You might have heard this a time or 87 of late, but, as part of the NHL’s new CBA and return to play, the league and NHLPA agreed to keep the salary cap ceiling flat at $81.5 million until league revenues reach certain pre-pandemic levels. That will likely mean that ceiling is here to stay through at least the 2021-22 season.
You may have also heard this, but the Hurricanes have some big contracts coming up in the 2021 offseason. The flat cap’s going to make that pretty tough, right? Well … yes, but not as tough as you might think. Pre COVID, the cap was likely to rise to about $83.5-$84 million for next season, so perhaps it could have been at $85-86 million for 2021-22.
The Canes will be fine for next season. The team already has 11 forwards, five defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season with close to $8 million in cap space. If the team signs RFA forward Warren Foegele and defenseman Haydn Fleury for roughly half that space, which shouldn’t be a big deal, you can plug in a 13th forward and seventh defenseman on minimal contracts and still have room to spare.
The 2021 offseason is where it gets tricky, but, again, manageable.
Let’s take a look at building out the Hurricanes’ 2021-22 roster with the current cap constraints, as well as the difference a normal cap increase might make.
Taking a look at the numbers on the always useful capfriendly, the Hurricanes will enter the 2021 offseason with a projected $32,157,667 in cap space and just six forwards, four defensemen and no goalies under contract.
Those numbers might appear daunting at first, but they’re not as bad as they seem. For one thing, it’s not like the Canes will have to spend a ton to fill all those slots (they will for a couple, but more on that in a minute).
Most of the players already under contract are top half of the roster players, and many of those come in at a bargain rate. The forwards are Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Staal, Martin Necas, and Nino Niederreiter. On the blue line, it’s Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Jake Gardiner and Brady Skjei.
That assumes none of the above are traded this offseason, an assumption we’re going to maintain for this exercise.
For another thing, if you include Fleury and Foegele for a total of about $5 million, it’s really seven forwards and five dmen under contract that leaves you with $27,157,667 in cap space.
Let’s fill those slots, shall we?
Well, let’s start with the elephant in the room. Yes, Dougie Hamilton and Andrei Svechnikov are both up for new deals next summer. Yes, neither is going to come remotely cheap. Their merits speak for themselves, and Brian did a good job breaking down those and what the duo might get on new contracts last week.
As Brian said, the Hurricanes should have about $15-16 million total budgeted for that pair. We’ll go with $15 million, as Svechnikov gets $7 million per season and Hamilton gets a slight discount (yes, discount) at $8 million.
Now the Hurricanes have eight forwards and six defensemen under contract, with their space shrunk down to $12,157,667. That’s a big chunk of change, but Hamilton and Svechnikov are worth it.
Where to next? Oh, right, the goalies. Seems kind of important. Petr Mrazek and James Reimer will both be unrestricted free agents after the 2020-21 season and, honestly, who knows what the Hurricanes will do. It seems unlikely both of them would be back after next season. Both might not even be back for next season.
Maybe one of them is back for 2021-22. Maybe neither. Maybe Alex Nedeljkovic fits into that equation. Maybe it’s two guys from outside the organization. Goaltending is unpredictable. What the Canes will do with the position in the next year and change is unpredictable.
What’s not unpredictable is that the Hurricanes will need two goalies for the 2021-22 season. According to spotrac.com, NHL teams spent roughly $6.6 million against the cap on goaltending this season (the Hurricanes spent $6.525).
Though the team could be looking to upgrade it’s goaltending, we’ll budget that league average of $6.6 million.
That brings us to: Eight forwards, six defensemen, two goalies and $5,557,667 in cap space. One player this doesn’t include is Morgan Geekie, who will be a restricted free agent after next season. Assuming he builds on his explosive debut, solid postseason and doesn’t have some huge breakout offensively, he should maintain his slot as the fourth-line center.
We’ll say his new contract costs about $900,000. That leaves the Hurricanes with nine forwards, six defensemen and two goalies and $4,657,667. That’s about $930,000 per player for a seventh defensemen, three bottom-six forwards and a 13th forward.
Most of those can probably slot in on sub-$1 million contracts, especially given the Hurricanes’ prospect pool. Even if I’m a million or so off on the totals for Fleury/Foegele and Hamilton/Svechnikov, that should be workable.
