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Cap Casualties: Players Who Could be Traded Because of the Flat Salary Cap Crunch

With a flat cap in 2020-21, a number of players could be dealt so that team can hit their bottom line.

Carolina Hurricanes v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Every year, players get moved because of their contract situation. It happens in every sport, and the NHL is no different.

This year is no different, but at the same time, it’s very different. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravishing the United States and changing the way we consume sports, the professional sports leagues are being affected in a number of ways, including the need for a flat salary cap in the NHL.

Now, deals that were made by teams with players with the expectation of a growing salary cap ceiling are making things much tighter for clubs, which means that there will be even more players on the market who could be moved as a cap casualty.

Over the years, we’ve seen the Hurricanes be the team to take advantage of other teams’ cap issues and acquire assets (i.e. Teuvo Teravainen or the Maple Leafs’ 2020 first-round pick). While they aren’t necessarily in a situation to keep doing that, there are players out there who will be flat cap casualties, and we’ll discuss them today.

Marc-Andre Fleury

A decline in performance and a trade deadline acquisition is set to spell certain doom for Fleury.

After finishing in the top-five of Vezina Trophy voting and earning All-Star nods in each of his first two seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights, Fleury saw his numbers totally fall apart in year three with the expansion team that began play in 2017.

In 2017-18, Fleury had a goals save above average of a remarkable 20.77. That dropped to 5.58 in 2018-19 before the bottom dropped out to -6.5 in 2019-20, his lowest number since 2009-10.

The addition of Robbin Lehner at the trade deadline doesn’t help matters. He went a perfect 3-0-0 with a .940 save percentage in three regular season starts before the season’s suspension and followed that up with a solid postseason run that saw him log a .917 save percentage before the Golden Knights were ousted in the Western Conference Final by the Dallas Stars.

Reports suggest now that Lehner and the Golden Knights have a handshake agreement in place to keep the pending UFA in the silver and black. Lehner has denied it, but it would certainly stand to reason that Lehner would be the logical heir to the throne.

That, of course, would spell a potential trade for Fleury, who carries a pain-staking $7 million cap hit over the next two seasons.

If you remember, though, there were similar downturns in Fleury’s play when he got moved to Vegas out of Pittsburgh a few years ago. The change in scenery saw the veteran goalie revive his career. Now, at age 35, can he do it one more time? It’s certainly more doubtful this time around, but with just tow years remaining on his deal, maybe one team will be willing to role the dice and gamble on this Vegas success story.

Darcy Kuemper

There have been plenty of rumors surrounding a number of teams stating that clubs will have a strict internal salary cap, and among the teams affected that list is the Arizona Coyotes.

Enter Kuemper.

The ‘Yotes have already started shopping their 30-year-old goalie, and they should garner a whole lot of interest (perhaps even from the Hurricanes).

Very quietly, the Saskatchewan native has compiled a career save percentage of .918 and a goals saved above average of 32.3 over his eight-season NHL career. That is excellent, and his last two season in the desert have helped big time, culminating in a top-five Vezina finalist two seasons ago and a .928 save percentage in an injury-hampered 2019-20 season.

Under normal circumstances, Kuemper and his $4.5 million cap hit over the next two seasons would be staying put in Arizona, but with the current state of the sport, it looks like his time there is about up, and there will certainly many teams interested in bringing him in.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

We’re going to stay in Arizona a little longer, unlike OEL.

If the Coyotes are going to cut $5-10 million from their roster, the natural place to start is Ekman-Larsson, whose $8.25 million cap hit runs through the 2026-27 season at which point he will be 35.

There’s a strong argument to be made that he was never worthy of the colossal contract, especially at the time that he did eventually get it, but now the Coyotes are looking for a team to help them out and take OEL.

Obviously, the hopes is that the 29-year-old Swedish blueliner will turn things around with a change of scenery, but that hope will cost a team $58 million in real money over seven seasons.

I’m not sure what it would take for a team to take a shot on OEL. Obviously, there’s a wealth of talent in the player, but do any teams think that it’s still there to the tune of an $8.25 million cap hit for seven seasons?

Nino Niederreiter

Even without a flat cap, Niederreiter’s future in Carolina would be in jeopardy entering the 2020-21 season.

In his first full season with the Hurricanes, Nino’s number dropped substantially from the gaudy finish he had upon being acquired in the early weeks of 2019.

The 28-year-old Swiss winger has two years left on his deal that will cost $5.25 million against the cap, and Carolina’s plans this offseason should factor into how they deal with this deal.

If the Hurricanes have their sights set on a big contract in the form of a big-time forward or a bonafide number one goalie, then it makes sense for Niederreiter to be on the way out. If the Hurricanes don’t plan on making that large of a shake up, though, then Nino’s presence on the team likely doesn’t change heading into 2020-21.

It was only natural that this shortlist included a Carolina connection, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Niederreiter will be back next season with an opportunity to regain old form.