NHL’s cap crunch is being felt more acutely than ever

VANCOUVER — David Poile had a valuable commodity. He was in possession of a right-shot defenceman with four 50-point seasons under his belt and he had four teams with serious interest in P.K. Subban.

And yet, after making the biggest trade of the NHL’s draft weekend, the general manager of the Nashville Predators made an interesting concession.

“I know we’ve taken a good player off our team so I can’t sit here and say we’re a better team for doing that,” Poile said Saturday at Rogers Arena.

Welcome to the National Parity League, where the impact of a hard salary cap is being felt more acutely than ever. It fuelled virtually all of the player movement we saw here in Vancouver and may yet produce another trade or two in the week ahead.

The biggest surprise of the second trade of Subban’s career is that it wasn’t really a trade at all. It was a salary dump that netted Nashville two second-round picks from New Jersey along with young defencemen Steven Santini and Jeremy Davies and freed the Predators from Subban’s $9-million cap commitment.

In fact, Poile acknowledged that the main reason New Jersey emerged from a pack of four contenders for the 30-year-old defenceman is because they were the only trade partner willing to take his contract on in full.

That’s something Toronto, Vancouver and a third mystery shopper couldn’t have managed. Each of those suitors would have needed salary retention or money to be sent back in return to make it work.

Poile’s Predators operated close to the salary cap ceiling all year long and needed more room to maneuver with an anticipated free-agent push for Matt Duchene on deck along with an extension for captain Roman Josi.

“It’s honestly become a little uncomfortable with where we were,” said Poile, who feigned being wounded when informed that next year’s cap was finalized at $81.5-million on Saturday night — roughly $2-million less than commissioner Gary Bettman forecasted back in December.

Clearing a Subban-sized hole off the books was something Poile felt he had to do even though it weakened a roster designed to win now. It’s a counter-intuitive approach to business.

“That’s the hardest thing for fans and I would say the players to understand,” said Poile. “And listen, I will tell you it was hard in our discussions with my own people to understand how the $9-million in cap space could be worth a first-round pick.”

In fact, we know it’s worth more than that because the Toronto Maple Leafs surrendered a lottery-protected first to Carolina on Saturday morning to get out from the final year of Patrick Marleau’s deal.

That’s what it cost to free the Leafs from a $6.25-million cap commitment and $4.25-million in actual dollars.

Kyle Dubas took a slightly different approach to his cap crunch than Poile. Rather than subtract a valuable member of his roster to create space, the Leafs GM chose to surrender draft capital instead.

“In making that call, we sat as a group and said: ‘We can go that way and keep our picks, which are largely unknowns, or we could start to move players off our roster, which we really didn’t want to do, especially with the quality of the young players that were being asked for in that exchange,” said Dubas.

He acknowledged that it was a challenge to determine exactly what Marleau’s cap space was worth in trade talks. The Leafs were negotiating with a couple teams before completing the deal with Carolina.

“You kind of gauge what the market wants in return for what you’re trying to move on,” said Dubas. “We’ve got a valuation system that we use. … It’s not perfect. There’s no science that tells you how much they’re worth like in baseball, which would be great.”

Perhaps they’ve established a comparable for similar deals in the future.

There are still a couple teams feeling the squeeze — Toronto would still love to offload Nikita Zaitsev’s contract while Vegas is currently hovering above the $81.5-million ceiling, among others — and there was a strong sense coming out of the draft that more cap-motivated transactions are coming.

It’s part of doing business in 2019, especially if you have a good team. The cap makes it difficult to keep all of your good players in the best of times. When it’s stagnating…

“It’s not going up with the same percentage rate it has for the 14 years of this CBA since we’ve had a cap,” said Poile. “That’s going to put teams certainly under a lot more pressure. I think cap space … is very valuable and I think there’s some teams that are up against it and you’re going to see some more trades like Toronto made to Carolina to free cap space.”

Not to mention the Subban to New Jersey swap, which makes Nashville worse in the moment but leaves the Predators in a more favourable position to get better over time.