Richard Panik

Salary cap economics squeezing out NHL’s middle class

4 Comments

Stanley Cup-winning experience isn’t worth what it used to be. Neither is experience of any kind.

As NHL teams move toward paying their stars more money and relying on young players to fill the gaps, hockey’s middle class is being squeezed out. Veterans like 2018 Washington Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly are finding it increasingly difficult to land guaranteed contracts and are often forced to go to training camp on professional tryout agreements, which cover potential injuries at camp and not much else.

Hockey perhaps more than any other professional sport has put a premium on veteran players over the years. Guys who have been there before, have some grey in their beards and are valued at least as much for team chemistry in the locker room as they are for what they do on the ice.

Adding the salary cap in 2005 began the process of devaluing these so-called ”glue guys” because there is only so much money to go around. This year, that cap is $81.5 million for a team and there is no wiggle room – teams are not allowed to play if they are over the limit.

”It’s sad because these veteran players are monumental to the team,” St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Especially these guys that have won, too, like Devante Smith-Pelly. He’s been in every situation. He’s a guy that you’d want to have because he’s going to help and he’s been in these situations. When it comes around again, it’s not going to faze him.”

Smith-Pelly and Andrew MacDonald in Calgary, Troy Brouwer in Florida, Matt Read in Toronto and Drew Stafford in Minnesota are among the experienced NHL players on camp tryouts this year. Even more are settling for one-year, prove-it contracts like 2019 Cup winner Patrick Maroon (31 years old) and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (30) with Tampa Bay, Derick Brassard (31) with the New York Islanders, defenseman Ben Hutton (26) with Los Angeles and forward Riley Sheahan (27) with Edmonton.

Shattenkirk went from making $7 million last season with the Rangers to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million.

”There’s something for me to prove,” Shattenkirk said. ”I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now.”

This is all related to how the salary cap is managed.

Across the league, there are 32 players who chew up 10% or more of his team’s $81.5 million salary-cap space – with more potentially on the way when Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine sign deals. For example, Connor McDavid accounts for over 15% of Edmonton’s cap space.

It is a trend that shows the value of elite talent but it means there is less money to go around for complementary players who are not on entry-level contracts. A handful of players also have expressed concern that restricted free agents are making more out of their entry-level contracts than ever before, further scrambling available money for support players.

”Teams, they want to take a shot on a young guy that has got an upside they see,” O’Reilly said. ”It’s tough because there’s so many good players out there that aren’t getting jobs because of it.”

Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, 31, and Patrick Kane, 30, eat up almost 26% of the Blackhawks’ cap space. They combined to win the Stanley Cup three times, but their deals and rich ones given to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to be blamed for a lack of depth in Chicago, which has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Toews said he understands the economics of the league aren’t getting any easier for players as they get older.

”It’s tough,” Toews said. ”It just goes to show you can’t take anything for granted, even though you’ve been in the league or you’re a proven player at this level. You start getting into your 30s … you realize that the league’s only going to get younger, it’s only going to get stronger, it’s only going to get better.”

It’s not just older players, either. Smith-Pelly is 27, Joe Morrow is 26 and trying to make the Rangers and fellow defenseman Alex Petrovic is 27 as a long shot to get a contract with Boston.

Grinding forward Garnet Hathaway played the past two seasons on one-year deals in Calgary making under $1 million each year. He went into free agency a bit nervous but was able to land a four-year, $6 million contract and some security with the Capitals, who also signed Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal and Richard Panik for four years after each player had bounced around the league.

”Contracts are hard to come by in this league,” Hathaway said. ”It’s such a competitive league. Guys I know personally that have gone through it, they’re some of the most competitive guys. It’s guys who have played in this league a long time and have great careers. You wish them the best of luck, but it’s competitive.”

Three key questions for Capitals in 2019-20

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 Washington Capitals. 

Let’s ponder three questions for the Capitals …

1. Will Evgeny Kuznetsov get on track?

It’s been a whirlwind year or so for Kuznetsov, as he’s gone from a key contributor during that memorable Stanley Cup run (eagle celebrations and all) to attracting a lot of negative attention off the ice, to the point that the IIHF suspended him for four years after he tested positive for cocaine during the 2019 World Championship.

