Sure, the theory is sound, and it used to be a lot easier. When teams got too close to the salary cap or even went over in the offseason, there were always a few bottom feeders willing to take on a salary for a solid player, or accept a reasonable asset with the high-salary player. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Now, the NHL trade market is clogged, and for the Pittsburgh Penguins and a gaggle of other teams, it’s just not that easy anymore.
While NHL trade rumors run wild, let’s set the true stage.
The Penguins are one of 12 teams that are over the NHL salary cap or don’t have enough cap space to sign a minimum wage player.
Another five teams have less than $2 million in cap space. Another five teams have below $10 million in cap space, and only 18-20 players signed, meaning they need to add three to five more players with less than $10 million.
The combination of cap-strapped and cap-overage teams equals at least 22, which is two-thirds of the league.
So, just make a trade?
The National Hockey Now family is chasing a rumor that Nazem Kadri is waiting on a team, but that team cannot currently afford the expected price. The team is quietly trying to move a few salaries to make it all work. Naturally, all sides are super hush-hush because should word leak, that could kill the whole deal. We apologize in advance to that fanbase if we do break the story.
The teams with salary cap space know just how valuable it is. It’s not just $5 million. It’s Stanley Cup hopes for one team. It’s making the leap to contender status for another.
Those cap-flush teams aren’t selling their salary cap space. They are selling hope and ambition, which are far more valuable.
When he was asked in June what his team needed this summer, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall joked, “more cap space.”
It was funny because it’s true.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are more than $7 million over the cap.
The Vancouver Canucks, Florida Panthers, and Edmonton Oilers are about $3 million over the cap.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, Vegas Golden Knights, and Penguins are about $1.5 million over the cap.
(The Washington Capitals are more than $6 million over the cap, but Nick Backstrom and Tom Wilson will be placed on LTIR after offseason surgeries).
Unlike any offseason in recent memory, GMs are banking on finding a trade partner. More teams reside over the cap than any other summer, and when the music stops, a few teams may be left without a chair.
Yes, the Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres are still millions under the salary cap floor and need to add players. Their cap space will be in high demand. Both Buffalo and Anaheim will be able to demand a ransom for any transaction. Their cap space is a rare and sought-after commodity, like water and gasoline on Fury Road, cigarettes in prison, or intelligence in politics.
From the cap floor, those teams can drive much harder bargains. They can pit teams against each other in a bidding war. Defenseman Marcus Pettersson is oft mentioned Penguins trade candidate. A team with cap space to burn can compare Pettersson to another available defenseman, then ask for additional assets.
The team most willing to part with an additional asset wins.
In days gone by, it was a second or third-round pick that would be attached to a player. Then it became a first-rounder.
The Carolina Hurricanes were able to snag Max Pacioretty and Dylan Coghlan for nothing. Carolina actually acquired a fairly paid, high-level top-line center for nothing because the Vegas Golden Knights were in a cap crunch.
Literally, Vegas couldn’t get a better offer for very good players than NOTHING.
Even noted horse trader Jim Rutherford and his protege Patrik Allvin are having a rough go in Vancouver. On the Bob McCown podcast, Rutherford said attempted wheeling and dealing on the NHL trade market have thus far fallen through.
Rutherford: It's appears that it's going to take longer to address the defense than we would have liked and we're going to have to do it through trades.
(Bob McCown pod)
— Taj (@taj1944) July 27, 2022
So, what is a player like Jason Zucker or Pettersson worth? What is 35-year-old Florida Panthers fourth-liner Patric Hornqvist with a $5.3 million salary worth? Average 32-year-old Vancouver Canucks defenseman Tyle Myers, who has a $6 million salary for a couple more years?
A better question is how much more would a team need to attach to those players? Or will the bottom teams simply demand better players to the exclusion of being paid to accept expendable players — like the league, and Carolina did to Vegas.
The resources across the league are scarce, but the difference in the summer of 2022 is the increased competition for those resources.
Just make a trade?