some juggling to keep their two best young players.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning already had one of the deepest forward groups in the league even before Brayden Point was one of the league’s big breakout stars during the 2018-19 season.

Now that he has joined their core of top-tier players, the time has come to pay him. The Lightning have roughly $5 million in salary cap space this summer, which will obviously not be enough to pay a 22-year-old winger coming off of a 40-goal, 90-point season whose best days are still ahead of him. They will be placing Ryan Callahan on LTIR, giving them another $5 million to work with and that will certainly help in the short-term. Point won’t be a $10 million player, but the Lightning also have an upcoming arbitration situation with Adam Erne and three more significant RFA’s next summer (starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, forward Anthony Cirelli, and defender Mikhail Sergachev). All of that is going to add up, and you have to wonder if it might make a forward like Alex Killorn (four more years at $4.45 million per season) expendable.

Vancouver Canucks

This is an underrated and overlooked nightmare situation. The Canucks three-highest paid players are Loui Eriksson, Tyler Myers, and a 33-year-old Alexander Edler (all making $6 million per year), while they also have around $14 million going to the quartet of Brandon Sutter, Tanner Pearson, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle. A classic case of a bunch of small mistakes adding up to one big headache that hurts a team in trying to keep its stars. They only have $5 million in salary cap space to re-sign Boeser, their second best player and one of the best young snipers in the league. That is not enough. They need to move as many of the aforementioned contracts as they can, not only to help re-sign Boeser this summer, but to improve their long-term outlook as well.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins’ roster is almost entirely set for the 2019-20 season with two big exceptions: Defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. The Bruins have roughly $7 million in salary cap space to make it happen, but that is going to be tight. Like Werenski in Columbus, McAvoy has earned a substantial contract extension with his play. Carlo may not be a star, but he is a rock-solid defender that needs re-signed. Together, they might cost at least $10 million. Shedding one of David Backes, Charlie Coyle, Kevan Miller, or John Moore would help.

More NHL Offseason:
Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo
Long-term contracts for depth players is usually losing move for NHL teams
Cap Crunch: Rangers, Penguins, Flames among teams that still need moves

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Signing depth players long-term is usually losing move for NHL teams

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The Nashville Predators’ decision to sign Colton Sissons to a seven-year contract earlier this week certainly raised a lot of eyebrows around the NHL.

As PHT’s James O’Brien argued immediately after the signing, the salary cap hit is pretty reasonable and it might even be a decent value right now.

But it’s the salary cap that puts every contract in the league under a microscope. Teams only have so much money to spend, and every dollar they spend on one player is a dollar they do not have to spend on another player. Every dollar counts, especially if you a contending team that is probably going to be spending close to the cap. Mistakes and misevaluations matter, and if you get caught with too many of them at once it can have a negative impact. Because of that, teams need to make sure they are using their limited amount of money in the most efficient way possible, properly prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t, and the players that are worth committing to.

Traditionally, teams have mostly avoided long-term commitments to players that are not top-line players. This is especially true among teams that win and go deep in the playoffs. I say “mostly avoided” because there have been several instances outside of Nashville where teams have given lengthy term to depth players. The New York Islanders signed forwards Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck to five-year deals, and third-pairing defender Scott Mayfield to a seven-year deal. The Detroit Red Wings have Justin Adbelkader and Darren Helm on five-plus year contracts. The Kings gave Kyle Clifford a five-year deal several years back. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave Brandon Tanev a six-year contract this summer to play in their bottom-six after giving Jack Johnson a five-year contract one year ago.

Those are just a few examples of players that are currently under contract.

The question, though, is why teams would ever want to do this.

The answer is simple: By giving the player more term and more individual long-term security, it brings the salary cap hit down a little and helps the team in the short-term. But is that extra savings worth the long-term commitment to a player that may not retain their value over the duration of the contract?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

One thing that has stood out about recent Stanley Cup winners and contenders is that pretty much none of them have had long-term commitments (five years or more) to players that played regularly outside of their top-six forwards or top-four defenders. It is practically unheard of. Identifying consistent lines and who is a “depth” player is a mostly inexact science. Coaches change line combinations constantly over the course of a season and a player’s role within a team can be a very fluid situation. For this, I simply tried to use even-strength usage as a way to identify a player’s spot in the lineup.

