Creating space under the salary cap has quickly become the name of the game in NHL roster management. Over the last five years the salary cap has barely increased, but teams have continued to hand out big money to the players. Unlike other leagues such as the NFL, there are not many ways in the NHL to make a bad contract disappear. They have once-a-year buyout windows (which leave a fairly significant cap penalty) but otherwise hockey teams can’t generally count on cutting money from the guaranteed contracts that they hand out to players.
Unless they trade those contracts to another team that is willing to take them on.
It’s become a world where almost no team has salary cap space — per CapFriendly 18 NHL teams have about $1 million or less in space for next season, with 13 teams over the official upper limit and many likely to use long-term injury reserve to inflate their upper limit.
Those that do have cap space are in control of the trade market, and often gain huge advantages of value on the ice in exchange for providing salary cap relief to a team in a bind. Last summer’s trade of Marc-Andre Fleury (the expensive but Vezina winning goalie) being dealt from Vegas to Chicago for only cap space was the perfect example. Still in a pinch from other signings, Vegas this year sent the high-scoring Max Pacioretty to Carolina, for again no return besides opening up cap room.
No strangers in being in a salary cap bind themselves — the Penguins were over last season’s upper limit of $81.5 million literally every single day the salary cap was calculated — it’s another tight fit in Pittsburgh. The Pens can make it under this year’s $82.5 million upper limit through demotions to the minors and likely carrying 21 players on their roster. It’s a tight fit, but thanks to getting all of Bryan Rust, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang on very friendly yearly cap hits, the Pens will have all the key pieces of their playoff team back.
Unlike, say, Calgary — who had to deal Sean Monahan and his inflated salary to Montreal, and pay a first round pick to do so — the Pens were able to fit all their signings without making a deal. But they might have been close. Per Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh considered dealing Jason Zucker away for no return, in order to clear his $5.5 million cap hit. To gain that cap space, the Pens would have had to pay the price of a first round pick, similar to what the Flames did to shed Monahan.
For the Flames, they made the deal to move on and add Nazem Kadri coming off a career-year, and it made sense enough.
Would losing Zucker and a first be a fair trade off for the Pens to sign someone like Ondrej Palat or Nino Niederreiter to replace him in the lineup? Reasonable minds can agree or disagree, but that is a high price to pay.
Zucker’s contract and inability to perform up to the levels he was counted on is a big inefficiency for the Penguins. In the salary cap world, all the pieces matter. The team team dished out a two-year extension for 38-year old Jeff Carter. They paid a premium price in salary and term to a non-premium player in Brock McGinn. They sent a qualifying offer to Kasperi Kapanen and then had to pay him the same salary as last year, after a bad year, in a market where players of his ilk have taken baths in a major way.
All decisions made can be seen as critically important ones in a climate where the salary cap is so low. Trading Zucker and paying a penalty to do so wouldn’t solve all of Pittsburgh’s salary cap woes. But — to be fair — the Pens are an extremely efficient teams anyways when it comes to avoiding over-pays, which might just make the Zucker contract stick out even worse by comparison.
Trading a high pick to drop Zucker wouldn’t have been just fixing an old inefficiency and getting the team in a better direction, it would also have been a costly choice with a limited benefit. Especially since Zucker’s contract ends after one more year and his salary space opens up with no penalty anyways. There is a time where paying a cap penalty to shed a bad player/bad contract combination makes all the sense in the world (Jack Johnson), but there is also a time where it is just the proverbial “re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic”.
Take Monahan in Calgary, due to injuries he is shell of the player he once was. But is signing 32-year old Kadri to a seven year deal really going to solve the Flames’ problems a few years down the line? While giving up a valuable first round pick to do so?
If there’s enough short-term gain (say, the Flames win the Stanley Cup and Kadri is again a driving force in getting his team there like he was this year in Colorado), then sure, that makes sense for the Flames. However, pushing money around and trading out bad contracts only to bring in future bad contracts isn’t going to get a team where it wants to go.
For the Pens, not paying a huge dowry to drop Zucker was the right play. The contract isn’t long enough or rich enough to be that much of a problem. And they’re in the cap situation they’re in for far more reason than just Zucker alone.
The best way to find future players like Zucker or Kadri is to keep first round picks anyways, not sacrifice them for short-term salary cap space that would be spent away for a different high-price, veteran player who could put the team right back to square one.
Such is the world of management in the NHL these days, where salary cap space and availability is more important than ever.