Weaponize your cap space.
The phrase may sound dangerous and thrilling, like something a sprinting Tom Cruise might shout at Ving Rhames in Mission Impossible VII as explosions shower the background.
In reality, it’s Marc Bergevin acquiring a useful Joel Armia and a couple of late-round Winnipeg Jets draft picks in exchange for eating backup goalie Steve Mason’s $4.1-million salary.
But for us transaction-starved hockey nerds, that’s some high-octane action.
When considering the group of teams that could get creative with all their luxurious salary cap space, we do so with one eye on the NHL’s most cap-crunched clubs this summer and their appetite to find a willing and able trade partner for the Milan Lucics of this world.
The projected cap ceiling for 2019-20 is $83 million; the floor is expected to rise to about $61.3 million.
In discussing the teams with potential to make sneaky splashes by weaponizing their space, we chose not to dive into Colorado and Carolina, both of whom currently sit under the floor, for two reasons.
First, it is imperative that each re-sign a marquee restricted free agent — Mikko Rantanen and Sebastian Aho, respectively — to a lucrative deal. We’re talking about an eight-figure ballpark.
Once Colorado also doles out raises to RFAs like J.T. Compher, Alex Kerfoot, Sven Andrighetto, and signs another goalie, hitting the floor won’t be an issue. In Carolina’s case, it needs to ink two capable goalies.
Second, both are budget, not cap, teams with plenty of draft picks at their disposal. We find it difficult to see ownership approving the swallow of another team’s problem just to add more futures.
(Yes, Ottawa too is a budget team, but the Sens have so much cap space and so few critical re-signings this off-season that they’ll have to spend money somewhere.)
So here are seven clubs blessed with cap room and capable of using it to their advantage for 2019-20.
Projected cap space: $37.7 million
Remember the old days, when the Senators were trying to trade away Bobby Ryan because he was expensive? Now, the NHL’s softest spenders need his $7.25 million on the books just to reach the floor.
The Rebuilding Senators™ have a grand total of $4.4 million committed to their 2019-20 blue line and a mere $22.4 million in forwards, roughly a third of which is going to Ryan alone.
Owner Eugene Melnyk has zero intentions of sniffing the cap ceiling until 2021, but he would be wise to give GM Pierre Dorion the green light to use some of this glorious wiggle room to take on some more Bobby Ryans and further load the cupboards with picks and prospects. That way, when the Sens are ready to contend — locking up defenceman Thomas Chabot long-term on July 1 would be a fine start — they have a surplus of tradeable assets.
They’re set in net and will be quiet in free agency (smart). Giving RFA Colin White a nice raise is a no-brainer.
And at his season-ending press conference, Dorion left the door open to re-sign RFAs Anthony Duclair, who scored eight goals after arriving via the Ryan Dzingel trade, and Cody Ceci, who endured an arbitration so bitter last summer he questioned if Ottawa even valued him.
“We feel that Cody Ceci – slotted in the right spot – can be a very good player,” Dorion said. “If we slot him in the right spot, he’s someone we’d like to keep around.”
“We’re happy with Anthony’s play. He showed he can produce at the NHL level, but we have to make sure it’s the right fit here.”
Even if those signings are made, Dorion should look to absorb a couple veteran contracts through trades and tax his cap-crunched partners with a pick or prospect.
He has the space. Does he have the authority?
New Jersey Devils
Projected cap space: $35.6 million
Despite an eerily quiet 2018 off-season and a disappointing 2018-19, Ray Shero was given a multi-year extension to guide this ship forward.
The lottery-lucky executive is armed with draft picks (including another first overall) and cap space – all the ingredients to make noise in June. That’s why we have his Devils as one of the few clubs that could realistically consider an offer sheet to accelerate their own build.
Taylor Hall (UFA 2020) needs to believe Shero is constructing a winner, and that goes beyond re-signing RFAs Pavel Zacha and Will Butcher.
New Jersey purposely and wisely took one step back at the deadline, trading away rentals Ben Lovejoy, Brian Boyle, Keith Kinkaid and Marcus Johansson. This is the summer for Shero to take two steps forward.
