With the Washington Capitals one win away from winning the Stanley Cup — or three losses away from blowing it — the smell of summer and the end of the NHL season is in the air. But as one part of the calendar ends, another begins. Late June and early July have become periods of massive movement around the NHL.
The draft is of course where teams acquire building blocks and lay the foundation of their future, but it’s also a place where blockbuster trades happen with greater frequency. Then the markets open on July 1, a time when teams throw money at current NHLers for more immediate gains.
Before all that happens, the NHL’s buyout period provides general managers an opportunity to get out from under bad contracts, for a price. On June 15 or 48 hours after the end of the Stanley Cup Final, whichever comes latest, the buyout period opens and leads in to the busy early-summer period.
But it’s not a “get out of jail free” card. There is a cost to buying out a player. First, they are paid out over twice the length of the remainder of the player’s contract. Then, for players under the age of 26, the rate of that payout is one-third the total of the remaining salary; for those 26 and older the payout is two-thirds the remaining salary.
For a full and in-depth rundown of buyout rules, head over to CapFriendly.com.
This summer there is no expansion draft, so GMs can’t look to offload bad contracts to a brand new team with endless amounts of cap room. And, after the cap stayed steady last off-season, it’s reportedly going to rise by between $4- and $7-million, which will make it easier for teams to continue to absorb poor deals.
Still, there’s bound to be a couple of these buyouts as teams look for more wiggle room around the cap and plan for more summer movement. Last year, 14 players were bought out between June 15 and 30, with the most expensive being Dan Girardi, who will continue to count against New York’s cap for another five seasons. In fact, one player currently in the Stanley Cup Final, Devante Smith-Pelly, was bought out by the New Jersey Devils.
Who could meet this fate over the next few weeks? We take a look at eight candidates for a buyout.
Marian Gaborik – 3 years, $10.825 million
The Senators flipped one bad contract (Dion Phaneuf) for a slightly less onerous one, and also gave up Nate Thompson for Drew Shore (who was later traded to Calgary for a seventh-rounder) as part of a trade with the L.A. Kings this season. At the very least, Gaborik would be a less expensive buyout than Phaneuf overall, since the defenceman also has three years remaining on his contract and is owed $14 million in salary plus bonuses.
But keep in mind that Ottawa also retained 25 per cent of Phaneuf’s contract, so when considering how much they’d save on a Gaborik buyout, you have to also add $1.75 million since that’s what the Sens owe Phaneuf against the cap for another three years.
Muddying the waters a little, too, is Gaborik’s health. He underwent back surgery in early April, which came with an announced recovery time of two months. For him to even be eligible for a buyout he’ll need to be cleared first, as injured players cannot be bought out without their consent. For instance, Ryan Callahan could have been a buyout candidate for the Tampa Bay Lightning this summer, but since he’s been ruled out for the next five months following shoulder surgery, he’ll stay put.
Here’s how much the Senators would save on a Gaborik buyout this summer, per CapFriendly’s helpful buyout calculator.
There’s another factor to consider here, too, and it’s a big one. While Erik Karlsson can sign a contract extension as early as July 1, his new deal wouldn’t actually kick in until 2019-20. So, the Senators may be more interested to wait a year before buying out Gaborik because they’d save a little more money and term against the cap.
Here’s how a 2019 Gaborik buyout would look:
The risk there is that, with a player who’s often injured, Ottawa may run into a similar situation next season. If he’s deemed healthy enough now and the buyout window opens, electing to wait instead runs a risk of it never being opened again.
Jori Lehtera – one year, $4.7 million
Around this time last year the Philadelphia Flyers sent Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for the No. 27 overall pick and Jori Lehtera. Lehtera’s offensive numbers and average ice time dropped in each of his three seasons with the Blues, which they turned into 70 points from Schenn, who is four years younger and only $425,000 more expensive. The Flyers took Morgan Frost with the draft pick and after his 112-point OHL season, hopes are he’ll be the prize of the trade one day.
Lehtera hasn’t been able to fit in any better with the Flyers. His point total dropped to eight and he averaged just 10:31 of ice time per game. Making $4.7 million against the cap with $5 million in actual salary, the Flyers could save more than $3 million in cap space this season if they buy him out, and open up a spot at the lower end of the roster for a player on the upswing.
Scott Darling – 3 years, $11.85 million
One of the most disappointing returns on a contract most thought would turn out well last summer, Darling did nothing to solve the Hurricanes’ ongoing goalie issues and lost the job to Cam Ward by the end of the season. New owner Tom Dundon has made it perfectly clear that he’s open to all sorts of changes, with Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas believed to be the only untouchables on the roster.