The table below shows the past six Stanley Cup winners and the players they had signed to contracts of five years or more in the years they won the Stanley Cup. Players highlighted in yellow were signed for six years (or more) at the time of the championship. Take a look at the names and see if you can identify a trend … they are almost all top-line players.

The only players on that table that were not either a starting goalie, a top-six forward, or a top-four defender are Olli Maatta with Pittsburgh in 2016-17 (he was top-four in 2015-16) and Mike Richards with Los Angeles in 2013-14 (he signed that contract in Philadelphia when he was a first-line center, and was a second-line center upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 2011-12).

I also looked at every team that made at least the Conference Finals in those seasons and found only five instances where a depth player was signed for more than five years. And even they have some asterisks next to them because they were at least signed with the intention of being more significant parts of their team.

  • Alex Killorn, signed for seven years, was outside of Tampa Bay’s top-six during their 2017-18 Eastern Conference Final run, but was in its top-six during its runs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. When he was signed, the Lightning probably figured he was going to be more of a top-line player. He has since been surpassed by a wave of talent that came after him.
  • Ryan Callahan also played third/fourth-line minutes for the Lightning during the 2017-18 playoffs but, like Killorn, played bigger roles in 2014-15 and 2016-17.
  • The Sharks had defensemen Brenden Dillon signed for five years to play third-pairing minutes 2018-19 and 2015-16 during their postseason runs
  • John Moore and David Backes (both signed for five years) were depth players on the 2018-19 Bruins.

Pretty much all of the Conference Finalists, and especially the Stanley Cup Finalists, over the past six full seasons had long-term investments in their stars and filled out their depth with younger, entry-level players and short-term veterans.

They were not giving out term to non-core players.

The problem with giving out term to depth players is that they can tend to be replaceable talents that may not maintain their current value throughout the duration of that term. You run the risk of that player regressing and not having the roster flexibility to bring in a cheaper and/or better player. If a star player ages and declines, they are still probably going to be giving you a solid return on that investment. The depth player may not, if they are even able to justify a roster spot.

Let’s take Sissons as an example. Right now he is a fine NHL player. Solid defensively, can chip in some offense, and plays a tough and often times thankless role within the Predators lineup. At around $3 million per year he is a fine investment … for now. Between the 2000-01 and 2012-13 seasons there were 14 players that were at a similar point in their development: Players that had played at least 140 games during the ages 24 and 25 seasons and averaged between 0.30 and 0.40 points per game, exactly where Sissons is right now.

Only five of those 14 players played an additional seven seasons in the NHL.

In professional sports dollars, an extra million or two over a couple of years is nothing more than a drop in the bucket to teams. But when the teams are limited by their leagues in what they can spend on players, little mistakes can quickly add up to big mistakes. The Penguins, for example, are now on the hook for $7 million over the next four years for the Johnson-Tanev duo, which is an egregious use of salary space for a contender pressed against the cap that is trying to get another Stanley Cup out of its Hall of Fame core over the next few years.

It is not just good teams, either. The Vancouver Canucks have spent the past two offseasons throwing big-money at the bottom of their roster and will enter this season with $12 million in salary cap space going to Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tyler Myers for multiple years. The result of that is a bad team that only has $5 million in salary cap space and still needs to sign restricted free agent Brock Boeser. They are now in a position where they have to play hardball with their second-best player to get him signed, or have to make a desperation trade to clear salary cap space. It’s a headache that would have been easily avoidable had they not overspent on the bottom of their lineup.

As much as teams want cost certainty with their players and trying to secure their long-term salary cap outlook, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to commit so many years to a player that isn’t going to be an impact player or a part of your core. The value probably will not remain, and it is going to limit what you are able to do in the future. There is not a third-or fourth-line player in the league right now that is so good at what they do that it is worth committing to it for five, six, or seven years. Age will eventually catch up to those players, and when they decline it is going to hit them even harder than the decline of a star.

Commit to your stars long-term because they can not easily be replaced.

The players around them usually can be.

More NHL Free Agency:
Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year contract
Predators being bold with term, but is it smart?
NHL Free Agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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The Boston Bruins fell one win short of spoiling Boston sports fans with yet another championship, but as long as key players don’t age too poorly, there’s a strong chance that they’ll be a contender again in 2019-20.

Even with some deft cap management – David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand ranked first and second in a top 10 best contracts list from The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn (sub required) – the Bruins face a snug salary cap situation, both before 2019-20 begins and beyond.

