Next summer’s pool of NHL free agents is a potentially deep one, but another marginal increase in the salary cap could make big-money contracts difficult to find. 

In my previous Soapbox, I examined the limited number of NHL teams with sufficient cap space to invest in next summer’s potentially deep pool of unrestricted free agent talent. The basis for the topic was the assumption the salary cap for 2016-17 will only slightly increase to around $73 million. I projected the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs as the possible big spenders.

That could have a significant effect upon next summer’s unrestricted free agents. Currently, the 2016 UFA class is the deepest in years. It includes three superstars: Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal and Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar.

Will there be enough teams to bid competitively next summer for potential UFA stars like Dustin Byfuglien?

Will there be enough teams to bid competitively next summer for potential UFA stars like Dustin Byfuglien?

Notable second-tier stars include Kings left wing Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames winger Jiri Hudler, St. Louis Blues center David Backes, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and left wing Andrew Ladd, New York Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle, Boston Bruins winger Loui Eriksson and New York Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo.

Other talent of note include Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward, Arizona Coyotes winger Mikkel Boedker, Vancouver Canucks winger Radim Vrbata and defenseman Dan Hamhuis, Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell, Dallas Stars blueliner Alex Goligoski, New York Islanders center Frans Nielsen and Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer.

Even if half of these players end up re-signing with their current teams, there will remain a considerable amount of talent up for grabs when the UFA market opens at noon ET on July 1, 2016.

Of next summer’s potential UFAs, Stamkos, Kopitar, Byfuglien, Ladd, Hudler, Yandle, Okposo and Boedker are guaranteed significant raises over their current annual salaries. Players like Staal, Ward, Lucic, Vrbata and Hamhuis could be facing pay cuts, but their asking prices will remain expensive. Others, like Eriksson, Goligoski, Nielsen and Reimer, won’t see huge raises, but they will still seek increases in their annual salaries.

Assuming all of these players are available next July, will there be enough money available for next summer’s crop of UFAs to land expensive new contracts if the cap only marginally increases for 2016-17?

Last summer, the salary cap rose for 2015-16 by only $2.4 million, from $69 million to $71.4 million. That forced many NHL general managers to become more frugal in their free-agent investments. Of course, last summer’s UFA pool was also the shallowest in years, making it easier for GMs to wisely manage their money. Next summer will provide more tempting targets, but a limited increase in the cap ceiling could force some of them to balk at handing out big-money deals.

As noted in the previous Soapbox, currently 15 NHL teams have payrolls below $50 million for 2016-17. Only six of them (Coyotes, Sabres, Hurricanes, Panthers, Devils and Maple Leafs) have sufficient cap room to become big spenders in that market.

Of the 15 clubs with payrolls over $50 million for 2016-17, the Chicago Blackhawks possess less than $10 million in cap space, assuming the cap only makes another $2.4 million bump upwards, sitting it at $73.5 million.

Clubs like the Columbus Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals have some key players to re-sign. That could leave them with limited room to pursue a second-tier UFA, let alone the big-ticket players. Indeed, some of the key players they must re-sign are among next July’s group of UFA talent.

Some, like the Dallas Stars, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers and San Jose Sharks don’t have many key players to re-sign. They could have sufficient room to pursue a big-ticket player, but they must be careful not to invest too much over the long term for fear of hampering efforts to re-sign key stars down the road.

It’s possible a handful of these clubs could make salary-dumping deals to free up cap space to chase the big-ticket free agents. Still, that scenario is unlikely to substantially increase the number of bidders in July’s UFA market.

A superstar like Stamkos or Kopitar will get top dollar, either from their current clubs or via the free-agent market. The other notable UFAs, however, could find big deals difficult, perhaps impossible, to come by. Some of them could be forced to sign with their former clubs.

In the past, NHL general managers happily overpaid for the best free-agent talent, as they could be assured of a healthy annual increase of the salary-cap ceiling. With that no longer a certainty, perhaps their new-found frugality of this past summer will carry over into next year’s UFA market.

If so, UFAs who would otherwise receive lucrative long-term deals could be forced to accept shorter, less-expensive contracts.