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Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

When it comes to free agency and projecting which pending free agents a team may try to re-sign, there is a fair amount of guesswork involved. For most of the year, we don't actually know perhaps the most crucial piece of information: the salary cap. The salary cap is not set until after a season is over so while we have projections of what the cap may be, we don't actually know. The one assumption that pretty much everyone makes when projecting the cap is that it will go up. Business is good for professional sports, the value of teams continues to rise as does hockey-related revenue...and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

The revenue the league stands to lose due to the pause to the season, the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and a postseason without any fan attendance brought the NHL and NHL Players' Association together to negotiate how to navigate the difficult financial times ahead. As a result, an agreement was reached Monday on a memorandum of understanding for the collective bargaining agreement. As part of the negotiations, both sides reportedly agreed to a flat salary cap for the next two seasons meaning the current ceiling of $81.5 million will remain the ceiling.

That's bad news for the Capitals.

But why? If the Caps can afford to fit their team under the $81.5 million salary cap now, why is it such an issue that the cap will remain at $81.5 million next season?

As I mentioned above, everyone operates under the assumption that the salary cap will continue to rise, including general managers. That's not optimism or poor planning. Really it takes something catastrophic to halt that rise, like a lockout/strike or...you know, like a global pandemic. The point is, every team when projecting out its rosters for next year and beyond, did so with the assumption that the salary cap would rise. Now that it's not, that affects the projections for every team.

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For the Caps, yes, they were able to fit their roster under the $81.5 million cap for this season, but just barely. For much of the season, the team carried only six defensemen, the bare minimum, on the roster. That means if a player got sick or injured the day of the game, the team would have essentially had to play a full game with only five defensemen. It took a lot of cap gymnastics for general manager Brian MacLellan to fit his roster under the cap and it was something that was constantly tweaked all year. Will he be able to do it again next year? Not with the current roster.

The biggest issue for Washington is a number of long-term deals that will now come back to bite them. The Caps have for several years now been a "cap team," meaning they have spent right up to the salary cap ceiling. This is typical for teams looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. If you feel you are a legitimate contender, you try to make every dollar count towards building a championship roster. Without much room under the cap to work with, however, MacLellan had to offer free agents something else in order to entice players to sign. As a result, the team has given out several deals to players of four years or more. The benefit to this is, not only can you continue bidding on free agents without much money to spend, but even if a player does not live up to his cap hit, that cap hit gets lower every year in terms of percentage with a rising salary cap.

In 2017, T.J. Oshie was a free agent. The Caps did not have the money under the cap to re-sign him so instead offered him an eight-year deal. There is no question Oshie left money on the table in terms of a yearly salary, but he got more years. Will he be worth a $5.75 million cap hit when he's 38 and on the last year of his contract? Probably not by today's standards when his cap hit alone takes a little over 7-percent of the team's cap space. With a rising cap, however, that percentage would have gone down each year. Now it won't, at least not as much as MacLellan had anticipated.

For a team that has pushed right up against the cap ceiling the last few years, one of the few sources of relief it could find was the yearly increase to the cap. Now it won't have that for the next two years.

RELATED: NHL, NHLPA ADD 4 YEARS TO CURRENT CBA  

Washington has 11 players with at least three years on their current contracts after the 2019-20 season. Those are players whose cap hits by percentage will remain exactly the same next season. With a salary cap of $81.5 million, the Caps have 11 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract with a little less than $10.4 million of cap space remaining.  That's $10.4 million to use on at least two forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. That's not a lot.

There are also restricted free agents like Jonas Siegenthaler and Travis Boyd with cap hits of $714,166 and $800,000, respectively. Both players will be due raises. It's hard to imagine the team walking away from Siegenthaler, but even if they wanted to with Boyd, they would still have to replace him with another player who costs money. Plus, Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and, most importantly, Braden Holtby will be unrestricted free agents.

Free agency was going to be difficult for Washington to manage yet again in 2020 regardless of how much the cap was going to rise. Now with a flat cap, the team's practice of handing out long-term contracts is really going to come back to bite them and force some difficult decisions. The team has very little money to pay players more than what they're making now. Does this ensure the end of Holtby's time in Washington? Does the team wait on a long-term extension for Ovechkin to get a better idea of where the salary cap may be in a few years? Can the team afford to keep any of its UFAs? Does the team leave Oshie exposed to Seattle in the expansion draft?

At this point, these are all questions MacLellan now has to consider.

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Losing Nicklas Backstrom would be 'huge trouble' for the Capitals

Losing Nicklas Backstrom would be 'huge trouble' for the Capitals

Nicklas Backstrom only played seven minutes in the Caps' frustrating Game 1 loss to the Islanders last night after a late hit by Anders Lee sidelined him for the second and third periods. 