Most immediately, they have already-star defenseman Charlie McAvoy and solid blueliner Brandon Carlo to deal with as RFAs. After re-signing Danton Heinen, things are getting pretty tight:

It’s easy to justify McAvoy as a $7M defenseman alone, so this is a challenge.

That said, the Bruins can force open some extra daylight. In projecting the Bruins’ 2019-20 lineup, The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa points out that, with David Backes‘ clause changing from no-movement to no-trade, the Bruins could enjoy mild cap relief if they sent Backes to the AHL.

It would indeed be mild, though, as it would save Boston a bit more than $1M, but every bit might count.

If they really want true breathing room, the Bruins should wrestle with the best ways to handle that full Backes $6M cap hit, which expires after 2020-21.

To be specific, Boston needs to think long and hard about bribing a rebuilding team like the Ottawa Senators or Detroit Red Wings to take on that burden, at the cost of picks and/or prospects from Boston. Would it be worth it to get rid of Backes’ contract even if it cost something similar to Toronto burning a first-round pick to get Patrick Marleau off of the books? That would sting, but let’s be honest: the Bruins certainly are planning for that first-rounder to be a mediocre pick, if not one at the end of 2020.

There’s actually an especially devious way to handle that.

The Bruins could make like a sweaty, flustered businessman and show their emptied pockets to Charlie McAvoy, thus keeping his cap hit down. The Sharks played that card brilliantly with Kevin Labanc, and it sure felt like something similar happened with Torey Krug on his current deal, as he was clearly worth more than $5.25M, even as early as June 2016.

After signing McAvoy (and to a lesser priority, Carlo), the Bruins then can truly ramp up their efforts to move the Backes deal, so that they can line up some of that Backes money to re-sign Krug, who is in line for a significant raise from $5.25M after his current contract expires following the 2019-20 season.

Ideally, for the Bruins, they could lock McAvoy to a bargain contract akin to that of Marchand and Pastrnak, as McAvoy is absolutely a star, and then eventually keep the sometimes-underrated Krug in the fold.

Maybe that means stomaching a painful price to get rid of Backes, and perhaps that means that Boston won’t be able to keep some nice pieces like Charlie Coyle and Carlo around much longer. The luxury of having $2.75M to spend on a quality backup/platoon goalie like Jaroslav Halak might run out soon, too. As dominant as the top line with Patrice Bergeron can be, the Bruins truly took off when the Coyles of the world were able to provide support. Boston might not enjoy that level of depth very long.

This management group already extended a competitive window that sure felt like it was closing toward the end of the Chiarelli era, though, and there’s room to work with to wedge it open even longer. Doing so might require some cleverness, and maybe swallowing some pride to get rid of that Backes mistake, though.

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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.

NHL Free agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

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Exactly six years ago Friday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made one of the most infamous free agent signings in the salary cap era when they inked David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. It was a dubious signing from the very beginning due to Clarkson’s age (he was already 29 years old) and lack of consistent, top-line production in the NHL. Adding to the absurdity was the reception of the contract in Toronto (comparing him to Wendel Clark) and the way then-general manager Dave Nonis defended the signing from any and all criticism by saying, “I’m not worried about six or seven right now. I’m worried about one. And year one, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

How did that work out?

In year one Clarkson scored five goals in 60 games, was a colossal bust, and was then traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets halfway through year two of the contract for Nathan Horton, another free agent bust from the same offseason whose career would be derailed and ultimately ended by injury. The Maple Leafs knew Horton would never play again and the whole trade was nothing more than a way to shed an albatross contract that looked to be a mistake from the start. It was an obvious — and ultimately legal — circumvention of the league’s salary cap.

Clarkson’s contract is far from the only one that has gotten general managers in trouble for signing a player for too many years in free agency. Almost every time the justification is similar to the one Nonis gave for the Clarkson signing: We’re not worried about four or five years, we just want to win right now.

Most of them never win “right now,” and almost all of them are looking for a way out within two years.

Between the summers of 2009 and 2016 there were 35 unrestricted free agents signed to contracts of five years or longer.

What sort of return did teams get on those investments?

Let’s start with this, showing the result of each signing.