This will mean saying goodbye to some fan favorites such as Ryan Dzingel, Jordan Martinook and perhaps Brock McGinn, and that may not have been the case with a normal cap escalator. But it may not be the worst thing to let young players fight for those spots.
Let’s look at some key takeaways from the flat cap’s impact on the Hurricanes:
It’s not that bad
Is it going to be easy? No. Is it going to be painful to lose some of the above players? Sure. Are there potential pitfalls with asking at least one or two prospects contribute in at least a bottom-six role? Yes.
But the Hurricanes are really in as good of shape as can be expected with a flat cap and having to pay players of Svechnikov and Hamilton’s caliber. A lot of teams would, and will, be in a world of hurt there.
What’s kept the Hurricanes from being in the same boat as, say, the Lightning or Canucks, is the bargain rates for so many of their top players. Slavin at $5.3 million for five (five!) more years is an absolute steal. Ditto Pesce at $4.025 million for four more years. Teravainen at $5.4 for four more years is grand larceny.
Hell, for what he brings, Aho at $8.45 for four more years is probably an underpayment. It’s these deals, plus the fact that the Hurricanes really do not have a truly terrible contract, that puts them in a good position to extend stars like Hamilton and Svechnikov without having to jettison players they want to keep.
Are all the contracts perfect? No. Jordan Staal is a bit overpaid at $6 million, but still very valuable, and that really isn’t an outrageous number for an elite defensive middle-six center. Nino Niederreiter did not live up to his deal last year, but it’s not like he was totally inept.
Obviously Ron Francis and Don Waddell could not have had the foresight to plan for this particular situation in signing those bargain deals, but the contracts for Slavin, Pesce, Teravainen and even Aho (thanks, Montreal!) are going to be gifts that keep on giving.
Some painful goodbyes
All of this isn’t to say the Hurricanes will come out of this unscathed. I’d say Dzingel will be gone. Either he has a year similar to the one he just had and that’s a no-brainer, or he bounces back and the Hurricanes can’t afford him.
Jordan Martinook and Brock McGinn cost a combined $4.1 million against the cap currently. You’d have to cut that at least in half to even think about keeping them. Maybe you can afford one but, especially if the Canes want to have a smidge of wiggle room going into the season, it’s unlikely.
While it may be a good thing to let some of the team’s talented prospects battle for those spots, Martinook and McGinn are favorites among the locker room, fans and coaching staff for their energy, leadership and, especially in Martinook’s case, personality.
Under more normal circumstances, the team might have looked to keep one or both, but it’s looking like both veteran forwards could be flat cap casualties.
Little room for upgrades
The biggest issue here is what I’ve done is essentially maintained the status quo. But the Hurricanes don’t, and shouldn’t want that. They want to take the next step to being a legitimate Stanley Cup Contender.
Well, to do that, they really need an upgrade in net and another top-six forward. That’s going to be tough. I’ve got them spending exactly league average on goaltending. That’s unlikely to include an upgrade over what we’ve seen the past couple years.
And top-six forwards don’t come cheap (again, unless your name is Teuvo Teravainen). When the Hurricanes look to make moves this offseason, they’re going to have to be extremely careful about what the deals look like beyond 2020-21, and adding salary for that time period.
It’s not like the cap will stay flat forever, but the team will still need to figure out a way to make it work in the 2021 offseason. If salary past 2021 is coming in, some will have to go out.
If the Canes want to make upgrades, moving out contracts like Nino Niederreiter or Jake Gardiner won’t just be helpful; it’ll be essential.
In the literal sense of the phrase, the Canes won’t be “sitting pretty” with the flat cap. It’ll be tight. Some veteran fan favorites will likely say goodbye. And making any kind of additions will take some serious finagling.
But, looking at the league as a whole, the Hurricanes are probably in about as good a position as you could hope for a consistent playoff team that needs to extend two star players under a flat cap. They shouldn’t have to make any “cap dumps” and give away young players they don’t want to.
The flat cap world won’t be easy for the Hurricanes to navigate, but thanks in large part to some seriously valuable contracts for their top players, it’ll be doable.