Over the past three years Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi has done a tremendous job keeping his roster largely intact, which is why they’ve won two Stanley Cup championships in three years. However, as GMs of other former Cup champions discovered over the past decade, it’s difficult to maintain a championship roster in a salary cap world. Lombardi faces that difficulty this summer.
Lombardi’s situation is this: he’s got over $56.8 million invested in 14 players for 2015-16. That’s not including the $4.166 million annual cap hit owed to currently-suspended defenseman Slava Voynov, who’s awaiting trial on domestic-assault charges. Assuming Voynov is acquitted and returns to the lineup, that’s over $60 million tied up in 15 players.
Of the free agents, forwards Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll, defensemen Robyn Regehr and Jamie McBain are unrestricted. Restricted free agents include forwards Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Kyle Clifford, Jordan Nolan and backup goalie Martin Jones.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently projected the salary cap for 2015-16 could come in around $73 million. If it should reach that level, the Kings will have less than $13 million in cap space.
Of the UFAs, Williams and Stoll are the priority. Williams is 33 and a winner of the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Stoll turns 33 in June and is one of the Kings’ most reliable checking forwards. Both are coming off contracts in which they earned over $3.2 million per season. They might be willing to take discounts to remain with the Kings. Let’s assume they’re willing to re-sign for $3 million each. That leaves less than $7 million in cap space.
The RFAs, particularly Toffoli and Pearson, will seek substantial raises. While most are coming out of entry-level contracts, they still won’t be cheap to re-sign. Assuming they can get Toffoli and Pearson to agree to two-year bridge deals worth $2.5 million per season each, there won’t be enough left to re-sign the remaining key players, let alone replace Regehr and McBain.
That’s assuming the salary cap reaches $73 million. The continuing decline of the Canadian dollar (worth nearly .83 cents US as of Jan. 15, 2015) could result in a cap ceiling coming in between $70-$72 million. If that happens, Lombardi will have less money to work with this summer.
Lombardi’s troubles won’t end after this season. In 2016, center Anzer Kopitar will be eligible for unrestricted free agency. Kopitar, 27, is one of the NHL’s best two-way centers and was a finalist in 2014 for the Selke Trophy. He’s led the Kings in scoring every season except for his rookie campaign. Despite being hobbled early this season by a hip injury, he’s once again the Kings’ leading scorer.
Kopitar is currently earning an annual cap hit of $6.8 million. It could cost the Kings over $10 million per season to keep him. Some of you might scoff at that notion, but Kopitar has been consistently the Kings’ top forward for eight seasons. He was the 2014 playoff scoring leader, and by my estimation he, not Williams, should’ve won the Smythe trophy. If the Kings fail to re-sign Kopitar, he’ll earn over $10 million in next summer’s UFA market. Easily.
If the Canadian dollar remains low throughout next season, the NHL salary cap probably won’t increase that much. It could struggle to get over $75 million. While Kopitar is the Kings only notable free agent in 2016, it could prove difficult for Lombardi to fit him under the cap. Even if Kopitar were willing to accept a “hometown discount”, he will still get a raise over $6.8 million. Well over. Think at least $8 million per. Of course, he won’t accept that. He’s one of the best players in the NHL and will be paid as one of the best, and that means over $10 million annually.
Little wonder, then, the Mike Richards trade rumors keep making the rounds. Some pundits and fans seem to think Richards – despite his declining numbers (he’s on pace for a career-worst 28 points in 82 games) and his $5.75 million annual cap hit through 2020 – still has trade value. If Lombardi can actually find a GM gullible or stupid enough to take on Richards’ contract, he deserves to be nominate as GM of the Year. Or perhaps move to Las Vegas and become a full-time magician, because that would be the best piece of magic seen in a long time.
The salary cap as envisioned by the league brain trust was designed to “level the playing surface”, to give every team a fair shot at building and maintaining a Stanley Cup contender. No longer would the big market teams with deep-pocketed, free-spending ownership have the advantage over their small-market brethren.
It also makes it very difficult to maintain a winner. There’s been some grumbling among a few observers over how the cap punishes successful franchises. That’s the down side to a salary cap. It’s not too expensive to build a winner if done right, like the way the Kings did it. But promising young players blossom into stars worthy of expensive raises, and it becomes more difficult to keep a championship core of talent intact. Even if you maintain that core, the cost of doing so makes it difficult to surround them with worthy role players.
Lombardi was largely successful in maintaining a championship roster over the last several seasons, but it appears he and his club will soon be paying the price for that success.