The new NHL CBA extension which runs through 2026 is generally a crimp in escalating player salaries. Perhaps it is more of a lead balloon on growing paychecks as the players will give 20% of their wages to escrow next season and as much as 18% the following year. The $81.5 million NHL salary cap will be flat for years, which is already vexing GMs who have already spent part of their future growth and, believe it or not, provide an opportunity for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As one of the “spend to the cap” teams, the Penguins are generally assumed to be harmed by the flat cap.
And that’s why general assumptions are usually wrong. If we trace the money and the guaranteed expenditures, the Penguins are in a great position. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are underpaid. The superstars make less than $10 million. Malkin’s $9.5 million cap hit is 17th highest in the league, while Crosby’s $8.7 million hit is 23rd. Fellow core member, Kris Letang counts only $7.25 million against the cap and ranks 49th.
Pretty good deals, eh?
1. Strapped Teams Can’t Budge
The first benefit the Penguins will see in the flat cap world is fewer teams being able to shed salary. The Penguins otherwise do not have onerous, long term deals. Imagine new Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams sitting on Jeff Skinner’s $9 million per season hit for seven more seasons. The rebuilding LA Kings saddled itself with nearly-$6 million players Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter for several more seasons. Poor Minnesota GM Bill Guerin reportedly almost found takers for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, who each signed 13-year, $98 million contracts back in 2012. The odds Guerin find a taker for either just fell through the floor.
Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, who were publicly spanked by Dallas team president Jim Lites last season, had better up their game in Dallas, as each signed expensive eight-year contracts that will run past their 35th birthday. Those are the most prominent examples of high-priced and probably unmovable veterans on playoff teams, but there are ample examples of players around the league who would have been trade fodder because of their salary but are now going to be nearly impossible to move.
In a world with a growing salary cap, there were always teams that may gamble on older players with high salaries, for a year or two. Rebuilding and emerging teams could be conned, er, talked into taking on the hefty salaries by accepting draft picks or additional assets.
The flat salary cap means the price for cap teams to dump fading or under-producing players just went through the roof.
2. Flooded Market of Players
The second benefit and probably most important to the Pittsburgh Penguins championship window will be the flood of talented players who will hit the market and be looking for a shorter-term deal.
If you were a free agent, would you sign a five-year deal now, which likely carries a lower AAV or a shorter deal with a talented team in hopes of cashing in when the cap starts to rise?
We will see a lot of available players and short term deals. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford should be salivating. A scoring right-winger? An upgrade on defense? The bargain bin will suddenly be stocked.
With a stable and solid core, Rutherford and the Penguins will be able to pick through players who suit their style, philosophy, and budget. Other teams will be able to, as well, but few teams have the Penguins affordable and stable core down the middle and on defense.
3. Top Teams Sacrifice
The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of several Stanley Cup contenders who will initiate a small purge. Toronto’s cap wizardry is probably going to end. The deft touch of GM Kyle Dubas has stacked the uber-talented Toronto Maple Leafs (we’ll skip mentioning they haven’t yet won a playoff series in three seasons), but they also planned as if the cap would grow. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares, all count for more than $10 million per season.
Toronto will not be able to add the necessary pieces or keep essential complementary pieces with an extended flat cap. Also, see No. 1, it will be harder to move players like John Tavares, who are nearing 30-years-old but make a bundle of money on long-term contracts because there will be fewer suitors.
The Tampa Bay Lightning is another team that will be cracked by the flat cap. Tampa Bay also has its core locked up, and they are impact players to be sure, but several more pieces in Tampa Bay will find no room at the Inn.
A quick scan of the Metro Division doesn’t show another team in deep trouble, though Philadelphia will pay Kevin Hayes and Jakub Voracek for a long time.
We don’t yet know the opportunities which await the Pittsburgh Penguins in the offseason. Young defensemen like Mikhail Sergachevmay be available to carry the Penguins into the next era, or a 20-goal winger could pop up on the trade market.
The Penguins will be able to shed over $13 million by allowing free agents Conor Sheary, Patrick Marleau, and Justin Schultz to leave. Significant savings could be had in goal if the Penguins choose Tristan Jarry over Matt Murray, long term.
The Penguins older contracts will remain affordable and useful. Patric Hornqvist and Jack Johnson spring to mind. Johnson may not be the fan’s delight, but he provides serviceable minutes at only $3.25 million.
It’s far easier to swallow a contract of that size than it is a $7 million price tag.
The Penguins stealth undercurrent of surrounding their established stars with young legs could pay off in a much different way. The young legs are RFAs, not UFAs, and will cost much less. See also, Jared McCann, Teddy Blueger and John Marino.
The Penguins will be sitting pretty as other top teams burn cell phone minutes trying to find cap space. It’s a position the Penguins were in last summer, but effective work by Rutherford and extraordinary circumstances have put the fates in the Pittsburgh Penguins favor.