The NHL has had a salary cap for over a decade now, ever since the end of the 2004-05 lockout. Since then, general managers have been forced to manage their budgets much more closely, especially in the case of large market teams that were spending nearly double the amount of the original salary cap (which was set at a modest $39 million).
Today, most of the league’s 30 teams do have the luxury of spending all the way to the cap, which sits at an even $73 million for 2016-17. It’s a constant balancing act because of this, and many GMs seem to have backed themselves into a corner. The struggling Canadian dollar, among other factors, has held the salary cap back in recent years, and therefore GMs don’t have as much breathing room moving ahead as they’d hoped for—and in some cases, banked on.
In today’s list we’re going to look at 15 teams that are on a highway to salary cap hell. It’s a plethora of factors that can lead to such a situation; sometimes it’s a few expensive, long contracts that appear to handcuff a team, and other times it’s just a series of ill-advised moves. Either way, work life will be a tricky balancing act for the GMs of these 15 teams:
14 Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers have a few problematic long-term contracts that are bound to handcuff them in the next few years. They currently have just over $1 million in cap space left for 2016-17, and this is the first of eight seasons that will see Jakub Voracek collect $8.25 million a season. That’s steep for Voracek, who is a very good player but not $8 million-plus good.
And then there’s of course defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who played more than half of 2015-16 with the Leigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL and costs the team $5 million for four more seasons. This is probably a bad time to bring this up as well, but defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere is heading into the final season of his entry-level deal, and he’s due a massive raise on his current $925,000.
13 San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks have some pretty decent value contracts on the books today, but the bad news is that many are heading into their final seasons, and most of those players are due substantial raises. That’s bad news for the Sharks, who have less than $1 million left to play with for 2016-17.
Of course they will probably be able to save some dough on Joe Thornton’s and Patrick Marleau’s extensions (should they even occur), but it’s the back end they should be concerned about. Brent Burns is heading into the final year of his contract, and he’s due a pretty decent raise on his current $5.76 million cap hit. And there’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic, whose contract expires at the end of 2017-18 and is due a hefty raise on his $4.25 million cap hit.
12 Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings are in a bit of a pickle as it is, considering they’re currently nearly $5 million over the cap. A lot of their issues have to do with what’s happening in their goal crease, as they have over $9 million committed to Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.
They’d surely love to shed themselves of Howard’s $5.3 million hit, which carries on through 2018-19. They have things to consider for 2017-18 as well, not in the least of which Tomas Tatar’s contract expires, and he’ll surely garner nearly double his current cap hit of $2.75 million. Many people were wondering why the Wings went and signed 32-year-old Frans Nielsen to an expensive long-term contract, and now you know why smart hockey people were asking this question.
11 Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres will not have to deal with this issue for at least a few seasons, but when it comes time for Jack Eichel’s and Sam Reinhart’s second NHL deals, you can bet the $13.5 million they have committed to forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo through 2023 is going to be problematic.
Reinhart might not be as big an issue as Eichel, who has been billed as a franchise center. Will there be room for Eichel’s extension in two years with those contracts on the books—not to mention that they also have another $9.6 million committed to Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis through 2018-19, the first season of Eichel’s and Reinhart’s new deals. Something will have to give, because this is all without factoring in the fact that Rasums Ristolainen is still without a contract for 2016-17.
10 Edmonton Oilers
There is a singular reason the Oilers found their way onto this list, and it’s Connor McDavid. Edmonton has the electrifying centerman under contract at a discounted price for two more seasons, but after that the party’s over—McDavid will need to get paid, and paid well.
The Oilers currently have about $8 million in cap space remaining, pretty much all of which will be committed to McDavid on his second pro contract. That leaves exactly zero dollars remaining for Leon Draisaitl, whose ELC expires after this season and will also receive a pretty hefty raise. Then of course there’s Jesse Puljujarvi’s second pro contract to consider. It’ll be interesting to see how Peter Chiarelli and co. navigate this issue moving forward.
9 St. Louis Blues
It’s not so much that the Blues are headed for cap hell, but they certainly won’t be able to retain the services of a few of their top players beyond next season. They have Alexander Steen coming off the books after 2016-17, and he’ll at least garner the $5.8 million he’s making this season, if not more. Then there’s Kevin Shattenkirk, who’s surely due a big raise on his $4.25 million cap hit.
Colton Parayko broke out in a big way in 2015-16, and he’s heading into the final year of his ELC. And then just one season later Robby Fabbri will be looking to re-up for real money. Needless to say, when you add all these factors up, the Blues are going to be forced to shed some damn good players over the next couple of seasons if they're to remain cap-compliant.
8 Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild screwed themselves back in 2012 when they signed Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts. Both of those players are very good, and worth the money in their primes. But the fact is they’re both over 30 now, already on the decline, and have nine seasons left on their behemoth contracts.
After the upcoming season, the Wild will have some tough decisions to make thanks to these contracts. Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, and Nino Niederreiter will all need new contracts for 2016-17, and they’ll definitely combine to cost the team more than the $6.66 million they currently do. Jason Zucker, who has developed into a solid secondary scorer, has just two years remaining on his deal. The Wild won’t be able to keep everyone thanks to those two terrible contracts.