One can only speculate about whether off-ice issues have affected Kuznetsov’s play, but either way, you could argue that he didn’t always perform up to his own (lofty) standards in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov hasn’t ever really resembled a Selke candidate, but his defensive numbers were a little troubling last season, as you can see from the mix of good (offense) and bad (defense) in his RAPM chart from Evolving Wild:

Kuznetsov has things to work on, even if the NHL doesn’t add any additional fines or suspensions stemming from that IIHF suspension.

Even with some flaws that magnified last season, Kuznetsov is a difference-maker for the Capitals on the ice, so it’s a pivotal situation for Washington.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

2. Can the Capitals’ core hang with the best of the best?

The Kuznetsov question spirals out to an even deeper one: does this team still have what it takes to hang with the absolute cream of the crop?

This isn’t meant as an insult to a Capitals team that has a strong chance to win another Metropolitan Division. Instead, it just speaks to the level of talent at the top of the NHL, especially in an Atlantic Division that’s downright foreboding at the top.

When you line up the Capitals’ biggest stars and strengths up alongside what the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Bruins, and possibly a few other East standouts, how often do you expect Washington to prevail?

Much like with Boston, the Capitals have managed to find some nice players beyond their core, but they’re still driven by their core. And while that group is by no means “ancient,” you have to wonder if enough players will lose enough steps that they might not be favorites. Alex Ovechkin is 33, Nicklas Backstrom is 31, T.J. Oshie is somehow 32, and plenty of other players are close to 30.

For years, the Capitals have been a team who’ve generated some troubling possession stats, yet they’ve consistently beat expectations, whether that’s by manufacturing the higher-danger chances needed, or merely having the sheer skill to overcome often allowing more raw chances than they create (or at other times, barely keeping their heads above water). What if 2019-20 is the season where that skill edge starts to recede?

3. Will a tweaked supporting cast flourish?

GM Brian MacLellan did a masterful job navigating salary cap challenges, even if it forced him to say goodbye to Andre Burakovsky, Matt Niskanen, and Brett Connolly. More than a few wonder if bringing in Radko Gudas for Niskanen improved their defense, rather than merely opening up money. Richard Panik could end up being a savvy pickup like Connolly once was, even if the two bring value in different ways.

Yet, MacLellan maneuvering well given the circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean that the Capitals’ supporting cast will be better.

That could be key, too, if the aforementioned core group takes a step back. Along with getting the most out of newcomers, the Capitals have to hope that players like Jakub Vrana can take the next step forward.

***

One way or another, this Capitals team seems primed to be quite good. Answering those questions – and addressing the contract situations for Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom – will go a long way in answering how good the Capitals will end up being, though.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

It’s Washington Capitals Day at PHT

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 Washington Capitals. 

2018-19
48-26-8, 104 points (1st in the Metropolitan Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference).
Playoffs: Eliminated in Round 1 by the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games.

IN
Radko Gudas
Richard Panik
Bredan Leipsic

OUT
Brooks Orpik
Brett Connolly
Dmitrij Jaskin
Matt Niskanen

RE-SIGNED
Carl Hagelin
Jakub Vrana
Christian Djoos
Chandler Stephenson

2018-19 Season Summary

For the first time in franchise history, the Capitals came into a season as defending Stanley Cup Champions. Captain Alex Ovechkin had been waiting to hoist the cup over his head for years, and when he finally got to do it he made it count. He and the Caps partied and partied and partied throughout the summer. Did it affect them heading into training camp? Not really.

The Capitals still managed to come away with the Metropolitan Division crown and they finished third in the top three in the Eastern Conference standings. Unfortunately for them, their regular-season success didn’t transform into a long playoff run, as they went head-to-head with the Eastern Conference’s version of Cinderella, the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Capitals won the first two games of the series at home before dropping Games 3 and 4 in Carolina. When the series shifted back to Washington for Game 5, the Caps came out and dominated 6-0 to put the ‘Canes on the brink of elimination. What happened next was quite surprising. Carolina came out and won Game 6 at home and they finished the job by beating the Caps in their own building in double OT.

It was a stunning end to another relatively successful season for Washington.

“The core guys played well in the playoffs, I thought,” general manager Brian MacLellan said, per NHL.com. “It was the people around the core that could have been criticized a little bit. So we changed the people around the core. Hopefully, we addressed what we thought was the reason we lost to Carolina.”

