With the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 million for next season and an uncertain future after that, some GMs will be facing a tight squeeze that couldn't have been planned for. Rosters were constructed and contracts signed with the belief the cap would keep rising. At one point before the COVID-19 pause, the league estimated next year's upper limit would be between $84-88.2 million.
So much for that.
This new reality is leaving a number of teams in a pinch, which could open opportunities for those at the other end who wield plenty of cap space. We identified which teams were in the best position cap-wise heading into the off-season this week.
But which teams are up against it and face tough choices? From this week's NHL newsletter, here are five notable examples.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Projected cap space: $5.3 million
Roster size: 15
With $5.3 million in projected cap space, Tampa's pressing situation becomes obvious when you look at the contract work they need to get done. They only have 15 players currently under contract, but while there are no big UFAs for them to keep (Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian and Pat Maroon have expiring deals), they have two RFAs who won't come cheap.
Mikhail Sergachev is coming off his entry-level contract and was second to only Victor Hedman in average even strength ice time among Lightning defencemen this season. But the bigger extension figures to go to Anthony Cirelli, the Lightning's second-line centre who set a career-high in scoring and emerged in the Selke Trophy conversation. A couple of trades have already happened in the league, but Tampa can't get involved until their season is over.
Projected cap space: $8.1 million
Roster size: 21
They have $8.1 million in cap space, which doesn't seem like a bad spot at first glance, but there's one big contract in particular that makes this a tough situation. On this defence-first team, Mathew Barzal is the game-breaking offensive talent. In some ways, he's their replacement for John Tavares. Well, now Barzal is an RFA with 207 points in 234 career regular season games, and just shy of a point per game pace in his two playoff appearances.
Barzal alone could take up all of that space, and more, so the Isles could be an offer sheet target for some team that does have salary space. On top of Barzal, the Islanders also need to re-sign RFA defenceman Ryan Pulock, who posted a career-best season, led all Isles defenders in ice time, and was used in all situations.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Projected cap space: $6.3 million
Roster size: 20
St. Louis already moved out a chunk of change in sending Jake Allen to Montreal and it's still not enough room to get everything done. Heck, their current available cap space isn't even enough to re-sign Alex Pietrangelo, who would be the best UFA defenceman available if he hits the market.
Pietrangelo isn't even the only top four blueliner who needs a new deal. Vince Dunn is an RFA and an exciting young piece of the group, and though he won't come at too high a price off his ELC, it's still going to be a notable pay bump.
And then a new backup or 1B to Jordan Binnington must be found, or called up from the farm.
Projected cap space: $1.1 million
Roster size: 17
They took a positive step this season, but now Arizona is going to feel a cap pinch that will make it hard to keep pushing ahead. With a little more than $1 million in projected cap room, the Coyotes are hoping to re-sign pending UFA Taylor Hall, who will be the premier forward available on the market. For that to be at all possible, other pieces will need to be moved out. Darcy Kuemper ($4.5 million cap hit next season) has had his name in early trade rumours, but that's a problem in itself since he has been so excellent for them.
Projected cap space: $7.3 million
Roster size: 19
As Chicago tries to build off a surprising playoff appearance after knocking off Edmonton in the best-of-5 qualifying round, we must remember they were six points out at the pause, last place in the Central, and needing to jump eight teams to get in. They really weren't a playoff team in the 2019-20 regular season, so there's work to do here.
The problem is that GM Stan Bowman doesn't have much cap space to work with, and he has to be considered on the hot seat at this point. The most pressing needs for the Hawks are a starting goalie or a tandem (Corey Crawford is a UFA and Malcolm Subban an RFA) and to re-sign RFA Dominik Kubalik after his 30-goal rookie campaign that earned him a Calder Trophy finalist nod. Dylan Strome is another RFA in need of an extension.
Even if Crawford took a hometown discount to stay in Chicago, the available cap room right now is not enough to keep everyone, and certainly not enough to add meaningful changes. Brandon Saad and his $6 million cap hit will certainly be part of the trade rumour mill again, and perhaps Bowman could make some defencemen available. The problem is that there aren't too many teams that can absorb many of these kinds of contracts right now.