It was a small trade but an important one, nonetheless. In a harbinger of things to come, the Tampa Bay Lightning ditched valuable young grinder Adam Erne to Detroit for only a fourth-round pick Wednesday. Broken down to the purest form, the trade was about a team with cap space reaping a reward from a team trying to create space. The game of musical chairs for cap space has begun, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are one of those teams circling the chairs waiting for the music to stop. Teams which find a chair and those that fail will shape the Penguins, the Metro Division and the Eastern Conference.
Big news is coming. It has to be.
Despite the St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup victory, the balance of star power and heavy payrolls reside in the Eastern Conference. The top-five cap-strapped teams are in the East. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Penguins, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres, and Tampa Bay Lightning are the teams over, at, or just under the salary cap but need more transactions to ice a complete team.
The Penguins are somewhere close to even, just above or just below the cap before signing RFA Marcus Pettersson. Washington is just over the cap. Even the rebuilding New York Rangers are just $1 million from the salary cap limit but still have unsigned defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.
One of those teams with an abundance of cap space is the Colorado Avalanche. Despite having unsigned Mikko Rantanen, who was one of the NHL scoring leaders last season, Colorado has more than enough money to spare and our colleague Adrian Dater has hinted Colorado is considering a game-changing splash with that cash (He clued us in…it would be a jaw-dropper).
This is how it is supposed to work. The veteran teams which have enjoyed success are not supposed to be able to keep everyone they want. The up and coming teams are supposed to have cap space to be able to scoop up the sacrificed players. But the wrinkle this season is the anger of NHL players continuing to lose 10% of their salary to Escrow and the NHLPA choosing a lower salary cap to mitigate the Escrow situation.
After initial estimates last season that the salary cap would increase to beyond $83 million, it only inched ahead from $79.5 to $81.5 million. And teams which were already going to be close to the ceiling began preparations.
And those teams with cap space realized they were in a small minority this summer. There are fewer teams with payroll flexibility than there normally are, and so like any real economics model, when supply went down, the price has gone up.
At the 2019 NHL Draft, the trade scuttle was about moving overpaid veterans. Teams with the money raised the price to a first round pick, or more, to accept the castoffs. Teams with the veterans refused. And thus the first night of the draft had all of the trade excitement of a nursing home bingo.
Now, we’re coming to the end of the road. There are just four weeks to training camp and six weeks to the regular season. The music has started. After dealing Erne for a bargain price, Tampa Bay has almost enough money to sign RFA Brayden Point, who scored 92 points (41g, 51a) last season, but that’s it.
Other teams should begin to feel the pressure as there will be fewer and fewer chairs able to accept a negative salary transaction. The price started high and will probably go higher. The Penguins have a few players in the middle-class salary range such as Jack Johnson, Bryan Rust, Erik Gudbranson, and Nick Bjugstad who have all been mentioned in trade fodder.
It may not be the Penguins choice which player they lose. The Penguins don’t control the market.
No team wants to be left standing with unsigned players, patchwork players or a smaller roster to squeeze under the cap. Per usual, Tampa Bay was a step ahead and grabbed the first chair.
Now teams such as Columbus, Philadelphia, the New York Islanders and bottom feeders like Ottawa and Los Angeles which have abundant cap space will be in command. What they choose to do with their salary cap space, and who they choose to work with, will shape the contenders and change the NHL landscape.
It’s hard to imagine Philadelphia, NYI or Columbus taking on salary in anything resembling a fair deal which helps the Penguins. Perhaps you chuckled at the thought, as well.
This summer, there just isn’t enough money to go around. Let the music begin.