“A penny saved is a penny earned”.
It seems that this age-old saying really applies to the NHL these days. As a sports starved world desperately looks for leagues to begin play once again, the NHL seems to be at odds with itself (along with fans, players, and owners alike) about their return should look like.
While debate over how the league will return rages on, the main concern for the NHL at this point is revenue. Specifically, hockey related revenue (HRR). The league will be looking to bring in as much HRR as it possibly can in the wake of the devastation that COVID-19 has had on the sports landscape in general. Specifically, the salary cap that dictates the maximum and minimum expenditures on players salaries are directly linked to the amount of HRR that the NHL brings in. As a result, every decision being made will be done with revenue primarily in mind especially considering that the NHL is much more of a gate driven league than the other major North American professional leagues; with approximately 40% of their business being ticket sales. Playing without fans and ensuring adequate testing, accommodations, and facilities will hurt the bottom line and complicate the restart; but will have to be a necessity at the moment in order to ensure the safety of the players.
The absolute best-case scenario is that the salary cap stays flat at a maximum of $81.5 million for the 2020-21 NHL season. That means that teams that were expecting the cap to rise to between $84-$88 million will have to make some changes to their offseason strategy. A lot has been made on what this means for the top tier of unrestricted free agents (ie. Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, Brayden Holtby etc.), with many believing that players testing the open market may not be able to cash in on their new deals as they had previously hoped. Others predict that the top UFA’s may not see any real decline in the value of their next deal, but other players in the middle or at the bottom may be the ones to feel the financial squeeze.
What about this years RFA class? While offer sheets still will be unlikely, the financial pinch could allow for teams that are against the cap to really be put in an uncomfortable position by a competitor. Pilfering teams may be more willing to poach other players if they have greater certainty that the players that they target may not be able to be signed by their current team.
Here are a list of players who are RFA’s and whose contract negotiations will be interesting to monitor heading into the signing period. Along with the players stats in 2019-2020, the current team’s projected cap situation will also be included. Salary cap information was obtained from www.capfriendly.com and will be adjusted from the $84 million projection for next year to the more likely (although still not certain) $81.5 million.
Jake DeBrusk (Boston Bruins) – Left Wing
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $863,333
Bruins Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $17,959,409
The Bruins will have to open up the vault to sign pending UFA Torey Krug. He will likely ask for north of $8 million per year, but he has expressed the desire to stay in Boston rather than leave. They also recently signed backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a 1-year deal that will see him go from $2.75 million last season to $2.25 million next season. That leaves the Bruins with about $10 million to sign defensemen Zdeno Chara and Matt Grzelcyk; and forwards Anders Bjork, Joakim Nordstrom, and Jake DeBrusk. Assuming Chara comes back for one more year at the same salary of $2 million, the Bruins should be able to fit the 23-year old DeBrusk into their plans at around $3 million per year. He would have hit the 20-goal and 40-point marks had the season not been interrupted. Should he and Krug try to get more, the pressure will be on Chara to take a sweetheart deal. Rumors of Halak getting a $1 million bonus if he plays in more than 10 games would also complicate things for the Bruins.
Roope Hintz (Dallas Stars) – Left Winger
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $811,667
Stars Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $19,464,168
The Dallas Stars will have a bit more cap space to work with compared to the Bruins, but they will not have to sign a player that will eat up a significant portion. Hintz was a pleasant surprise to many hockey fans who may not watch the Stars on a regular basis. The 24-year old Finnish player will be looking to sign a new deal coming off a 19-goal campaign in only 60 games. Like DeBrusk, Hintz was going to score over 20-goals and hit the 40-point plateau and will be getting a significant raise from his $811,667 ELC. With his next deal coming in at around $3 million, the Stars would have about $16.5 million remaining to sign RFA forwards Radek Faksa (arbitration eligible) and Denis Gurianov; while having to make decisions on UFA forwards Matthias Janmark and Corey Perry; UFA defensemen Roman Polak and Andrej Sekera; and UFA goaltender Anton Khudobin. Of all these players, the most likely candidate for a significant raise would be Gurianov (who hit the 20-goal mark). The Stars should be comfortable in fitting all of the RFA’s into their plans for 2020-21 and have ample space to bring back their UFA’s as well.
Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia Flyers) – Center
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $925,000
Flyers Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $11,976,310
The case of Nolan Patrick is an interesting one that is in many ways unprecedented. What do you pay a player coming off his ELC that was drafted 2nd overall only 3-years ago and missed the entirety of last season due to injury/illness? Will Patrick be cleared to resume playing, or will the migraine disorder that shelved Patrick’s season continually resurface and affect the player’s hockey career? The Flyers will be asking themselves those very same questions and find themselves in a bit of a predicament based on their salary cap situation for 2020-21. After a resurgent season under new Head Coach Alain Vigneault, the Flyers will undoubtedly want to bring back as many pieces of the roster as they can. With the team that GM Chuck Fletcher has put together the Flyers will be believers in the philosophy of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The problem is that the salary cap remaining stagnant presents difficulties in achieving this goal. The Flyers will have to sign RFA defensemen Phillipe Myers and Robert Hagg (arbitration eligible), to go along with forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel (arbitration eligible) who will all be due raises. Additionally, the Flyers will have to make decisions on UFA’s which include defensemen Justin Braun, goaltender Brian Elliott, and forwards Derek Grant, Tyler Pitlick, and Nate Thompson. Both Nolan Patrick and fellow RFA Oskar Lindblom (who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer and missed the rest of the season while undergoing treatment would ideally be signed to team friendly deals. With the Flyers expected to sign Elliott ($2 million) and hopefully sign Braun ($3.8 million) to similar deals for next season, that would leave only $6,176,310 to sign all of the players listed above (plus RFA defensemen Mark Friedman who needs to be re-signed). That means that UFA’s Derek Grant and Nate Thompson are likely heading to new destinations for next season, and the Flyers may have to trade Shayne Gostisbehere and his $4.5 million cap hit to try to get some more wiggle room and flexibility. An offer sheet from an opposing team is unlikely due to Patrick’s medical issues; but if one were to come along, the Flyers hand would be forced on a number of players for the upcoming season.
Tristan Jarry (Pittsburgh Penguins) – Goaltender
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $675,000
Penguins Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $13,224,825
The Penguins are going to have to make some very impactful decisions relating to the cap. Both their goaltenders (Jarry and Matt Murray) are in need of a new contract and both are arbitration eligible. Matt Murray is a Stanley Cup winner and Jarry is coming off the best season of his professional career so far. If left to the hands of an arbitrator, both of these players will be in line for a raise. Murray is currently on an expiring deal that paid him $3.7 million. How much could Murray command? If he gets $4.5 million, that would leave the Penguins with only $8.725 million to sign Jarry; as well as fellow RFA’s Dominik Simon, Evan Rodrigues, Jared McCann, and Juuso Riikola. Of the UFA crop, only Connor Sheary would be the likely candidate to be retained while Justin Schultz and Patrick Marleau would be jettisoned. There will be pressure on the Penguins to trade one of their two goaltenders. There are many options for teams looking to shore up their goaltending; and as a result, the Penguins likely will not get a favorable return. Jarry would be an intriguing offer sheet candidate as he could probably be had for minimal compensation, and the Penguins would be in a real bind if an offer in the $2.5 – $3 million range came in.
Alexandar Georgiev (New York Rangers) – Goaltender
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $792,500
Rangers Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $14,391,867
Speaking of goaltenders, the New York Rangers find themselves in the unenviable position of having three goaltenders with the big club. Igor Shestyorkin is the starter of the future and has supplanted both club legend Henrik Lundquist and Alexandar Georgiev in the team’s depth chart. Can the Rangers realistically trade Lundquist (who is on record as saying he wants to play out the remaining year of his deal with the Rangers) and his $8.5 million cap hit? As referenced earlier with Jarry, the trade market will be saturated with backup goalies; and after not trading Georgiev at the trade deadline, it remains likely that they will not be able to get much for him should they continue to attempt to trade him from a position of weakness. With just over $14 million in cap space, the Rangers will have to sign RFA forwards Brendan Lemieux and Ryan Strome to raises; and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo will be getting a significant pay bump with the expiry of his ELC. In terms of UFA’s, the Rangers will need to make decisions on forwards Greg McKegg and assistant captain Jesper Fast (who was paid $1.85 million last season). The Rangers are not in cap trouble and should keep Lundquist around out of respect and to mentor Shestyorkin. That leaves the 24-year old Georgiev as the odd man out. An offer sheet would allow the Rangers to save face and allow Georgiev to come off the roster, but is unlikely as the compensation would be greater than what the Rangers would receive in a potential trade. Interested teams will look to continue to seek Georgiev in a trade scenario and look to get a deal with a Rangers team that cannot expose Georgiev to waivers as he is not waiver exempt.
Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders) – Center
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $863,333
Rangers Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $10,119,167
22-year old Mathew Barzal is the best player of the RFA class for this offseason. With an 85-point season and two 60-point seasons under his belt, it is hard to imagine Barzal’s next deal not coming in the $6.5 million to $7.5 million range. Islanders President of Hockey Operations Lou Lamoriello has already stated that they will match any potential offer sheet and that teams shouldn’t even try. With the loss of John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs as a UFA still fresh in the minds of fans, the Islanders understand that Barzal is a vital piece for their franchise moving forward as construction has begun on the Isles new arena facility at Belmont Park. With about $10 million in cap space, the Islanders will have to sign RFA defenseman Devon Toews and sign Ryan Pulock to a nice raise; and make a decision on forward Josh Ho-Sang (arbitration eligible). The cap crunch will come with the Islanders UFA’s. After Barzal gets signed, there would only be approximately $3.6 million left with decisions to be made on goaltender Thomas Greiss; defenseman Andy Greene; and forwards Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Martin, and Derek Brassard. With goaltender Ilya Sorokin making his way over to North America from the KHL, Greiss will most assuredly not be re-signed. But is Sorokin ready for an NHL role right out of the gate? It is unclear at this point, but there is no doubt the Isles will be hard pressed to keep any of their UFA’s unless they can shed salary to create flexibility. An offer sheet will not be successful in this case, but the Isles will have some challenges in managing the cap for the upcoming season and will be relying heavily on prospects to win roster spots.
Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) – Defense
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $894,166
Lightning Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $5,333,334
If Barzal is the best RFA forward to watch this offseason, then Mikhail Sergachev is the best defenseman. The Lightning only have Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonough, and Braydon Coburn signed to man their defense corps. Everyone else is either an RFA (Sergachev, Erik Cernak) or a UFA (Kevin Shattenkirk, Luke Schenn, Zach Bagosian). Major decisions will have to be made with a little over $5 million in cap space plus having to sign RFA forwards like Anthony Cirelli, and Mitchell Stephens will be incredibly difficult to manage without Tampa Bay making a deal or two to free up cap space from it’s roster. UFA forward Patrick Maroon is unlikely to return unless the Bolts can find a way to trade a player like Onrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, or Alex Killorn. The problem is that the return won’t likely be high as other teams will recognize that Tampa Bay is in a huge cap crunch situation. Teams will be calling the Lightning looking to test GM Patrice Brisbois level of desperation in the months ahead, and look for the Lightning to be very active at the NHL Draft.
Anthony Cirelli (Tampa Bay Lightning) – Center
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $728,333
Lightning Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $5,333,334
Pardon the pun, but it looks like the salary cap situation will see lightning strike twice for the Tampa Bay Lightning. As described above in discussing the Mikhail Sergachev situation, the Bolts are in a real quandary with Anthony Cirelli. Cirelli really came into his own this season as a very good middle six forward who was able to be relied on for solid two-way play in addition to scoring 43 points in 67 games. While he likey would not have hit the 20-goal mark, Cirelli would have hit 50-points had the season not been cut off. While Sergachev is the top RFA defenseman in need of a new deal, many would argue that in fact re-signing Cirelli would be the top priority for the Bolts based on his emergence this season. It will not come cheap though, and Cirelli should be able to easily command $4 million per season. The problem is that the Bolts only have just over $5 million in cap space and would have to not only let some UFA’s hit the open market, but would have to make a trade or two to free up cap space. How team friendly the deals with Sergachev and Cirelli are will dictate the amount of moves the Bolts will have to make this offseason.
Dylan Strome (Chicago Blackhawks) – Center
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $863,333
Blackhawks Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $7,353,205
Strome had a bit of a letdown year after scoring 51 points with Chicago last season compared to only 38 this season (he also had 6 points in 20 games last season before getting traded to the Blackhawks from Arizona). The down season might benefit the Blackhawks in terms of how they approach the offseason in relation to their cap situation. Strome will get a raise, but the dollar amount will be more manageable for the Hawks who only have about $7.3 million in available space. Chicago will in all likelihood try to really push Strome to a more team friendly deal and won’t be in a rush to get his deal done as the roster will have other pressing concerns to deal with. First and foremost is the goaltending situation. Robin Lehner was dealt to Las Vegas at the trade deadline, leaving Stanley Cup Champion Corey Crawford as a potential UFA who is in the final year of a deal with a $6 million dollar AAV. Backup Malcolm Subban is an RFA, and should be an easy deal for GM Stan Bowman to negotiate. The Hawks will test the waters in free agency especially if Crawford is not willing to take a hometown discount to resign. Look for the Hawks to be in on Thomas Greiss who can share the crease as a starter to bring Subban along, but is also good enough to be the starting goaltender for stretches of the season. It is unlikely that the Hawks will look to Brayden Holtby due to the price tag, but the jettisoning of burdensome contracts may be needed in order to bring this team back from it’s retooling of recent years. Look for prospects Adam Boqvist on Defense and Kirby Dach at Center to become regular contributors next season. The Blackhawks will try to find a taker for Brent Seabrook’s ($6.8 million AAV for the next four years) contract but it will be difficult to unload. Chicago will also have to sign RFA’s Slater Koekkoek (Defense), Drake Caggiula (Forward), and Dominik Kubalik (Forward) who are all arbitration eligible. Particularly, the Hawks will desperately try to avoid arbitration with Kubalik who scored 30 goals in 68 games this season in the NHL. To sum up, the Hawks have lots of roster questions to deal with and not a lot of wiggle room. Strome will be re-signed, but he may have to wait before more clarity and flexibility are made to the Blackhawks roster.