[MORE: Three Questions | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

It’s tough to argue with MacLellan’s logic here. Ovechkin had nine points in seven games, Nicklas Backstrom had eight points in seven games, Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was a little quiet in the road games of the series, still finished with six points in seven games, while Tom Wilson and John Carlson each had five points in the series.

Brett Connolly, Andrei Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen all had just two points in the first round matchup. It’s probably not a coincidence that all three players weren’t brought back. In fairness to Connolly, he signed with Florida during free agency and the Caps didn’t have a ton of cap space to bring him back. Niskanen was shipped to Philadelphia in a trade and Burakovsky wasn’t extended a qualifying offer.

“We ended up having a good year,” MacLellan said. “But in the playoffs, it was inconsistent, for me, and I don’t know if it’s a fatigue thing or some other thing that we realized the battle that was ahead of us and weren’t up to the challenge. I’m not sure. I don’t have the exact thing pinpointed, but because of that, we felt we needed to change the group a little bit.”

With Brooks Orpik retiring, the Caps decided to add Radko Gudas from Philadelphia. He’ll add some sandpaper to the back end. They also brought in Richard Panik, who had 14 goals and 33 points in 75 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season. How much will these additions add to the core group?

There are other question marks surrounding this team heading into this year that we’ll tackle at PHT throughout the day.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s Arizona Coyotes Day at PHT

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 Arizona Coyotes. 

2018-19
39-35-8, 86 points (4th in Pacific Division, 9th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Phil Kessel
Carl Soderberg
Beau Bennett

OUT
Alex Galchenyuk
Kevin Connauton
Nick Cousins
Richard Panik
Josh Archibald

RE-SIGNED
Lawson Crouse
Hudson Fasching
Ilya Lyubushkin

2018-19 Season Summary

The Coyotes opened last season by dropping four of their first five games but they found a way to go on a five-game winning streak in late October/early November. The rest of 2018 was very much up and down for them, which is something you’d expect from a young team.

They managed to get really hot in late February/early March, as they won six games in a row and eight of nine contests. Just as they were building momentum in their fight for a playoff spot, the wheels fell off again in March when they dropped seven of their last 11 games that month.

In the end, they ended up missing the playoffs by just four points and they only had one fewer regulation/overtime win than Colorado, who finished in the final Wild Card spot.

It’s easy to look at the Coyotes’ season as a failure, but they’ve clearly built some positive momentum heading into the summer. Head coach Rick Tocchet found a way to get the most out of his group of players. They were so close to the postseason despite not having starting goalie Antti Raanta for most of the season (they used five different goalies last year) and they didn’t have any player hit the 20-goal or 50-point mark in 2018-19 (Yeah, you read that correctly).

Tocchet isn’t the only one that deserves credit. Goalie Darcy Kuemper turned in strong performance after strong performance throughout the campaign. This was Kuemper’s first real opportunity to be a starting goaltender in the NHL and he didn’t disappoint. The 29-year-old finished the year with a 27-20-8 record, a 2.33 goals-against-average and a .925 save percentage. He kept them in the race. Now that Raanta is healthy again, it’ll be interesting to see how the two netminders split starts next season.

[MORE COYOTES: Under Pressure: Kessel | X-factor | Three questions]

Heading into the season, Arizona probably expected a little more production from Clayton Keller. The 21-year-old had 23 goals and 65 points in 82 games during his rookie season, but he followed that up by scoring 14 goals and 47 points in the same amount of games in year two. It’s totally normal for a player to take a step back in the second year of his career, but the diminished production may have been the difference between playing in the playoffs and watching them from home.

And the other thing that hurt the Coyotes was the failed Alex Galchenyuk experiment. GM John Chayka traded Max Domi to Montreal to get Galchenyuk, but he only lasted one year in the desert. Yes, trading him away allowed the team to get Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh, but it must have been hard for the ‘Yotes to watch Domi score over 70 points for the Habs while Galchenyuk managed just 41 points in 72 games. Apparently Chayka saw all he needed to see from the 25-year-old in just one season.

The Coyotes were a nice little story in 2018-19, but they have to find a way to turn the corner this season. They have a new owner, some new players and a coaching staff that has another year under their belt. They have to find a way to get themselves in one of the top eight spots in the Western Conference. Signing Oliver Ekman-Larsson to a long-term deal will help keep them competitive and adding veterans like Kessel and Carl Soderberg should give them a nudge in the right direction, too.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Capitals have some huge decisions to make with key players

Getty
5 Comments

Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is going to have one of the more complex juggling acts in the NHL over the next year.

