salary cap analysis

Trade: Predators land McDonagh, Lightning gain salary cap room

Trade: Predators land McDonagh, Lightning gain salary cap room
Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images
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The Tampa Bay Lightning may not be reigning Stanley Cup champions any longer, but they still are masters at salary cap management. The Lightning traded Ryan McDonagh to the Predators in a move that opens up significant salary cap space for Tampa Bay.

Predators receive: Ryan McDonagh, 33, $6.75M cap hit through 2025-26.

Lightning receive: Philippe Myers, 25, and Grant Mismash.

Myers is supposed to count $2.55M on the cap. Yet, due to some salary cap quirks, a buyout could add to the Lightning salary cap savings in the McDonagh trade.

Then again, maybe not? Chris Johnston reports that the Lightning might keep Myers:

Lightning pull off the Band-Aid to open up salary cap space

The McDonagh trade is a big piece in the Lightning managing another challenging offseason of salary cap/free agent questions. Recently, the Lightning somewhat surprisingly signed Nicholas Paul to a lengthy contract.

It remains to be seen if the Lightning have opened up enough salary cap space to retain free agent Ondrej Palat.

Really, though, the salary cap savings might be even more important for the Lightning’s longer-term outlook.

Key mid-prime core members Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak all need new contracts (and likely big raises) after next season. Considering the lengthy term on McDonagh’s contract, this creates potentially pivotal breathing room.

Of course, the Lightning will miss Ryan McDonagh. During their bid for a Stanley Cup “three-peat,” McDonagh topped all Lightning players in playoff ice time at even-strength (19:12) and on the penalty kill (3:07). Those are tough minutes to replace.

But, when you’re a contending team, you simply have to make those kinds of calls.

McDonagh trade from Predators’ perspective

Honestly, at first blush, I hated the McDonagh trade for the Predators.

Yes, the 33-year-old’s been great, at times ranking among the NHL’s most underrated defensemen. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s on a troubling downward trend.

While there’s no shame in that (Father Time beats just about everyone, even Jaromir Jagr [allegedly]), the Predators now take on that risk. Years of wear and tear from deep runs both with the Rangers and Lightning can’t help matters.

Interestingly, different metrics are at least a bit friendlier or harsher toward McDonagh. For instance, McDonagh’s three-year Player Card from Evolving Hockey doesn’t look promising.

Yet, J Fresh’s dive into micro stats and different versions of metrics inspire at least a bit more optimism.

Still, it’s difficult to shake the notion that the Predators are heading toward some really dicey times.

As incredible as Roman Josi was last season, he’s already 32. Mattias Ekholm‘s 32, as well. That’s a pretty old trio of defensemen, combining for almost $22M in cap space and plenty of term.

Forsberg situation still important for Nashville

If the Predators keep Filip Forsberg, much of what looked like sneaky-promising cap space (Cap Friendly currently projects them at about $18.11M with a few spots to fill) will be gone. If not … why would you invest in McDonagh?

How promising do the 2021-22 Predators look if you add McDonagh, but make everyone a year older? If the Predators end up a clear playoff contender, then McDonagh’s the sort of defenseman who can help you greatly in those situations. If not, then GM David Poile added yet another aging player to an expensive roster that looks pretty old.

Also: even if the Lightning hold onto Myers, it’s also arguable that Nashville should’ve gotten more in a trade for his unusual contract.

Time will tell if the Predators end up happy with the McDonagh trade, but it’s a tidy (if painful) bit of business by the Lightning. Especially if they actually exercise that Myers buyout.

Dadonov – Weber trade a big salary cap win for Golden Knights

Dadonov - Weber trade a big salary cap win for Golden Knights
David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens and Golden Knights combined for a fascinating trade on Thursday. The short version is that Evgenii Dadonov goes to the Canadiens in the trade, while Shea Weber‘s contract (LTIR-bound) buys the Golden Knights serious salary cap relief.

The deal seems sensible enough for both teams.

Serious salary cap relief for Golden Knights with Shea Weber contract, Canadiens trade for Dadonov

Canadiens receive: Evgenii Dadonov

Golden Knights receive: Shea Weber

Montreal clears Weber contract, gains Dadonov

Dadonov, 33, carries a $5 million salary cap hit for one more season. During the past three seasons, he’s bounced from the Panthers (2019-20) to the Senators (2020-21) to the Golden Knights (2021-22) and finally the Canadiens. Of course, the Golden Knights tried to wiggle around salary cap issues with a Dadonov trade during the deadline. That move was invalidated.