The Caps' weren't happy about it, fans certainly weren't happy about it, and now the focus shifts to the 32-year-old center who's struggled with concussions in the past. And as the team's radio voice, John Walton explained on the Sports Junkies Thursday, losing Backstrom for more time than they already have would be troubling news.

"If Nicky is out for any length of time, that's huge trouble," Walton said. "The good news is they're gonna get Lars Eller back in Game 2 and he may have to -- and he has in the past -- been the second-line center. But if you lose Nick Backstrom you're obviously losing something big."

Backstrom's value to the Capitals' offense can't be understated. He's a terrific passer, has a unique chemistry with Alex Ovechkin and facilitates the offense like a point guard does in basketball. 

The Islanders are a physical, defensive-minded team, but Walton thinks Lee's hit on Backstrom was a cheap one.

RELATED: HOLTBY TAKES BLAME FOR CRUCIAL MISTAKES IN GAME 1

"I don't know if it crossed into suspension territory, [Lee] is not going to be from what we're told," Walton said. "But it was cheap, it was late and it was a lot of things that came out of the Caps' dressing room."

Now we wait to hear Backstrom's status ahead of a crucial Game 2, and since the Eastern Conference playoffs are played in the same place and most of the media is covering the games from home, it's harder to get concrete updates in a timely manner. 

"One of the problems that we're fighting is that when you're [broadcasting] in Washington and the games are in Toronto you don't have the same access to information that we usually have," he said. "We can only go on what we saw."

Head coach Todd Reirden is expected to talk on Backstrom's availability Thursday after practice, so with any luck, the Caps will have Backstrom back for Game 2 on Friday night. If they don't have him, though it's going to be difficult for Washington to avoid the dreaded 2-0 series hole. 

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Braden Holtby takes the blame for critical Game 1 mistakes

Braden Holtby takes the blame for critical Game 1 mistakes

Braden Holtby was the Capitals' best player in the round robin. On Wednesday, he committed two major mistakes that proved to be the difference in Washington's 4-2 Game 1 loss to the New York Islanders and he did not shy away from responsibility afterward.

Late in the second period, the Caps led 2-0 and looked to be in complete control. Then Jordan Eberle took a pass from Mathew Barzal, cut from left to right and fired what should have been a harmless wrister from the top of the faceoff circle. Instead of being an easy save, however, Holtby's body drifted to his right and the puck somehow avoided his raised glove and hit the back of the net.

"First goal obviously can't go in," Holtby said. "I haven't seen a replay of it yet. Can't really tell you too much. I just know it's a bad goal in a bad part of the game. That's on me. That changes the momentum of the game right there."

In the third period, after the Islanders rallied to tie the game at 2, Holtby took a cleared puck on a Caps' power play and tried to casually hand it off to Alex Ovechkin without realizing Brock Nelson charging in after them. Nelson would win possession and pass it off to Josh Bailey who scored the game-winning short-handed goal.

"Shorthanded goal was just more of a miscommunication," Holtby said. "I think I was kind of fighting for it in the sealing and I didn't realize that there wasn't much time there. I should've just held onto it. I thought we had more time. That one's something that we just - you don't want it to happen."

RELATED: OBSERVATIONS FROM GAME 1 OF CAPS VS. ISLANDERS

That's two major mistakes with one proving to be the turning point of the game while the other was the game-winning goal.

While Holtby was quick to put the blame on himself, head coach Todd Reirden said the loss was a collective effort.

“Like the rest of our players, I thought we had a good first half of the game and we needed more from everybody in the second half, not just [Holtby]," Reirden said,

It is interesting to wonder what would happen in Game 2 if Ilya Samsonov was healthy and with the team. Holtby was the team's No. 1 all season, but Samsonov played frequently and, for much of the season, outplayed Holtby. Would Reirden make the goalie change for Game 2 if that option was available?

With Samsonov injured, however, this question is purely hypothetical. With the team's two goalie choices behind Holtby being Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley, a goalie switch for Game 2 is not even worth considering. The only solution is for Holtby and the team to forget about Game 1 and remember that it's a long series and Washington is by no means out of it.

"I think we have an experienced enough group to know that one game doesn't make a series," Hotlby said. "It's how you respond to it, it's how you do the little things, learn from the game that you just played and find ways to play them better. I think to push forward from a game like today is one that I want to make sure that I have my best game come next game and as a group, I think individually if we all expect more of ourselves then that's how we've won in the past and that's how we're gonna do it again. First game in the series doesn't say much about how it's gonna go. It's how you respond from here on out."

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