He should be engaging cap-tight Vegas, Tampa, Washington and his alma mater Pittsburgh in trade talks to see if he can scoop roster talent at a bargain. New Jersey needs some dependability to go with its youth.
New York Islanders
Projected cap space: $35.2 million
Lou Lamoriello will leverage any possible advantage, and this summer it’s cap space — the silver lining to having so many impending UFAs.
Captain Anders Lee leads a group that includes Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, Valtteri Filppula and Robin Lehner. Some will be back, RFAs Anthony Beauvillier and Michael Dal Colle need raises, and a chunk of dough must be set aside for a goaltender.
The Isles need some elite scoring talent to complement Mathew Barzal, leading us to believe Lamoriello could be aggressive on July 1. Don’t rule out the offer sheet here.
Another route would be trying to grab extra draft picks via trade. New York only has five picks at this June’s draft (no third- or a fourth-rounder) and may want to give its scouts some help.
Projected cap space: $33.4 million
Chuck Fletcher is no stranger to bold moves. On Independence Day 2012, the former Wild exec aggressively signed the best two UFAs on the market, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, to identical 13-year, $98-million whoppers.
But if the dispatching of Wayne Simmonds or the occasional Jakub Voracek trade rumour has you thinking rebuild, the recruitment of coach Alain Vigneault (whose teams almost always make the dance) suggests a team that wants to contend in the Claude Giroux era.
Fletcher must dole out raises to RFAs Travis Sandheim, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, and spend on a goaltender to support wunderkind Carter Hart. But he still has room to get creative — especially if he trades Radko Gudas or Shayne Gostisbehere, or buys out Andrew MacDonald.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Projected cap space: $32.5 million
Jarmo Kekalainen’s amateur scouts might not have anything to do in Vancouver next month if the GM can’t recoup a couple of the draft picks he splurged away to help his franchise win a round.
Columbus has just two choices in the 2019 draft (a third and a seventh) and is down to five in 2020.
With his highest-paid player (Cam Atkinson) set to make $5.87 million and all that pricey talent walking out the door — Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid — Kekalainen can comfortably give RFA Zach Werenski a well-deserved raise, pay a goalie and still have enough pay roll to weaponize his space and claw back a pick or two.
Projected cap space: $30.5 million
Some Canucks fans hear “weaponize cap space” and fear Jim Benning may interpret that as “sign Loui Eriksson” or “overpay Jay Beagle.” But there is good reason why Vancouver is a club to watch this off-season, which needs to begin with a long-term contract announcement for RFA Brock Boeser.
The sense is that ownership is antsy to return to the playoffs, and Benning’s employment might just depend on it. The building blocks of an exciting young squad are here — Boeser, Bo Horvat, Rookie of the Year shoo-in Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko — but properly filling the gaps around them is critical.
Secondary scoring is essential (2018-19 bargains Tyler Motte and Josh Leivo are also RFAs), and with Alex Edler creeping toward UFA status, so is some experience on the blue line to help groom Hughes. If I’m Benning, I’m on the phone with David Poile.
Projected cap space: $29.4 million
Two promising qualities about Jason Botterill: he’s willing to think outside the box (see: hiring head coach Ralph Krueger), and he’s not delusional.
“We haven’t arrived yet,” the realistic GM said at one point this past season, recognizing that his Sabres’ hot October wasn’t sustainable.
Botterill has one more year before Brandon Montour, Casey Mittelstadt, Sam Reinhart start knocking on his door for raises and franchise defenceman Rasmus Dahlin can be extended.
Free of the pressure to win today, is there a way he can take advantage of the space he has now to help Buffalo’s future? Offer-sheet a mid-level RFA forward like Kevin Labanc or Kasperi Kapanen?
Use his surplus of draft picks to help acquire another solid roster player from a cap-tight club, the way he raised eyebrows by snatching Montour from Anaheim at the deadline?
Yes, the GM is trying to keep UFA Jeff Skinner in the fold and must spend more money on his crease, but with Jason Pominville coming off the pay roll, there’s plenty of flexibility here. Botterill appears to have the imagination to match.