It’s hard to see another team being interested in trading for Darling without the Hurricanes retaining a large chunk of salary, so if they really wanted to start again at the position, a buyout might be the way to go about it. Carolina would save nearly $3.5 million in cap space right away and open cap room for the next three seasons, before being penalized $1.3 million for the last three years.
However, this is no sure thing. After investing so much in Darling a season ago, it might be too early for them to give up on him. The new owner has playoffs in mind, so Carolina needs some kind of certainty in net heading into next season. Cam Ward is already a UFA and unlikely to return, leaving Darling as the only NHL-proven goalie in the organization.
GM Don Waddell talked about the kinds of changes that could come to the team over the summer, but left the door open to giving Darling another chance.
“We know we need to have change there — we know we can’t bring the same two guys back. Scott Darling came to camp last year probably not in the best condition, and we never got him to where he was back in Chicago. … We feel that there’s still something there, and we’re going to do everything we can to put Scott in the best situation to have success.”
Tyler Ennis – 1 year, $3.65 million
Few teams have the potential to be as active this summer as the Minnesota Wild, who have a new GM and could possibly still make a coaching change. Four of their players appeared in our list of 24 trade candidates this summer. Everything is up in the air right now for a team that’s good on paper, but has gotten out of the first round just twice in the past six seasons.
Tyler Ennis stands out as a possible buyout candidate because it would be hard to trade a $4.6-million cap hit on a player who has a combined for 35 points the past two seasons. At the same time, since Ennis is actually owed $3.65 million in salary, buying him out wouldn’t be so costly.
Minnesota has roughly $10 million in cap space, but have potentially big extensions coming to Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker. Shedding Ennis’ contract now clears up room on the depth chart and perhaps just enough under the cap to make it all work in 2018-19.
Paul Martin – 1 year, $4.25 million
The 37-year-old Martin played just 14 NHL games this season, four fewer than he did in the AHL, and averaged less than 15 minutes a game. Time appears to have caught up to him and the Sharks already played a season without him, so they’re more than ready to move on.
A buyout of Martin would save the Sharks nearly $3 million this season, with a minor penalty the following season. The only thing saving Martin from being bought out could be the fact San Jose isn’t facing much of a cap crunch next season and could choose to just ride out the final year of his contract. That said, the $7-million cap hit recently doled out to Evander Kane on his new contract has tightened the screws just a bit and if San Jose wants to go all-in on Tavares, they could end up needing the extra dollars.
Troy Brouwer – 2 years, $9 million
It might be funny to think a team that just missed the playoffs has any Stanley Cup aspirations, but these Flames are set up to at least make an attempt over the next couple of years. Two-thirds of their dynamic top line are signed for at least another four years, their No. 2 centre is signed long-term as well, and five of the blue-liners are locked in through 2019-20. They’re also without first- and second-round picks this summer.
So this is a team that should be committed to making a push now, which is why buying out Brouwer should be on the table. He averaged just 13:56 of ice time this season and produced just 22 points — a 17-point tumble from before he arrived in Calgary. He’s become an unproductive bit player for Calgary, so using $4.5 million of cap space on him is not a winning formula.
This buyout is all about optimizing a roster that has already been committed to and needs an upgrade. The Flames have to make additions this summer to create more scoring on lines two and three — they were too much of a one-line team on offence this season. In buying out Brouwer, Calgary would save enough money on the cap the next two years to possibly upgrade on him, and shouldn’t worry much about the $1.5-million penalty that would be a couple years away. This is a case where the Flames could have their cake, and eat it too.
Brandon Dubinsky – 3 years, $17.55 million
Speaking of teams with a hopeful Stanley Cup run in its future, the Blue Jackets struggled more through this season than many thought they would, but remain a well-built team and a threat in 2018-19. But Dubinsky, who has been a warrior for the team over his time, lost any semblance of offence from his game this season, posting just 16 points, and was even moved out of his natural centre position and down to the fourth line wing by the end.
Obviously, that is far too little to come from a $5.85-million player. The Blue Jackets aren’t bumping up against the cap right now, but in one year extensions are due to UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, and RFA Zach Werenski, all big-minute, key contributors to the Blue Jackets. So, Columbus will need to start thinking about ways to save money, and buying out Dubinsky would help achieve that goal as nearly $4 million would come off the books right away.
Like Gaborik, it’s worth considering a wait on buying out Dubinsky until next summer. That way the Blue Jackets would still save $3.9 million as these big extensions kick in, but would be penalized $1.95 million for one less year at the end.