To the utmost credit of Dadonov, he didn’t just suit up for the Golden Knights after that debacle. He was fantastic. Dadonov delivered to the point that he was a major reason Vegas stayed in the playoff hunt. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.

It’s still puzzling that the Canadiens didn’t receive a draft pick of any kind to sweeten this deal. Sure, it’s ideal to get out of Shea Weber’s contract, yet they at least projected the vibe of a rebuilder. Could that have just been a temporary thing?

TSN’s Darren Dreger floated Jeff Petry‘s name while leaning toward this eventual Weber move.

We’ll see if the Canadiens have other tricks up their sleeves. (There’s always the possibility that they dangle Dadonov in a future trade, too.)

Then again, maybe it was simply worth it to get out of Weber’s contract?

 

“Cleaner” is definitely a fair argument/synopsis overall.

Landing Weber contract without giving up picks: salary cap slam-dunk trade for the Golden Knights

It’s easiest to see the logic of the Dadonov – Weber trade from the Golden Knights’ side.

  • Most pressingly, the Golden Knights get out of that $5M Dadonov salary cap hit.
  • There are some areas where they can trip up, but Shea Weber’s contract may not be much of an issue for Vegas. The 36-year-old’s cap hit is about $7.857M per year through 2025-26, and it’s LTIR-bound.

Weber’s actual cost is also lower than his cap hit.

In 2022-23, he’s owed a $3M signing bonus (likely already paid) plus $1M in base salary. Over the following three seasons (2023-24 to 2025-26), Weber’s owed a $1M signing bonus plus $1M in base salary. It’s also possible that factors such as insurance might soften that already-manageable cost.

There may also be some fuzziness if Weber retires (rather than essentially being retired while getting paid, Chris Pronger-style).

It all makes me wonder if Shea Weber’s contract could get traded again before it expires. That structure could make a lot of sense to a rebuilding team trying to reach the salary cap floor.

[Earlier this week, Golden Knights hired Bruce Cassidy as head coach]

So … yeah, the Dadonov – Weber trade seems like a nice salary cap win for the Golden Knights. They still have serious work to do this offseason, however.

Does this beat the price the Golden Knights almost paid to Anaheim in the invalidated Dadonov trade, which included a second-rounder? I’d lean toward “Yes.”

If there’s a lesson to all of this, it’s that few contracts are truly “untradeable.”

Trade: Sabres do Stars a favor with Bishop salary cap dump

It’s sensible that the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres would rather weaponize their salary cap space for assets, instead of chase expensive free agents. But would the Sabres have been better off waiting to make better use of that salary cap space than absorbing Ben Bishop‘s contract in a trade with the Stars?

Bishop, 35, is effectively retired. His $4.9167M cap hit was headed for LTIR.

Now, the Sabres get to use it to help them reach the salary cap floor. Assuming his $1M signing bonus was covered, Bishop carries a $3.5M salary. As far as actual costs go, it gets fuzzy, as insurance may pay some or most of that salary.

Ultimately, the cap hit exceeds the actual cost for the Sabres. Still, the Stars only needed to fork over a seventh-round pick to rid themselves of what would at least be an offseason annoyance.

It’s logical, but maybe not optimal. My advice to other rebuilding teams is to weaponize their salary cap for better returns.

Other teams have weaponized salary cap space more effectively than Sabres absorbing Bishop from Stars

To be clear: the Stars might not have been willing to part with much of anything to trade Ben Bishop’s contract. Again, they could’ve moved his cap hit to LTIR instead. But by shaking that loose now, they get more wiggle room for the offseason. While you can exceed the salary cap’s upper limits knowing you’re moving a Bishop-type to LTIR, this is a cleaner solution for Dallas.

My main question isn’t if the Sabres extracted the right price specifically in a Ben Bishop trade. Instead, the question is whether they should’ve waited for something better. Teams are sweating a variety of salary cap/free agent situations, and the Sabres could’ve been an opportunistic broker.

Consider how the Arizona Coyotes feasted last offseason.

  • They turned a big problem (Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s contract) into a bucket of assets. Conor Garland‘s the part of the deal that stung, yet by the time the Coyotes may be competitive, Garland may be toward the end of his prime.
  • Much like the Canucks, the Flyers were sweaty and desperate. The Coyotes took Shayne Gostisbehere off the Flyers’ hands for a second-rounder. Don’t be shocked if the Coyotes turn around and trade “Ghost Bear” for more rebuilding fuel. (There was also the Andrew Ladd trade; again, the Coyotes feasted.)

