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Trade: Sabres do Stars a favor with Bishop salary cap dump

With the matchup set for the 2022 Stanley Cup Final featuring the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning, Pro Hockey Talk previews what to expect from both teams.

It’s sensible that the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres would rather weaponize their salary cap space for assets, instead of chase expensive free agents. But would the Sabres have been better off waiting to make better use of that salary cap space than absorbing Ben Bishop’s contract in a trade with the Stars?

Bishop, 35, is effectively retired. His $4.9167M cap hit was headed for LTIR.

Now, the Sabres get to use it to help them reach the salary cap floor. Assuming his $1M signing bonus was covered, Bishop carries a $3.5M salary. As far as actual costs go, it gets fuzzy, as insurance may pay some or most of that salary.

Ultimately, the cap hit exceeds the actual cost for the Sabres. Still, the Stars only needed to fork over a seventh-round pick to rid themselves of what would at least be an offseason annoyance.

It’s logical, but maybe not optimal. My advice to other rebuilding teams is to weaponize their salary cap for better returns.

Other teams have weaponized salary cap space more effectively than Sabres absorbing Bishop from Stars

To be clear: the Stars might not have been willing to part with much of anything to trade Ben Bishop’s contract. Again, they could’ve moved his cap hit to LTIR instead. But by shaking that loose now, they get more wiggle room for the offseason. While you can exceed the salary cap’s upper limits knowing you’re moving a Bishop-type to LTIR, this is a cleaner solution for Dallas.

My main question isn’t if the Sabres extracted the right price specifically in a Ben Bishop trade. Instead, the question is whether they should’ve waited for something better. Teams are sweating a variety of salary cap/free agent situations, and the Sabres could’ve been an opportunistic broker.

Consider how the Arizona Coyotes feasted last offseason.

  • They turned a big problem (Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s contract) into a bucket of assets. Conor Garland’s the part of the deal that stung, yet by the time the Coyotes may be competitive, Garland may be toward the end of his prime.
  • Much like the Canucks, the Flyers were sweaty and desperate. The Coyotes took Shayne Gostisbehere off the Flyers’ hands for a second-rounder. Don’t be shocked if the Coyotes turn around and trade “Ghost Bear” for more rebuilding fuel. (There was also the Andrew Ladd trade; again, the Coyotes feasted.)

It’s masterful stuff, which is not a phrase you use often regarding the woe-begotten Coyotes (woe-Yotes?).

[Long-form ravings about those rebuild steps]

There are other prime examples of teams weaponizing salary cap in more creative ways.

The Hurricanes got the Maple Leafs to burn a first-rounder to shed Patrick Marleau’s $6M salary cap hit. The Blackhawks went a different route, sending cheap forward Brandon Hagel to the Lightning for two first-rounders.

If the Sabres just want to do the bare minimum to reach the salary cap floor, they might have left an opportunity or two on the table. However, if they’re willing to be creative, chew on some ideas for the Sabres and other rebuilding teams.

Lucic, Monahan, Kassian, and other salary cap ‘bribe trade’ possibilities

Even when the amusing and surreal James Neal - Milan Lucic trade just happened, something struck me. Yes, of course, the Milan Lucic contract is awful. Over time, though, it becomes more digestible to move.

It’s basically a more extreme version of “the fine print” making Ben Bishop’s contract more desirable to a rebuilding team.

Look at the drop-off from Milan Lucic’s cap hit ($6M at first, $5.25M with retention) and what it actually costs (via Cap Friendly):

Screen Shot 2022-06-09 at 9.48.32 PM

A base salary of just (approximately?) $1M versus a $5.25M? That could be manna for a rebuilding team.

Now, Lucic boasts trade protection, so that might exclude the Sabres. Personally, I’d wonder if the Kraken would work for Lucic, as he waived his clause during the expansion draft. Rebuilding teams might also make a logical pitch to Lucic that he’d play higher in that lineup than that of a contender, thus giving him a better chance of earning another contract.

Again, the Sabres might not be the Lucic fit, though it would be tremendous to see him pal around with Ryan Miller on jersey retirement night. Even if a Lucic contract move wouldn’t happen, the concept can be a template for the Sabres/other rebuilders to construct salary cap “bribe trades.”

  • Sean Monahan ($6.375M, expires after 2022-23) may experience hip problems serious enough to stay on LTIR. He also has a 10-team no-trade list, and a $6M salary. That said, he’s just 27, and might want a fresh start. Moving any of Monahan, Lucic, and/or Mikael Backlund could be essential to the Flames affording one or more of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. A rebuilding team should pounce on that desperation.

[NHL Power Rankings: Top potential free agents for 2022 offseason]

  • Recently, PHT broke down the Edmonton Oilers’ slew of free agent/salary cap headaches. The Sabres, Kraken, Blackhawks, and others should explore Marleau/Gostisbehere type solutions involving Zack Kassian, Warren Foegele, Tyson Barrie, and possibly even Duncan Keith. Some have trade protection, many do not.
  • Pick your poison with the Golden Knights. Most obviously, Vegas will probably try to trade Evgenii Dadonov for real this time.
  • Getting around his 10-team no-trade clause might be a tall task, but the Sabres could try to arrange a Tyler Myers reunion for a significant cost to Vancouver.
  • They may not like it, but would shedding Erik Johnson ($6M) help the Avalanche bring back Nazem Kadri ... or at least Valeri Nichushkin? Granted, Johnson’s another player with trade protection.
  • Hey, the Flyers are still sweaty and desperate. I’d generously offer to take James van Riemsdyk off of their hands, for a steep price. While JVR’s cap hit is $7M, he lacks trade protection. His base salary is merely $4M. Would anyone be surprised if a rebuilding team featured JVR heavily on a power-play unit, van Riemsdyk restored some of his reputation, and then said team traded him for more good stuff at the deadline (retaining salary)? It’s the stuff that fuels nerdy armchair GM daydreams.

Anyway, that list features some fascinating options. Those are just some of the situations that stand out. Some mad scientist might get really creative (extra credit assignment: galaxy-brain a way a rebuilder could justify taking on a Sergei Bobrovsky trade).

Maybe those hypothetical scenarios lack much real-life weight. Perhaps the Sabres did all that they could with their salary cap space in the Ben Bishop trade. This offseason could provide answers (especially if GMs don’t take early vacations).

Note: Cap Friendly truly is a blessed resource for nerdy experiments.