Why NHL cap space can be its most vital asset (Trending Topics)

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Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Not everyone can be Jeff Gorton.

On Thursday, Gorton signed Brandon Pirri to a one-year, $1.1 million contract, capping a summer in which he added a slew of inexpensive bets that come as low-risk and potentially high-reward acquisitions.

So far this summer, the New York Rangers lost Keith Yandle, Dan Boyle, Viktor Stalberg and Eric Staal (who was a rental that wasn’t sticking around in the first place) to free agency, and Derick Brassard and a seventh-round pick via trade. It has brought in Mika Zibanejad and a second-round pick via trade as well, and added UFAs Pirri, Jimmy Vesey, Josh Jooris, Nathan Gerbe, Michael Grabner, Adam Clendening, Michael Paliotta and John Gilmour. Maybe none of those guys work out, but even if a few of them do, that’s a win for a team that is perpetually bumping up against the cap ceiling.

One thing that goes unmentioned in that trade with Ottawa is the fact that it saved the Rangers almost $2.4 million against the cap. Vesey-and-Pirri money, you might say. The Rangers won that trade not just because they got a comparable player to the guy they conceded, who is also much younger, but because they freed up that money as well.

It took a long time for the league as a whole to come around to the idea, but space against the cap is extremely valuable, and something teams that have cap flexibility should exploit whenever possible. You see it so far this summer with the Arizona Coyotes, right? John Chayka, who’s new to the whole “NHL GM gig” thing, has acquitted himself well in the first few months on the job; he’s gotten some good players on reasonable contracts, and made some savvy swaps. Because he also knows that he doesn’t have the ability to spend to the cap, he’s willing to take on all sorts of dead-weight contracts as long as teams are willing to give something up as well.

Case in point: Detroit’s in a cap crunch, so Chayka says, “Sure we’ll take on that dead-weight, no-actual-dollars contract if you give us your first-round pick.” Detroit is so hard-up that they do it, and Arizona moves up several slots to grab Jakob Chychrun in addition to Clayton Keller, who went seventh overall.

They did it again Thursday, taking on that ill-advised Dave Bolland deal (which will actually cost them some money, though there’s reason to believe the contract is insured at least in part) from Florida in exchange for a couple picks, but they also got former first-round pick Lawson Crouse. And if you need to know how likely Bolland — who may never actually play again given how bad his various injuries are — is to actually suit up for the Coyotes at any point, please understand that the only player involved who gets a quote from Chayka in the official press release is Crouse, and not the guy who once scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal.

This comes a summer after the Coyotes also traded out-of-favor Sam Gagner to Philadelphia in exchange for Nicklas Grossmann and, perhaps most notably, Chris Pronger’s dead-money deal.

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So to recap: In the past two summers, the Coyotes have given up Sam Gagner (who they didn’t want), Joe Vitale (another dead-money injury contract), the pick that became Dennis Cholowski, the pick that Filip Hronek, a 2017 third-round pick, and a 2018 second-round pick. In return, they got Grossmann, Chychrun, and Crouse. And all it really cost them was money they weren’t going to spend anyway. Between Pronger, Datsyuk, and Bolland, the Coyotes have more than $17.9 million in dead cap space, because honestly, what does it matter to them?

They’re certainly not the first to take this road, of course. The team with which they just completed the Bolland/Crouse trade did it for some time as well, most notably in recent years by prying Reilly Smith out of Boston for Jimmy Hayes, a massive upgrade. And all it took was an actuarial shift to be the team that dealt with Marc Savard’s insurance company.

The point of this kind of trade is to procure assets for the future, so that you can one day spend to the cap to retain good players you’ve cultivated, rather than spending in the free agent market to make big splashes. As Florida illustrates, that should really only be done when you need an extra shove or two.

Years of not being very good and spending relatively little money netted the Panthers a lot of young-ish toys to play with, most of which they’ve drafted or developed themselves. They’ve brought in their share of mercenaries over the years (who can forget when they spent a ton of money to acquire 11 mediocre players and became a mediocre team for a season or two?) and that includes even recent additions like Keith Yandle and Jason Demers. Today, even after dumping a $5.5 million contract and trading Savard’s contract to New Jersey, the Panthers stand closer to the cap ceiling than the floor.

And they might not yet be done. The Panthers have made a few trades this summer beyond the one from Thursday, and in the end they came out pretty far ahead in many respects. They now control other teams’ second-round picks in both 2016 and 2018, a 2016 fourth, a 2017 third, Jared McCann (a former first-round pick who’s still just 20 years old), and a couple AHLers. In exchange they gave away dead-money contracts for Savard and Bolland, a 2018 second-round pick, a 2016 fifth-round pick, and Lawson Crouse.

The lesson here: Just because you can spend more money doesn’t mean you should take your eye off the ball when it comes to finding draft opportunities. Too often, teams will do what the Rangers did forever: Trade first-rounders in pursuit meaningfully competitiveness. But you can’t make that work forever, which is why they had to sign Jimmy Vesey to stock the cupboard despite the fact that he’s redundant at best on that roster. They did the same thing (when they had a more pressing need) with Kevin Hayes years earlier.

The Panthers had a brilliant summer that got better, despite the fact that they gave up what some believe was their best prospect. Being rid of Dave Bolland’s deal is that important to their long-term success. After all, they have to re-sign Jonathan Huberdeau next summer, and that won’t be cheap.

What Florida is doing, and has done, might just become the blue print for success in the NHL over the next few years. They spent years drafting high — “tanking,” some might say, but that seems unfair to a team wholly unwilling to spend — and have made mostly judicious free-agent investments and taken on other teams’ problem deals.

(You might even consider Roberto Luongo among those trades, though obviously he is still an almost world-class goaltender at an advanced age.)

Now that they’ve gotten some bounces to go their way development-wise, and done such a good job on the open market, they’re pivoting away from that strategy but still keeping the concept of acquiring young talent and draft picks close to their hearts.

That should keep them well-stocked with talent throughout the lineup for many years to come. And if they ever need to move on from a deal — say, Keith Yandle’s in four or five years — they’re probably more likely to both find a willing taker with cap space, and have the additional assets to make it worth that poorer team’s while.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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