Max Domi (Montreal Canadiens) – Forward
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $3,150,000
Canadiens Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $18,357,858
Max Domi much like Dylan Strome will be signing a new deal with a raise however the numbers from this year will dictate a more team friendly deal. After signing a bridge deal for a $3.15 million AAV, Domi’s numbers fell from 28 goals and 72 points last season to 17 goals and 44 points this season. While he would have undoubtedly hit 20 goals and 50 points, the Canadiens will hold leverage in the negotiations. The problem for Montreal is that they will still have lots of cap space with very few contracts other than Domi’s to negotiate. Forward Dale Weise, goaltender Keith Kinkaid, and defenseman Christian Folin will be UFA’s; with defenders Victor Mete, Xavier Ouellette, and forward Charles Hudon as RFA’s. The Habs should have dollars left over to pursue a free agent or two to add to their roster and maybe add a bargain player or two for depth once the free agent frenzy dissipates. Max Domi’s contract negotiation will be interesting because he is arbitration eligible. If it goes to arbitration, there will be no certainty as to which way the ruling will go. The Habs will look to take care of business with Domi and his agent well before the free agency period begins in order to give themselves some cap certainty. GM Marc Bergevin should spend the bulk of his time focussing on improving a Canadiens squad that is causing a rabid fan base to lose patience with the product on the ice and with the manager at the helm.
Mackenzie Blackwood (New Jersey Devils) – Goaltender
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $697,000
Penguins Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $26,245,001
Signing RFA goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood will not be an issue for the New Jersey Devils. With more than $26 million in available cap space for next season, the Devils will be able to sign Blackwood and fellow RFA’s Mirco Mueller (Defense), Jesper Bratt (Forward), and John Hayden (Forward). With prospects knocking at the door for a roster spot and three first-round picks in this upcoming NHL Draft, the Devils will be aggressively looking to make a splash in free agency to give some support and relief to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischer. GM Tom Fitzgerald will look to drastically improve the team offensively and defensively through free agency and should not be too afraid of chasing the most coveted free agents that will hit the open market. The challenge will be convincing those players to sign after a difficult season that saw the Devils perform well below expectations. Fitzgerald has time on his side as well as the support of ownership; so he can afford to be patient and wait for the right time and player in order if the Devils are not willing to significantly add to their roster this offseason.
Travis Dermott (Toronto Maple Leafs) – Defense
Player’s Salary in 2019-20: $863,333
Maple Leafs Estimated Cap Space for 2020-21: $3,666,467
The Leafs will be challenged with the salary cap again this coming offseason. It isn’t much of a surprise considering that Toronto has so many high-players under contract for the long term leaving little wiggle room for second tier and depth players. The Leafs addressed their shortage on defense for the upcoming season by re-signing Jake Muzzin to a 4 year and $5.625 million AAV deal. They also signed 26 year old KHL defenseman of the year Mikko Lehtonen to a 1-year deal worth $925,000. With about $3.6 million in cap space remaining, the Leafs will most certainly lose Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie as they hit the UFA market. Jason Spezza would also be more likely to sign elsewhere as he may not want to sign another league minimum deal just to stay in Toronto. The Maple Leafs would like to keep Kyle Clifford, but he too may be a casualty of Toronto’s cap situation unless a trade can be made to free up some space. In terms of RFA’s, the Maple Leafs still have to sign Center Frederick Gauthier (arbitration eligible) in addition to Dermott. Dermott’s very pedestrian 11-point season will work to the Maple Leafs advantage in terms of negotiating a new deal. He will be hard pressed to demand more than $2 million based on the body of work thus far observed through the course of his ELC. Still, Dermott is a valued member of the Leafs blueline and will be re-signed. The question for Toronto is how they are going to solidify their roster with the depth moves that will be needed to make an extended playoff run with the limited amount of cap space available. GM Kyle Dubas has done a truly admirable job maximizing player value with limited cap space, but possibly moving a roster player could be exactly what the Leafs need in order to ensure their competitiveness for the Stanley Cup that continues to elude this franchise.
Are there any RFA’s that you feel should have been examined in this article?
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Until next time from BrotherlyPuck.com,
photo credit: espn.com