[Related: PHT 2019 Free Agent Signing Tracker]

This only includes players that actually changed teams as UFA’s. It does not include re-signings of players still under contract with their current team (contract extensions), or the re-signing of restricted free agents.

• Fourteen of the 35 players were traded before the end of their contract term. That includes nine players that were traded before completing three full seasons with their new team. Most of these trades were salary dumps or an exchange of undesirable contracts.

• Ten of the contracts ended in a buyout, usually after three or four seasons.

• There are only three players signed during this time period that are still playing out their contracts with their current teams: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota, and Michael Frolik with the Calgary Flames. The latter has been mentioned in trade rumors for more than a year now.

• Only four players played out the entire term with the team that signed them: Paul Martin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anton Stralman with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Brian Gionta with the Montreal Canadiens, and Dan Hamhuis with the Vancouver Canucks.

• Three players had their careers ended by injury before the duration of the contract: Marian Hossa with the Chicago Blackhawks, Ryane Clowe with the New Jersey Devils, and Mattias Ohlund with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

• On average, those 35 players played out just 57 percent of their contract term with the team that signed them. Fourteen of them played out only half of the contract or less.

• If you want to go with the “I don’t care what happens in six years as long as we win the Stanley Cup with this player” argument, the only players in the above sampling that actually won a Stanley Cup with the team that signed them during their contract were Hossa in Chicago and Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Washington. The only others to even play in the Stanley Cup Final were Anton Stralman, Valtteri Filpulla, and Matt Carle in Tampa Bay, and Brad Richards with the New York Rangers (he was bought out the following summer after three years of a 10-year contract).

What did teams learn from this sampling?

Mostly nothing, because they have kept doing it.

Between the 2016 and 2018 offseasons there were 13 UFA contracts of five years or more signed, and the early returns are already looking disastrous.

In the summer of 2016 the following deals were signed.

  • David Backes to the Boston Bruins for five years at $6 million per year
  • Kyle Okposo to the Buffalo Sabres for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Frans Nielsen to the Detroit Red Wings for six years at $5.25 million per year
  • Milan Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Loui Eriksson to the Vancouver Canucks for six years at $5.5 million per year
  • James Reimer to the Florida Panthers for five years at $3.4 million per year
  • Andrew Ladd to the New York Islanders for seven years at $5.5 million per year

Not sure there is anybody that would look at any of those contracts just three years later and argue that any of those teams are getting what they hoped to get. Reimer has already been traded so the Panthers could give another long-term deal to a different goalie (Sergei Bobrovsky) this offseason, while the rest of the contracts have all quickly become an albatross for every team that signed them.

There were six contracts signed over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons with Alexander Radulov, Karl Alzner, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Jack Johnson, and John Moore all getting contracts of five years or more.

So far the Radulov and Tavares contracts look to be the best investments and have provided the most return.

Alzner spent time in the AHL this past season, while Johnson has been the subject of trade rumors after just one season in Pittsburgh.

This offseason seven teams have decided to bet against history and take their chances on long-term deals.

  • Vancouver signed Tyler Myers to a five-year contract
  • New York signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract
  • Florida signed Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract
  • Pittsburgh signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract
  • Nashville signed Matt Duchene to a seven-year contract
  • New York Islanders re-signed Anders Lee to a seven-year contract

History suggests that probably at least five of these players will be playing for a different team within two or three years.

The players that have had the highest chances of playing out most of their contract are the high-end players (first-or second-line forwards; top-pairing defenders) that are still reasonably close to the prime of their careers, so that might be good news for the Rangers and Panarin and maybe — emphasis maybe — Duchene and the Predators.

All of the rest? These look like textbook deals that are destined to end in a salary dump trade or a buyout within a couple of years.

If a player makes it to unrestricted free agency you should know what you are bidding on and adjust your expectations accordingly. It is usually a player that has almost certainly already played their most productive hockey in the NHL, and it is usually a player that their former team didn’t feel was worth the money or term they were going to be able to get on the open market. It is rare that a team allows a player it actually wants to re-sign and values make it to free agency.

Elite players like Tavares and Panarin are the exception.

The end result is a bidding war for a declining player that probably isn’t as good as you think, which then ultimately leads to a team paying a player to NOT play for them (buyout), or trading them for another player another team doesn’t want, or giving up a more valuable asset to entice a team to take your bad contract in a trade.

NHL Free agency: Sometimes the best way to win is to not play.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.