It’s masterful stuff, which is not a phrase you use often regarding the woe-begotten Coyotes (woe-Yotes?).

[Long-form ravings about those rebuild steps]

There are other prime examples of teams weaponizing salary cap in more creative ways.

The Hurricanes got the Maple Leafs to burn a first-rounder to shed Patrick Marleau’s $6M salary cap hit. The Blackhawks went a different route, sending cheap forward Brandon Hagel to the Lightning for two first-rounders.

If the Sabres just want to do the bare minimum to reach the salary cap floor, they might have left an opportunity or two on the table. However, if they’re willing to be creative, chew on some ideas for the Sabres and other rebuilding teams.

Lucic, Monahan, Kassian, and other salary cap ‘bribe trade’ possibilities

Even when the amusing and surreal James Neal – Milan Lucic trade just happened, something struck me. Yes, of course, the Milan Lucic contract is awful. Over time, though, it becomes more digestible to move.

It’s basically a more extreme version of “the fine print” making Ben Bishop’s contract more desirable to a rebuilding team.

Look at the drop-off from Milan Lucic’s cap hit ($6M at first, $5.25M with retention) and what it actually costs (via Cap Friendly):

A base salary of just (approximately?) $1M versus a $5.25M? That could be manna for a rebuilding team.

Now, Lucic boasts trade protection, so that might exclude the Sabres. Personally, I’d wonder if the Kraken would work for Lucic, as he waived his clause during the expansion draft. Rebuilding teams might also make a logical pitch to Lucic that he’d play higher in that lineup than that of a contender, thus giving him a better chance of earning another contract.

Again, the Sabres might not be the Lucic fit, though it would be tremendous to see him pal around with Ryan Miller on jersey retirement night. Even if a Lucic contract move wouldn’t happen, the concept can be a template for the Sabres/other rebuilders to construct salary cap “bribe trades.”

  • Sean Monahan ($6.375M, expires after 2022-23) may experience hip problems serious enough to stay on LTIR. He also has a 10-team no-trade list, and a $6M salary. That said, he’s just 27, and might want a fresh start. Moving any of Monahan, Lucic, and/or Mikael Backlund could be essential to the Flames affording one or more of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. A rebuilding team should pounce on that desperation.

[NHL Power Rankings: Top potential free agents for 2022 offseason]

Anyway, that list features some fascinating options. Those are just some of the situations that stand out. Some mad scientist might get really creative (extra credit assignment: galaxy-brain a way a rebuilder could justify taking on a Sergei Bobrovsky trade).

Maybe those hypothetical scenarios lack much real-life weight. Perhaps the Sabres did all that they could with their salary cap space in the Ben Bishop trade. This offseason could provide answers (especially if GMs don’t take early vacations).

Note: Cap Friendly truly is a blessed resource for nerdy experiments.

How the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning were built

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It’s settled: the Tampa Bay Lightning will face the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. So, how did each team get here? Let’s look at how each Stanley Cup Finalist was built, starting with the Lightning, who hope to repeat as champs.

Once we get deep into NHL postseason, people start wondering about “lessons learned.”

Some of that boils down to hand-wringing about level of play. Will (stingy, sometimes-boring team of the moment) inspire other GMs to bog down play? Will rival GMs assume that a mostly finesse-based team got over the hump because of a handful of gritty players?

[X-Factors for the 2021 Stanley Cup Final]

Really, though, teams should really just try to learn the right lessons from how the Tampa Bay Lightning constructed their team. They’ve been the gold standard for team-building for so long, it’s still difficult to gauge how much credit Julien BriseBois deserves compared to former GM Steve Yzerman.

Maybe that irritates BriseBois. But overall? Yeah, that’s a good problem to have.

Let’s break down how the Lightning were built into a 2021 Stanley Cup Finalist.

Cap gymnastics, LTIR, Kucherov, and the elephant in the locker room

Sigh, we might as well begin with the thing people complain about, over and over again.

Usually, the people complaining about Nikita Kucherov lingering on LTIR, and the Lightning pulling off salary cap gymnastics are on message boards or social media. But even Dougie Hamilton (sort of) griped about it after his Hurricanes fell to the Bolts.

Whether you shrug your shoulders or grind your teeth about the Lightning’s salary cap circumvention/LTIR use, Kucherov said it well enough. They played by the rules, like them or not.

But zooming out from that more specific squabble, the Lightning remain the gold standard for team-building because of how masterfully they’ve handled the salary cap.

As you might say, this isn’t their first rodeo. And they’ve generally handled it all with the panache of someone doing a headstand on a jet ski.

