Cap crunch: The teams set up for long-term success, and the ones that are doomed
If you were trying to project a potential 2018 Stanley Cup Final matchup at this moment two of the teams at the top of your list should probably be the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators.
They are currently two of the best teams in the league (first and fourth in points percentage respectively) with the Lightning running away with the Presidents’ Trophy race and the Predators less than a year removed from actually being in the Stanley Cup Final.
Hopefully you enjoy watching them play because given the roster construction of both teams they both have a chance to be really good, for a really long time.
Looking at both rosters it is incredible to see not only how much talent they both have, but how much of it is already signed to long-term contracts. While the Lightning will have to deal with new contracts for restricted free agents Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov, and the Predators will have to deal with unrestricted free agencies for Pekka Rinne and Ryan Ellis, there aren’t really any other significant core players that will eligible for unrestricted free agency at any point over the next three years.
Their cores are in place for the long haul and both teams are in pretty strong shape when it comes to building within the constraints of the salary cap.
But how do they compare to the rest of the league?
Let’s take a look at some of the teams that are in the best -- and worst -- shape when it comes to their long-term outlook under the salary cap.
I tried to take into account how many players are signed long-term for each team, what those salary cap commitments are, the age of the players that are currently signed long-term, and what new contracts are going to need to be signed in the coming seasons.
Some of the more notable teams...
No team is in a better position than the Predators
Let’s start with the Predators, because there might not be a team in the NHL that is better set up for sustained long-term success than them.
They already have 13 players under contract for the 2019-20 season, more than any other team in the league. Eight of those players are signed through 2020-21 (tied for second most in the league) and seven of them are signed through at least 2021-22 (tied for most in the league). What’s amazing about those number isn’t just the quantity of players under contract that far in advance, but also the quality of said and how affordable they all are against the cap.
In the table below we see the teams that already have the biggest cap commitments for 2019-20, how much money they have invested in those players, how many players they have signed, how old those players will be that season, as well as the cost per player. The Predators already have more than $53 million committed to players for the 2019-20 season, which is the fifth largest number in the league at this point. Seems like a lot. But look at not only how many players they signed for that season (more than any other team in the league -- and one of only five teams that has more than 10 players signed), but also the quality of those players, how little they are signed for, and how young they all still are.
That $4.14 million per player is the third lowest number of any team in the league as far as current 2019-20 commitments go(behind only the New York Islanders and Arizona Coyotes) while those players will have an average age of only 28.8 (11th youngest).
The players they have signed through at least 2019-20: Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Victor Arvidsson, Craig Smith, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Calle Jarnkrok, Auston Watson, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin. That is a hell of a core (three outstanding centers down the middle; three outstanding defenseman including a potential Norris Trophy winner this season) and not only leaves them with only complementary roster spots that need to be filled in the coming years, but what should be plenty of salary cap space to do it.
The only players eligible for unrestricted free agency before 2021 are Scott Hartnell, Cody McLeod, Alexei Emelin, Pekka Rinne, Ryan Ellis and Anthony Bitetto.
Rinne and Ellis are obviously the two big ones, but both are still signed through at least next season.
When you take into account the age of their core, how good it is, and how long it is locked in place it is hard to argue that there is a team in the league set up for better long-term success than the Predators.
Things look pretty good in Florida ... for both teams
Seriously. Both teams.
As mentioned above Tampa Bay is in a pretty good position as well with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Alex Killorn all signed long-term. Things are going to get tight in the very near future with some big restricted free agents, but the core guys are locked in and they are all still at an age where they can be the foundation of a great team for a long, long time.
The team that kind of a surprised me a bit was the Florida Panthers, and while it might be easy to dismiss them because of the past season-and-a-half, some of the most important pieces are already in place.
At the moment they have Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad, Keith Yandle, Michael Matheson and both goalies signed for at least the next four years. Six of those players are still age 24 or younger, and there are a lot of really good players within that group.
Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck are all scoring at close to a point-per-game pace this season, while Barkov has blossomed into one of the best two-way centers in the league.
