The pandemic changed a lot of things for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And every other team in the NHL, for that matter.
One season was suspended, another was shortened.
Hundreds of games were played in empty arenas and many more in front of reduced-capacity crowds.
Revenue streams dried up almost instantly in March 2020, and major expenses that never had been envisioned — like frequent, mandatory Covid testing for players and staff — became a harsh economic reality.
But while the NHL largely has returned to a pre-Covid state — arenas are full, fans aren’t required to be masked, cross-border travel for teams has been restored — the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt.
Especially on what teams are able to pay players.
The salary-cap ceiling for the 2019-20 season, during which the pandemic began, was $81.5 million; it was unchanged for the two seasons that followed and will rise a modest $1 million for 2022-23.
That’s enough to pay for many fourth-line forwards or depth defensemen, but hardly gives teams the financial flexibility they would have had if the pandemic hadn’t occurred.
And while many clubs are quite capable of causing themselves serious problems, it’s hard to accuse them of poor planning in this instance.
Question the judgment of Florida officials for giving Mike Matheson his eight-year, $39 million deal in 2017 if you wish, but not because they failed to see the impact coronavirus would have on the league a few years later.
Same with then-Minnesota GM Paul Fenton, who signed Jason Zucker to a five-year, $27.5 million contract in 2018.
Although the on-ice merits of those deals can be debated, there was no reason for the people who negotiated them to believe they would consume quite as much cap space as they will during the coming season.
That complicates the roster-building challenges for general managers whose payrolls routinely flirt with the cap ceiling, including Ron Hextall.
Pittsburgh Penguins Salary Cap
Per CapFriendly.com, the Penguins have nine forwards, six defensemen and one goaltender under contract for the coming season, and roughly $23.2 million of cap space available to fill out their roster.
That doesn’t seem too bad, except that Hextall’s players poised to become unrestricted free agents includes top-six forwards Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell and his No. 1 defenseman, Kris Letang.
If Hextall were to pay those three something close to their projected market value, he might not have enough cap space left to offer anyone else something more lucrative than minimum wage plus tips.
Hextall and Bryan Rust agreed to what is widely regarded as a team-friendly six-year, $30.75 million a week ago. And while there’s no reason to question Rust’s assertion that staying with the Pittsburgh Penguins was important to him, his acceptance of a lower-than-expected bump in pay just might reflect concern in his camp that money might not flow quite as freely this summer as it usually would.
Of course, it takes just one team to set a guy’s value — if some club decides Evan Rodrigues should be paid $8 million, then Even Rodrigues is an $8 million player — but the fiscal realities of today’s game just might lead to some players tempering their expectations of what they can hope to pull in on the open market this summer.
Perhaps that will lead to some signing relatively short-term contracts, with the idea of cashing in if/when normal economic conditions return in a few years. Others might have a firm conviction about what they’re worth, and won’t settle for anything less, regardless of the reason.
The only certainties are that the NHL’s cap ceiling for the coming season will be $82.5 million and that, Long-Term Injured list hijinks aside, there’s nothing teams can do to get around it.
The hard truth is that there’s only so much money to go around, and some free agents are likely to end up signing for less than they feel they should get. And, in some cases, less than they actually deserve.
Of course, Covid’s impact on the contracts some NHL players will sign this summer is several light-years removed from the top of the list of the worst things about the pandemic.
Nonetheless, its lingering effect on the league’s salary cap is real. And it might continue to be felt for several more years.