It seemed like the Lightning might lose one of Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, or Brayden Point over the years. Nope. Every time, they kept those truly crucial core players. In just about every case, the Lightning convinced them to sign for below market value. For a moment, it seemed like maybe giving Andrei Vasilevskiy big money would backfire. Not so much; he’s somehow a steal at $9.5M.

(Signing Brayden Point at $6.75M for three seasons when he was already clearly a star? That’s almost insulting.)

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Each offseason, we wonder how the Lightning will wiggle out of the next salary cap challenge. They do it easily, leaving us to say “Ah, well, nevertheless …” while other teams make huge mistakes.

Look it at last time. The Lightning sure seemed to be vulnerable to an offer sheet for Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, or even Erik Cernak. Instead, Sergachev and Cirelli carry bargain $4.8M cap hits, and Cernak costs about half of that.

Does it help to play in a state with tax breaks like Florida? Sure. And there are only so many NHL markets where you can jet-ski up to your buds to celebrate the return from COVID.

For other teams — even ones with some, or all, of the Lightning’s advantages — salary cap management can be a nightmare. Meanwhile, the Lightning make salary cap management look easy.

How the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning were built Kucherov Sergachev Cooper
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Deft drafting, scouting, and development

Then again, it’s generally easier to get a good deal on a top-flight player if they’re already in your organization.

When you look at the core of the Lightning, you’ll see a 2021 Stanley Cup Finalist built largely through shrewd drafting.

  • There are the high picks: Steven Stamkos (No. 1 in 2008), Victor Hedman (No. 2 in 2009), and sort of Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th in 2012, when teams were more skittish about drafting goalies in the first round).
  • Of course, the steals are fun. Nikita Kucherov slipped to the second round (58th in 2011). Brayden Point ranks as Exhibit A in the Lightning valuing skill and bucking the trend of obsessing over size (79th in 2014). Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn were also third-round picks.
  • Sometimes good scouting also means unearthing quality undrafted players. Tyler Johnson isn’t the key player he once was for the Bolts, but he’s a prominent example of the team finding diamonds in the rough. Yanni Gourde is, essentially, the next Tyler Johnson.

Granted, there also seems to be a secret sauce to Tampa Bay’s development. The Lightning just keep pumping out players like these, with even departing gems becoming key players on other teams (Jonathan Marchessault, Carter Verhaeghe).

Luck, but also skill

When it comes to some of those steals, you can float some comments about luck. It’s the logic of deflating the Patriots stealing Tom Brady, the Red Wings unearthing Pavel Datsyuk, the Rangers drafting Henrik Lundqvist, and so on. “If they knew that player was so good, why did they pass on them?”

That’s a decent point. However, the Lightning also deserve credit for adopting a smart organizational philosophy. Over and over again, the Lightning signed and drafted smaller, skilled players other teams talked themselves out of. They’ve profited greatly.

(Consider it a “Moneyball” approach, in the broadest sense. Identify “market inefficiencies,” and exploit them with, well, ruthless efficiency.)

Even if you still chalk that up to pure luck, the Lightning sure have enjoyed a lot of it, eh?

Defense bolstered by trades

Again, the Lightning built their foundation by strong drafting, and keeping the most important players through salary cap management. Beyond Victor Hedman, they’ve built much of their defense through trades, though.

“Tougher to play against”

When the Lightning traded for Savard, they continued a recent deadline theme of becoming “tougher to play against.”

As you likely remember, the Lightning paid significant prices to land supporting cast forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow during the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline. At times, people exaggerated the impact of Goodrow and Coleman, giving them a bit too much credit compared to outstanding work from usual suspects Hedman, Kucherov, Point, and Vasilevskiy.

But those two made the Lightning better, allowing them to become a merciless matchup machine.

Such moves helped the Lightning become what they are entering the 2021 Stanley Cup Final: a versatile juggernaut. If the Canadiens gum up the works with their defense, the Bolts are unlikely to flinch under the pressure of low-scoring games. Just consider Game 7 vs. the Isles.

It all adds up to a perennial contender

Yes, the Lightning endured setbacks, most famously seeing their historic regular season derailed by a Blue Jackets sweep. But they’ve been a contender for years because they’re smart and skilled.

Despite never winning a Jack Adams Award, Jon Cooper is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, and easily one of the best. By keeping Cooper, the Lightning display one more strength: not panicking when things go wrong.

So, in breaking down how the Lightning were built, teams can pick and choose what lessons they want to learn. They’ve been smart in trading for quality talent, managing the salary cap, drafting and developing, and knowing when and when not to pull the plug on players.

