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Flat Salary Cap Shapes NHL Offseason

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was evident during the NHL’s Stanley Cup Qualifiers and Playoffs that concluded last month. Neutral site games, daytime games on weekdays, and no fans in the stands immediately come to mind; those impacts were noticeable to even the most casual viewer. The economic effects of the pandemic, and specifically the resulting flat salary cap, have also shaped the offseason.

All teams have been affected in some way during this offseason. The teams that consistently spend to the cap were left with tough decisions, teams with young stars are scrambling to fit raises for those players into the books, and teams actively rebuilding saw unexpected opportunities to add talent at a low cost.

Alex Pietrangelo got his mega-deal with the Vegas Golden Knights, Torey Krug got a sizeable contract from the St. Louis Blues, and Jacob Markstrom signed a long-term deal with the Calgary Flames. Outside of those three contracts, free agency was mostly underwhelming.

There was the interesting news that Taylor Hall signed a one-year deal in Buffalo, but prior to the pandemic, I don’t think many would have thought Hall, the top free agent forward, would have been signing a short-term contract. Mike Hoffman, a proven goal-scorer in the league, has yet to sign a contract. Henrik Lundqvist is a Washington Capital. Talented defensemen like Nate Schmidt and Devon Toews were traded for modest, mid-round picks in future drafts. If anyone speculated these moves pre-pandemic, fans would have been left scratching their heads.

Once the flat cap was announced, I expected an abundance of trade activity prior to free agency opening, specifically at the draft. I was wrong. Only four players (Matt Murray, Nick Bonino, Luke Kunin, and Lias Andersson) were traded during the draft. After having some time to reflect, I think I understand why. In a league where money is tighter than ever, for all teams, the value of a draft pick is much higher. Having draft picks means adding players to your organization on cheap, entry-level contracts. Why would a team trade the asset with increased value, the draft pick, for an older player (by comparison) making more money? Most teams, at least the teams trying to win now, don’t have the financial flexibility this year.

My other expectation was that offer sheets would finally be thrown around this offseason. Teams have restricted free agents (RFAs) that need raises which will be difficult to fit under the salary cap. A team with plenty of cap space could have offered a sizeable deal to one of these players, leaving their current team the tough choice to match the contract to keep the player, or let them leave in exchange for draft pick compensation.

Teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, the New York Islanders, and the St. Louis Blues are all tight against the salary cap, and have yet to extend their elite young players like Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli in Tampa Bay, Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock with the Islanders, and Vince Dunn in St. Louis. These are players any team would want given their respective talent level and age. So, why didn’t any of these players receive a single offer sheet when, currently, their teams cannot afford to pay them? This is partially because of a previous argument I made- the value of draft picks in the current climate. Teams need cheap talent, and while a draft pick is never guaranteed to pan out, there is value in the potential. Teams don’t want to give up the multiple early round picks that would be lost for a player signing the offer sheet, if it were to not be matched.

The broader reason for everything I discuss in this piece is the lack of cash flow for the league at this point in time. The flat cap is a direct result of lacking the revenue the league expected last season. It is reasonable to think the same outcome will apply this year, especially with a truncated season and less-than-full arenas being possibilities. The lack of revenue means owners feel less comfortable spending, even if their team does not have salary cap issues. This reality, along with the logistics of the cap itself, has its fingerprints all over the many aspects of the NHL offseason.

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