When it comes to exploiting teams that are flying a little too close to the cap ceiling, buyers are going to find few sellers more eager to make a deal than Chicago.
Stan Bowman has repeatedly found over the last six or so years that the cost of winning, in terms of talent lost, is quite high. More than a few All-Stars have gone out the door in Chicago in favor of keeping the core group together. You could honestly put together a pretty strong team out of nothing but Chicago's cap casualties, one that would at least be competitive at the top end of the lineup with just about anyone in the league. It's pretty amazing, to that extent, the seller continues to have so much success. (Though the repeated cries in the last few days of “It's always worked before” really only apply until the very last straw which breaks the camel's back, and that camel's knees are starting to visibly wobble.)
However, it's not just Chicago which is in such a pinch these days, with the cap likely to stay flat or creep up only marginally this summer. It's the second straight year in which this has happened, and it's potentially a trend that can continue for a few years in the future as well. As the cap flattens out, more teams are necessarily going to run up against the league's spending limit, and teams that have less money on the books are in a position to profit from relative if understandable short-sighted spending by big-money clubs.
Obviously Carolina is the latest beneficiary of Chicago's cap mismanagement (if we're calling it that), because in exchange for taking on the last year of the disastrous Bryan Bickell contract, they also get Teuvo Teravainen, an eminently skilled 22-year-old who significantly bolsters their chances for success going forward. The Hurricanes are a team that has clearly committed to a rebuild in a way most other teams in the league have not, because they're basically building everything from the ground up. Last season they finished the year with a slew of quality players who were 24 and under: Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk, Victor Rask, Ryan Murphy, Jaccob Slavin, Elias Lindholm, Brett Pesce, and Noah Hanifin all got plenty of time last season. Add in players they already drafted like Sebastian Aho or traded for like Teravainen or Aleksi Saarela (acquired in the Eric Staal trade).
If you have the room and the willingness , you can get good players in exchange for making other teams' headaches go away. In this regard, cap space is arguably as valuable an asset as a mid- or even high-round pick, because teams are so eager to make deals with you for that you can bilk them out of high-quality prospects. After all, it's not just the Bickell trade in which Francis made this happen; people might forget that the trade with the Rangers in which he retained 50 percent of Staal's cap hit for the remainder of the year brought them not only Saarela, but also two second-round picks. One of which ended up going back to Chicago to further facilitate the Bickell/Teravainen swap. And let's put it this way: You would hope and pray with every fiber of your being that any second-round pick you use would become half as useful to you as Teravainen will.
Simply put, Ron Francis has this rebuild thing figured out.
(But in an effort to prove pobody's nerfect, he also made the baffling decision Thursday to re-sign Cam Ward. Which is a problem because he's a goalie who's replacement-level at best, who now costs $3.3 million against the cap — and it's one of those “per year? That can't be right” deals — for each of the next two years. Worse, Francis also give him a 15-team no-trade list to, I guess, bring the price down(?). And please, let's not act like this is a ploy to expose Ward in the expansion draft next summer; no team, regardless of newness, is going to want him at this price point. There are just so many better options out there for both the Las Vegas team and Carolina itself.)
Francis is, however, not the only one who's found that trawling the waters in search of capped-out teams is fruitful. In the past, teams like the Islanders have gotten good players out of both Chicago (Nick Leddy) and Boston (Johnny Boychuk) for little more than a few picks whose value was, to them, less important than the quality of NHLer they were getting back. Toronto has made similar moves, but having bad contracts of its own to offload complicates things little bit. (Not that this has stopped them from offloading those bad deals, but they're not getting quite the return they otherwise might have by taking on other teams' unwanted contracts.)
However, it's also reasonable to assume that as the cap flattens out, the ability of teams to effectively buy prospects off their competitors is going to diminish. Perhaps the largest reason for this is many teams operated under the fallacious idea that “the cap's going up next year” was something that could continue in perpetuity. There naturally had to be a point at which the cap would stop going up. There are only so many seats per rink that can be sold. There are only so many outdoor games you can hold to artificially boost revenues further.
So while teams have been able to scoop up bad deals signed two, three, or four years ago under the assumption the cap was going to rise to as much as $80 million — and remember, a year or two ago those kinds of reports were common — that benefit is going to run out as the number of awful deals do. In this way, a team's best chance to swipe a top prospect or high draft picks in exchange for also taking on a rotten deal started last summer, the first year the cap didn't move much.
There are still deals of this kind to be made here, no doubt. One imagines we'll see a few in the run-up to next week's draft, including the Penguins potentially offloading Marc-Andre Fleury, because they're already over the cap. But smart teams have already been able to get in and really make things happen. What used to be a relatively unknown market inefficiency becomes better-understood each time such a deal is made, and the benefit teams get as they take on bad contracts will necessarily diminish.
Francis had Chicago seemingly over a barrel, and with its talent might even be able to probably pump-and-dump Bickell into a deadline rental that fetches a decent return. How much longer can that continue if everyone understands the financial realities in the league these days?
If Carolina is already one of the best-run organizations the league has to offer, that means everyone else is playing catch-up. But as they do, the gap narrows between teams making bad contract decisions (including the Ward deal ha ha ha) and the teams exploiting those decisions. The odds the next team trying to make a cash-and-trash trade gets so much benefit out of that deal seem pretty low.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.
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