7 New York Islanders
The New York Islanders won’t be in cap trouble for another few years, but their time will come. The reason behind this is that they currently have captain John Tavares on an extreme-value contract, paying him just $5.5 million per season for two more years.
Even today, with the contracts they have on the books for 2016-17, they have just over $3M in cap space remaining, and they still have to sign Ryan Strome. It’s possible the expansion draft could even give the Islanders some relief from the situation, as perhaps they’ll leave Nick Leddy and his $5.5 million cap hit through 2022 exposed. Either way, Tavares will be making almost double what he’s making now, so they’ll need to free up space elsewhere to avoid losing their franchise center.
6 Washington Capitals
There are a lot of good teams on this list, and the reigning Presidents' Trophy winning Washington Capitals are one of them. The 2016-17 season represents the Capitals best chance to win a Stanley Cup, simply because they have many contracts expiring at season’s end, and most of those players have earned raises.
The two players whose names pop out the most in this regard are Evgeny Kuznetsov and Karl Alzner. Kuznetsov registered more points than everyone else on the Caps last season. His current cap hit is $3 million per season, so he’ll need to at least make double that on his next deal. Alzner is also due a hefty raise on his $2.8 million hit. John Carlson’s deal expires at the end of 2017-18, and he’ll garner a huge raise on his current cap hit of $3.9 million. When you add it all up in Washington these days, it’s clear that someone won’t be able to stick around.
5 Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks have been on a self-imposed budget for many years, and they’ve done quite well. Now, though, they’re all of a sudden staring down a battle with the salary cap. With their top three forwards earning over $23 million per season, it really doesn’t leave much breathing room for the Ducks.
They currently sit with about $7.5 million in space remaining for 2016-17, but Hampus Lindholm is still without a contract, and one could argue he will take the lion’s share of what remains. That’s ignoring the fact that Rickard Rakell, who broke out in 2015-16, is also an RFA. The Ducks may very well be in cap trouble already, as Rakell and Lindholm will eat up what’s left of their free cap space.
4 Boston Bruins
The Bruins will get a little relief at the end of 2017-18 when Zdeno Chara’s contract is up, but until then it will be a constant balancing act in Beantown. I was a little curious at Boston’s decision to sign David Backes to a $6 million per season deal this summer, especially considering how they let Loui Eriksson walk and sign elsewhere for the same money.
Nonetheless, the Backes contract might cause some issues after 2016-17, as the B’s have a handful of expiring contracts. Brad Marchand will command a raise on his $4.5 million cap hit, and both Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak will need some more money as they move onto their second professional contracts. Depending on what happens at next year’s expansion draft, the Bruins might have to trim someone from their roster to remain cap compliant in 2017-18.
3 Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings have won two of the last six Stanley Cups, so clearly GM Dean Lombardi is doing something right. As such, players in L.A. have earned pretty fat contracts, and that is finally starting to catch up with the Kings. They are quite literally up against the cap for 2016-17, with less than $30,000 left to spend.
What’s particularly problematic is that Tyler Toffoli—a pretty major part of the future plan in L.A.—is heading into the final year of a contract that comes with a friendly $3.25 million hit. That’s not to mention all the other players who are on expiring contracts: Dwight King and Tanner Pearson are two other key members on that list. I wonder how much Lombardi regrets signing captain Dustin Brown to that $5.875 million cap hit through 2022…
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
The closer you get to the top of this list, the better the teams are. That makes sense, as competitive teams mostly spend to the cap in their effort to win a championship. The Pittsburgh Penguins are the reigning Cup champions, and they are also very darn close to the cap—in fact, they currently sit over the $73 million salary cap by about $3 million.
How they’ll shed the dollars before the season begins I’m not sure, but they’re going to have to figure it out somehow. They’ll be afforded a little relief after 2016-17, when Chris Kunitz’s contract expires. He’ll certainly take a bit of a pay cut on his $3.85 million cap hit, and that’s if the Penguins even decide to keep the aging winger on board—he’ll be 37 this time next year.
2 Chicago Blackhawks
When two of your players take up almost 30% of your cap space, it’s sort of tough to fill out the rest of your roster. That’s the struggle these days in Chicago, as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews each cost the club $10.5M against the cap every season, and they will cost that through 2023.
Add in the fact that they’re still going to be paying Marian Hossa $5.25 million per season through 2021, Brent Seabrook $6.875 million through 2024, and Duncan Keith (on a value contract, mind you) $5.54 million through 2023, and you have five players taking up over 50% of the salary cap in Chicago. This might be a bad time to mention that Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin is heading into the final year of his friendly ELC. The Hawks will have some tough decisions to make next offseason.
1 Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay is in a bit of a pickle for 2016-17, and if you look further down the road it doesn’t look like it will get any easier any time soon. Let’s just start with this upcoming season; the Lightning have 50/50 contracts on the books, so they can’t even sign superstar Nikita Kucherov or defenseman Nikita Nesterov without shedding a few of their current contracts via trade.
Furthermore, Kucherov will not be a cheap contract, as he’s fresh off leading the Lighting in points last season. Tampa has just over $6.5 million left in space, and if they’re planning on signing Kucherov to a long term deal, he’ll take up all of that and then some. For now, let’s just ignore the fact that Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat with both be in need of new deals come the end of 2016-17, and they’ll get raises on their $3.3 million hits. Yep, the Lightning are in a bit of a situation here.