For the past several years, a lack of depth in the NHL’s unrestricted free-agent market left a number of teams with available salary-cap space pursuing slim pickings. However, next summer could see the reverse.
The 2016 class of unrestricted free agents could be the deepest pool of available talent in years. Such notables as Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Milan Lucic, Dustin Byfuglien, David Backes and Andrew Ladd could be testing the market on July 1.
Previous annual increases in the NHL salary-cap levels of between $4-$5 million ensured a number of teams could become competitive bidders each summer for the best free-agent talent. However, that might not be the case come July 2016.
Since 2014, the steady decline in the value of the Canadian dollar has slowed the rise in the cap ceiling. For example, in December 2013, league commissioner Gary Bettman projected the ceiling would reach $71.1 million for 2014-15. Instead, it reached $69 million.
Last December, Bettman cautiously predicted an increase to around $73 million for 2015-16, but the final figure was $71.4 million. That raise was largely dependent upon the NHLPA voting to approve its annual five percent escalator clause. Otherwise, the cap ceiling could have remained stagnant, or perhaps even slightly declined.
The Canadian dollar is presently mired near .75 cents USD and showing no sign of a significant increase for the foreseeable future. If so, the cap ceiling for 2016-17 could rise to only around $73 million, provided the PA again approves its five percent escalator. Under that scenario, a limited number of teams will have sufficient cap space to invest in an unusually deep pool of UFA talent next July.
Of the 30 NHL teams, 14 -Anaheim Ducks ($46.1 million), Arizona Coyotes ($31.9 million), Boston Bruins ($44.9 million), Buffalo Sabres ($43.2 million), Calgary Flames ($43.6 million), Carolina Hurricanes ($37.3 million), Edmonton Oilers ($43.9 million), Florida Panthers ($34.7 million), Los Angeles Kings (49.2 million), New Jersey Devils ($40.2 million), St. Louis Blues ($43.7 million), Tampa Bay Lightning ($49.4 million), Toronto Maple Leafs ($37.3 million) and Winnipeg Jets ($42.2 million) – have cap payrolls below $50 million for 2016-17.
Their respective payrolls for next season are currently well below this season’s $52.9 million salary-cap minimum. However, several of these teams have key players to re-sign:
Anaheim Ducks : goaltender Frederik Andersen and defensemen Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm.
Calgary Flames: forwards Jiri Hudler, Joe Colborne, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, defenseman Kris Russell. They must also re-sign or replace their goaltenders.
Los Angeles Kings: Center Anze Kopitar, winger Milan Lucic, defenseman Brayden McNabb
Tampa Bay Lightning: Forwards Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov.
Winnipeg Jets: Forwards Andrew Ladd and Mark Scheifele, defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba.
Even if those teams fail to re-sign their top respective UFAs, the money needed to retain their other key free agents still won’t leave much room to pursue the best available free-agent talent.
Several clubs (The Coyotes, Devils, Avalanche, Jets and Panthers) also operate under self-imposed cap ceilings lower than the league maximum. While some of them could increase spending for an opportunity to land a free-agent star, there’s no certainty all of them will do so.
Taking these factors into account, the Coyotes, Sabres, Hurricanes, Panthers, Devils and Maple Leafs could be the most active clubs in next summer’s UFA market.
The Coyotes are a budget team, but with less that $32 million, they’ll be well below next season’s salary-cap minimum. Some of that will likely go toward retaining UFA winger Mikkel Boedker, as well as re-signing RFAs Tobias Rieder, Michael Stone, Klas Dahlbeck and Connor Murphy. Even then, they’ll still have to spend, spend, spend to become cap compliant.
The Sabres’ RFAs (led by Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen) won’t be expensive to re-sign. Most, if not all, of their UFAs are easily replaceable. Ownership has a willingness to spend (hello there, Ryan O’Reilly). It’s a safe assumption general manager Tim Murray will be an active bidder in next summer’s UFA market.
Like the Coyotes, the Hurricanes are under a self-imposed cap this season. Re-signing captain Eric Staal will take a big chunk (perhaps $7 million annually) out of their cap space, forcing them to carefully invest the rest. However, if they part ways with Staal, they will have more than enough cap room to pursue one or two notable free agents next summer.
Panthers GM Dale Tallon claims he has the green light from ownership to spend whatever necessary to improve the roster. While Tallon spent big in 2011, he’s since stuck to more sensible, affordable moves. They have a handful of RFAs to re-sign, but only Erik Gudbranson will be expensive to retain. If Jaromir Jagr and Brian Campbell depart, Tallon could try to make a big splash again in the UFA pool.
A numbers of aging Devils are eligible for UFA status next summer. Most are replaceable. Much will depend, of course, upon how the club performs this season. If they return to the playoffs, management could try to retain many of those FAs. Still, ownership is apparently willing to let GM Ray Shero spend what’s needed to bolster the lineup. The Devils could be serious players in the 2016 UFA market.
Then, there’s the Maple Leafs, who are in the first season of a long-overdue rebuild and stocked with a lot of easily replaceable veterans on one-year contracts. Even after re-signing RFA defenseman Morgan Rielly and perhaps center Nazem Kadri, the Leafs will have plenty of cap space to pursue big-ticket players. Their ownership is willing to spend, but is the current management keen to do so? If Steven Stamkos or Eric Staal are available, the answer is yes.
Of course, there’s still plenty of hockey to be played before this season ends. We don’t know for certain what next season’s salary cap limits will be or how many of those notable UFA stars will be still be available at season’s end. We also don’t know what will transpire over the course of this season to affect the plans of all 30 NHL clubs.
Still, if the cap ceiling only marginally increases and a number of those pending free-agent stars hit the open market next summer, the Coyotes, Sabres, Hurricanes, Panthers, Devils and Maple Leafs could be poised to cash in big in next summer.