By June 15, perhaps sooner, the Stanley Cup Final will be over and the NHL offseason truly begins.
Mid-June to early-July is usually the busiest part of the summer for NHL players and teams. Players are either signed to new contracts, bought out of current ones, traded or join new clubs as free agents.
In recent years, most of the player movement activity tends to slow significantly following the opening week of unrestricted free agency.
This summer, however, could be a busier than normal for the NHL.
Three factors could have a significant effect upon this offseason’s player movement: the salary cap, the depth of talent in the unrestricted free agent market and the possibility of an expansion draft.
For over a decade, the salary cap has affected how NHL teams build or maintain their rosters. Those with limited salary-cap space tend to shed contracts to free up cap dollars to re-sign key players, become cap compliant before the start of next season or add a player via trade or free agency.
Until recently, a strong Canadian dollar meant NHL clubs could usually count upon an annual average increase in the cap ceiling by between $4-$5 million.
Since 2014, however, the decline in the Canuck buck has slowed the rise of the cap ceiling. League projections of an increase from $64 million in 2013-14 to $71 million for 2014-15 actually came in $2 million short. Last year’s projected raise to $73 million for 2015-16 again fell short, coming in instead at $71.4 million.
Last December, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman projected the salary cap for 2016-17 could reach $74 million. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if it comes in below that mark. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports the NHLPA is expected to once again enact their five-percent escalator clause, but that will only bump the cap ceiling from $71.4 million to $72.8 million.
Those previous marginal cap increases resulted in several early-summer trades involving notable players who otherwise probably wouldn’t have moved had the cap ceiling increases been healthier.
In 2014, it played a part in the movement of Scott Hartnell, Ryan Kesler, James Neal, Jason Garrison and Jason Spezza. The same can be said for the 2015 deals that saw Carl Soderberg, Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic, Kyle Palmieri, Carl Hagelin, Brandon Saad, Kevin Bieksa, Reilly Smith and Patrick Sharp change teams.
This year, 18 NHL teams have less than $20 million of salary-cap space. That’s assuming a cap increase of $74 million. Most of those clubs could find it difficult to re-sign important free agents or to bolster their rosters for next season, especially if the cap ceiling is well below projections.
Players who’ve surfaced in this year’s rumor mill, such as Chicago’s Andrew Shaw, Columbus’ Scott Hartnell, Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Minnesota’s Jonas Brodin, New York Rangers’ Rick Nash, Philadelphia’s Mark Streit, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury and St. Louis’ Kevin Shattenkirk could be among those on the move via cost-cutting trades.
For a number of years, the unrestricted free agent market usually contained one or two star players, several second-tier talents and a large number of depth players. Most of the best were usually snapped up in the opening hours of the UFA market.
This year UFA pool, however, is the deepest in years. Topping the list are such stars as Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, Los Angeles’ Milan Lucic, the New York Islanders’ Kyle Okposo, the New York Rangers Keith Yandle, Boston’s Loui Eriksson, St. Louis’ David Backes and Chicago’s Andrew Ladd.
Other notables include St. Louis’ Troy Brouwer, the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen, Dallas’ Alex Goligoski, Colorado’s Mikkel Boedker, Florida’s Brian Campbell, Carolina’s Cam Ward and the Rangers’ Eric Staal.
With that many notable names potentially available, the UFA market could be more frenzied compared to recent years.
Finally, there’s the possibility of an expansion draft next June. Commissioner Bettman said an announcement will be made by June 22, the date of the NHL Awards in Las Vegas. It’s widely assumed the league intends to expand by one team, with Vegas being the expected destination.
If so, it’s also believed NHL general managers could try to trade players this summer that they would be forced to leave unprotected in an expansion draft next June.
That could create a much busier trade market potentially stretching throughout the summer. We could see players who could be left unprotected by one team being dealt to another with the roster room – and the cap space – to retain them. An expansion draft could also generate more dollar-for-dollar swaps as teams try to get something via trades for players they risk losing for nothing next June.