His team is just one year removed from its first ever Stanley Cup and is still, as currently constructed, a championship contender that should be one of the best teams in the league this season. They still have their core of stars in place, and they have worked to improve the depth around them with the recent additions of Carl Hagelin (before the trade deadline this past season), Richard Panik, and Garnet Hathaway.

For this season, everything is in place right for another run at a championship.

It is what happens after this season when things will get complicated as Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby will be eligible for unrestricted free agency, while Alex Ovechkin will be set to enter the final year of his contract.

Those are three of the most important players in the history of the Capitals franchise and the backbone of the team that finally brought the Stanley Cup to the district.

It is almost kind of hard to believe that Backstrom and Ovechkin are so close to the end of their deals given how long those contracts were. Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million contract that began during the 2008-09 season, while Backstrom signed a 10-year, $67 million contract for the start of the 2010-11 season. Given how much the Capitals have received in return from those two they might be two of the best contracts signed during the salary cap era (honestly, the only other contenders are the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin duo in Pittsburgh).

Now they are starting to reach their end because father time is a relentless monster that is always chasing after each and everyone of us. Time really does fly.

MacLellan’s challenge will be figuring out how to keep them, and which one to let go if it should come to that.

Let’s start with the obvious one: As long as he wants to play in the NHL it is almost impossible to believe that Ovechkin will ever wear a sweater that is not the Capitals. He is one of the “one team” icons in the sport, and there is no way Ted Leonsis is going to let him chase Wayne Gretzky’s goal record (and perhaps even reach it) with another team. That is just not going to happen. He stays.

But there is nothing the Capitals can do with Ovechkin’s contract until next July. They can, however, sign Backstrom or Holtby at any point starting right now.

This is where the big decision might have to come in, because given the constraints of the salary cap it is hard to see how they can fit all three on the team beyond this season.

The Capitals have a lot of players signed to long-term contracts, and already have 15 players under contract for 2020-21 and 13 players under contract for the 2021-22 season. Trying to figure out what the salary cap is going to look like in either of those years is nearly impossible right now, but the Capitals already have $62 million committed to their 2020-21 roster and nearly $50 million for the year after.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a lot, and they not only have to worry about re-signing their superstars, but also filling out the remainder of the roster around them.

When it comes to prioritizing between Backstrom and Holtby the most sensible investment would seem to be Backstrom. He is a No. 1 center, still one of the best players in the world, and should continue to be a top-line performer into his 30s.

Will he decline some? Almost certainly. But what he gives the Capitals will still be better than the alternatives they might realistically be able to acquire.

That leaves Holtby. The problem the Capitals will have with Holtby is you already saw what his next contract might look like this summer when Sergei Bobrovsky signed with the Florida Panthers. That is going to be a massive contract to squeeze in under the cap when taking into account Backstrom’s next deal (which will probably be a raise, and maybe a significant one, from his current contract) and the eventual extension for Ovechkin (almost certainly $10 million-plus per season).

The only real to realistically do that is going to be shipping out another significant player in a trade.

Tom Wilson? T.J. Oshie? Dmitry Orlov? Or perhaps a combination depth players that are signed to term. The Lars Eller, Hagelin, and Panik trio will combine for $9 million against the cap in each of the next four seasons, all for depth players well into their 30s. Will that be the best use of salary cap space? (This is the risk with signing depth players to long-term contracts.)

But that is IF the Capitals want to make that sort of a commitment to Holtby.

He has been one of the best goalies in the league during his career and is still capable of shining in big moments and carrying the team when he is on top of his game. But over the past two seasons (and including the Stanley Cup year, when he did not even enter the playoffs as the starter) those moments have not been as frequent. He has started to shown signs of slowing down, and investing a seven-or eight-year contract into a goalie that will be 31 years old in the first year of his next deal could be too big of a risk.

If the Capitals have to move on from one of their big-three, Holtby is the most logical choice. He is the one that is probably least likely to retain most of his current value in future seasons, and even though he has been a top-tier goalie for so many years he is also probably the one they have the best chance of replacing.

The Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby era has been an incredible success in Washington, winning two Presidents’ Trophy and a Stanley Cup all in the past four years.

But with their current contracts coming to an end it is entirely possible that one of them — probably Holtby — will be finishing their career in a different uniform barring some other significant change elsewhere on the roster.

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.