The results aren’t there yet on a team level, but the hardest pieces to get (top line players) are already in place.
With a few of the right tweaks around the edges this could be a pretty good team in short order. It’s just a matter of making the right moves to complement them. That is sometimes easier said than done.
Toronto, Winnipeg and the Islanders have some work to do
These teams aren’t necessarily in trouble, but their front offices have a lot of work to do in the next couple of years.
At the moment all of them are in really good shape under the salary cap in the short-term because they have minimal long-term commitments.
But look at who needs to be signed for each team in the coming years:
Toronto: James van Riemsdyk (UFA after this season), Tyler Bozak (UFA after this season), William Nylander (RFA after this season), Mitch Marner (RFA after next season), Auston Matthews (RFA after next season), Jake Gardiner (UFA after next season).
Winnipeg: Tobias Enstrom (UFA after this season), Jacob Trouba (RFA after this season), Blake Wheeler (UFA after next season), Patrik Laine (RFA after next season), Kyle Connor (RFA after next season).
New York Islanders: John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Calvin De Haan, Thomas Hickey, Jaroslav Halak (All UFA after this season); Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle (both UFA after next season).
Those are all major players and that salary cap space is going to disappear. Quickly. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
There is always a panic when teams have to pay big money to their star players and how much salary cap space they take up, but it’s not uncommon. Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles have shown us over the past decade that teams can win Stanley Cups (multiple Stanley Cups, too) with significant chunks of their salary cap going to a small number of players. The problem Chicago is going to run into in the future (and we discussed this here a few weeks ago) is that a lot of their core players are starting to get older. Pittsburgh will get there eventually, too. That’s a small price to pay for multiple Stanley Cups in a short window. Keep the superstars even if it it’s expensive and rebuild the depth around them. It’s a hell of a lot easier to find another third-line center or second-pairing defenseman than it is to find another Sidney Crosby or Auston Matthews.
That brings us to...
We’ve already concluded that the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers are a raging inferno of a dumpster fire and there doesn’t seem to be anything that is going to put it out. They have wasted Connor McDavid’s cheapest years and now the people that couldn’t build a winner with him on an entry level contract have to try and do so with him making $12 million per season.
Looking a few years into the future the Oilers are already the near the top of the league in terms of future financial commitments. In 2019-20, for example, the only two teams that have more financial commitments that season are the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
There are 13 teams that have either as many players signed (nine players) as the Oilers currently do, or more.
That means the Oilers have some massive contracts on their books.
McDavid is going to start making $12 million a year next season. Leon Draisaitl is making $8.5 million a year already. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins makes $6 million a year. They have a bunch of defensemen of varying skill levels signed for multiple years.
The Oilers’ future issues are a lesson when it comes to roster construction in the salary cap era. It’s not the superstars that cause salary cap issues. It’s paying a combined $10 million a year to an aging Milan Lucic and Kris Russell that causes salary cap issues. Those issues are only magnified when you trade Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson and Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome so you can sign Milan Lucic and Kris Russell.
The Red Wings Are Doomed
I really don’t want to overstate things here, but the Red Wings are a mess.
Remember that table we looked at up above with the Predators for two years in advance? Well, take a look at the Red Wings on that list. They already have more than $44 million committed to eight players for 2019-20. For a team that is already in the bottom half of the league in terms of performance that is a lot of long-term commitments, and it’s even worse than it seems because all of them are old (by NHL standards).
The players signed through the end of 2019-20 in Detroit: Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Danny Dekeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley.
Here is that same table sorted by average age for players under contract in 2019.
Bad, expensive, and old is no way to build a team.
Even if you remove Henrik Zetterberg from that list (he will be 39 in 2019-20) the Red Wings would still have the highest average age in terms of commitments for that season. Astonishing.
The handful of good young players on the team (Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou) will all be restricted free agents after this season. All will certainly be re-signed and get raises. But it’s the long-term deals to players in the late 20s and 30s that are going to be killer.