NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman predicted on Wednesday that the salary cap could be flat or near flat for the next four years. To put that in context, from 2015-16 through 2018-19 the salary cap went from $71.4 million to $79.5 million, which amounts to an 11% increase. With that in mind, it’s not unreasonable to believe that when GMs were projecting the cap beyond 2019-20 – before the pandemic obviously changed anything – they were likely penciling in another 11% increase, especially given the NHL’s expansion to Seattle and the new American TV deal that were anticipated at the time.
That assumption of an increase likely helped inform their pre-pandemic decision making and now that the increase isn’t coming some teams are in a difficult spot.
One obvious team that will be in a bit of a rougher spot as a result of the projected flat cap is Toronto. Through 2023-24 the Maple Leafs have roughly $40.5 million committed to Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. When they signed those long-term contracts, it was under the assumption that they’d get somewhat cheaper over time relative to the cap, but now that might not happen. Of course, it feels like less of a problem right now because Toronto is leading its division with a 18-7-2 record, but it will be a constant challenge to assemble a solid core around their big four under those cap restraints. The next major challenge will come this offseason when Frederik Andersen’s contract is up. He came with a very reasonable $5 million cap hit and it will be interesting to see if Toronto is able to secure another solid netminder or re-sign him without going over budget. They also will need to basically assemble a whole new forward group because beyond their big four, only Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall are signed beyond this season. All the other forwards on their active roster can become unrestricted free agents.
While Toronto will face some challenge though, Tampa Bay has much murkier road ahead of them. While they don’t have any major RFAs or UFAs coming up this offseason, they are projected to be significantly over the cap. To an extent, this was a problem they faced in 2020-21 that got pushed back when it was announced that Nikita Kucherov would undergo hip surgery and miss the full 2020-21 regular season, thus allowing the Lightning to put him on the long-term injured reserve list. Obviously, that’s not how the Lightning would have wanted to sort out their cap situation, but it did allow them to kick the can down the road.
The same basic problem remains though. The Lightning can’t maintain this roster and stay under the cap if it doesn’t go up. One potential solution would be to have Seattle take a costly contract off Tampa Bay’s hands in the expansion draft, but Seattle isn’t going to do that out of the kindness of their hearts. The Lightning will almost certainly have to throw in a significant sweetener to make that work. Exactly how much would it cost? Well, we actually have a decent idea because Tampa Bay went down this same path with Vegas in 2017.
Back then, the Lightning got Vegas to take Garrison, who had two seasons left at $4.6 million annually, in exchange for Tampa Bay also throwing in prospect Nikita Gusev, a 2017 second-round pick (Alexandre Texier) and a 2018 fourth-round pick (Paul Cotter). At the time Garrison’s contract was bad, but he was in his early 30s and it was reasonable to believe he had use. In his final season with Tampa Bay, had a goal and nine points in 70 games while averaging 18:34 minutes.
So if the Lightning wanted to convince Seattle to take Tyler Johnson, the negotiations would probably start in the same ballpark. Johnson has five goals and 12 points in 23 games this season while averaging just 13:58 minutes and he could be a good fit for Seattle where he might get top-six minutes, so by that measure, it might not take a lot to convince Seattle to take him. At the same time, his $5 million annual cap hit is – similar to Garrison at the time – awfully high for what he brings to the table and unlike Garrison, at the time of the expansion draft he’ll have three years left on his contract instead of just two. Plus, with so many teams dealing with major budget constraints either due to the flat cap or internal budgets brought on from year with little attendance revenue, Tampa Bay doesn’t have many options outside of Seattle if they want to move him. We saw that in October when he cleared waivers and in January when he cleared waivers again. That puts Seattle in a position of strength in any potential negotiations between the two teams.
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Seattle will be in a similar position with a lot of clubs. If there’s a big winner of this flat cap, it’s definitely them because they can use this expansion draft to take on a bunch of other team’s undesirable contracts – for a price. We already saw Vegas exploit that same position to great effect during their expansion draft and while GMs would presumably like to avoid a repeat of that, the reality is that they’ve been put in a tough spot and trading with Seattle is a tempting solution to their problem.
It goes beyond just the trade market though. There could be some pretty good unrestricted free agents this offseason and Seattle will be in a position to be competitive in those. For example, they could potentially make a strong offer to Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and/or Dougie Hamilton depending on who ends up testing the free agent waters. Seattle is definitely an intriguing X-Factor in all matters related to this offseason, especially in the flat cap scenario we find ourselves in.