Which means that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s nigh-impossible to totally replicate what the Lightning accomplished in building this contender. They’re simply better at this than just about anyone else.

CANADIENS VS. LIGHTNING – series livestream link

Game 1: Mon. June 28: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 2: Wed. June 30: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 3: Fri. July 2: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
Game 4: Mon. July 5: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 5: Wed. July 7: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 6: Fri. July 9: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sun. July 11: Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)

*if necessary

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.

Brent Seabrook won’t travel with Blackhawks; future and salary cap impact unclear

Brent Seabrook Blackhawks travel return to play salary cap LTIR
Getty Images

Brent Seabrook won’t travel with the Chicago Blackhawks during the next stage of the NHL’s Return to Play. It also seems unclear if Seabrook will suit up with the Blackhawks again.

Brent Seabrook won’t travel to Edmonton hub; Blackhawks won’t suffer much of a loss

Coming off of significant surgeries, Seabrook explained that he isn’t ready to return to play for the Blackhawks as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers approach.

“I just don’t feel comfortable yet, just not as comfortable as I want to be,” Seabrook said, according to Scott Powers of the The Athletic.

As uncomfortable as this is to say, the Blackhawks aren’t losing much by missing Seabrook. The 35-year-old defenseman simply is far removed from his most productive days. Consider how lowly Seabrook ranks on this GAR Chart from Evolving Hockey, even relative to Blackhawks teammates who generally don’t score very well:

Brent Seabrook Chicago Blackhawks GAR Evolving Hockey
Brent Seabrook and Blackhawks GAR chart via Evolving Hockey

Of course, many realized that Seabrook began a pretty steep decline quite a while ago. You can see that in his historical isolated impact charts at Hockey Viz.

Brent Seabrook Chicago Blackhawks historical impact Hockey Viz
Brent Seabrook historical impact with Blackhawks via Hockey Viz

Seabrook began his career as a positive influence both on offense and defense. As the years went along, Seabrook’s defense slipped, but he was still able to contribute offensively for the Blackhawks. Then his play dropped off the map in both areas.

Seabrook admits he’s not sure about future

Then again, Seabrook might argue that he could at least make a bigger impact now that he’s healthier. If nothing else, it’s great to hear the veteran defenseman rave about an improved quality of life post-surgeries.

“Now I feel incredible,” Seabrook said, via NHL.com’s Tracey Myers. “Helping my kids tie their shoes has been nice. Tying my own shoes has been nice, getting out of bed, things like that.”

Despite that improved bill of health, these times leave Seabrook wondering about his Blackhawks future.

A trade or LTIR trip to buy salary cap breathing room?

For years, salary cap-interested people have wondered if the Blackhawks might wiggle out of Seabrook’s contract.

Even now, it’s staggering to look at it. Seabrook carries a jarring $6.875 million cap hit through 2023-24. Yikes. Over the years, it’s also been tough to tell if the Blackhawks had the option to trade Seabrook and his problem contract. After all, Seabrook negotiated for a no-movement clause. Could there have been trades shot down behind the scenes? Maybe ones barely discussed because of that NMC? For the most part, we can only speculate.

Yet, after hearing Seabrook wonder about his own future, it sounds like he’d be more likely to waive that clause. (Note: it turns into a modified no-trade clause starting in 2022-23, for whatever that’s worth.)

The tricky part is finding a trade partner. For one thing, would Seabrook be willing to go on LTIR? He stated that he believes he can still be an “impact player,” yet such a trip to LTIR wouldn’t be without credibility. Seabrook’s accrued plenty of bumps and bruises stemming from long Blackhawks playoff runs.

Sadly, Seabrook would likely be more compelling trade fodder if his $6.875M merely went to LTIR. His salary doesn’t dive as dramatically as some of the “loophole” contracts that prompted recapture penalties, but his cap hit will be larger than his actual salary going forward.

A rebuilding team might be willing to eat that salary cap headache, especially if the Blackhawks dangled Seabrook after paying off one of his larger signing bonuses.

With what’s still a pretty snug salary cap situation, the Blackhawks might be willing to bribe a rebuilding team to take Seabrook’s contract off of their hands. Looking forward, maybe it would be worth it to convince the Seattle Kraken to do so during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.

Either way, it’s fair to wonder about Seabrook’s future with the Blackhawks. But we at least know he won’t suit up against the Oilers during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers during the NHL Return to Play.

More on Blackhawks, NHL Return to Play

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.