What We Learned: The NHL's other looming free agent apocalypse

Puck Daddy
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/3641/" data-ylk="slk:Blake Wheeler">Blake Wheeler</a> will be difficult for the Jets to retain. (Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
Blake Wheeler will be difficult for the Jets to retain. (Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

After all the attention that has been understandably paid to Toronto’s current and future salary cap situation, it got me thinking about other elite teams and what their cap situations look like going forward.

Obviously Tampa is going to have some big issues dealing with their roster, even before the potential addition of Erik Karlsson, simply because they have so many elite and very good players. They’re already close to a cap crunch of sorts, and next summer they will have to strike new deals for Nikita Kucherov, Yanni Gourde, Brayden Point, Anton Stralman, Slater Koekkoek, and Jake Dotchin, among other players.

It’s therefore likely that seismic changes are on the way for that roster, but this is something that’s already pretty broadly acknowledged league-wide. However, there’s another top team that is going to be staring down some serious issues in the future and could end up having to make some difficult decisions in short order.

Winnipeg currently has the lowest cap obligation in the league as of this writing (less than $52.7 million, giving them about $26.8 million to play with right now). As we await word of new contracts for seven restricted free agents. While most of them aren’t going to be too expensive, the new deals for Connor Hellebuyck and Jacob Trouba will likely be significant. Altogether you can expect those seven guys to pull perhaps $20 million against the cap, which leaves the Jets with plenty of room this year.

That is, one supposes, a benefit of finding a buyer for Steve Mason’s contract and Paul Stastny bouncing for Vegas with no replacement in sight except probably from within.

But it’s next year that’s the problem. The Jets will enter the 2019 offseason with about as much money in cap obligations as they have this year, but a good chunk of the core likely locked up long-term. However, they will also have to re-sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor among their RFAs, and both will probably be quite costly. Laine especially could potentially command at least Leon Draisaitl money, if not more (one supposes this depends heavily on what the Leafs give their pending RFAs). Again, these are deals the Jets can comfortably fit under the cap.

But it’s the UFAs that pose some serious problems. Can they reasonably afford to retain or find replacements for Blake Wheeler and Tyler Myers? You can say what you like about Myers’ contributions to the team, especially vis a vis his $5.5 million cap hit, but he’s at least a second-pair defenseman and those seem to be getting fairly expensive these days; you can probably get an upgrade at the same price point, but not as much as one might think, even if the cap goes up substantially again (which it probably won’t).

However, you absolutely won’t find a reasonable replacement for Wheeler, who’s a point-a-game guy and makes just $5.5 million against the cap. So the question becomes how much do you pay him, since he’ll be 32 to start the new deal, and what do you reasonably expect from him? Because if you’re committing multiple years and a raise to a player that far past 30, you might be in a bit of trouble sooner than later.

And while there will be a few intriguing UFA forwards potentially hitting the market that same summer (Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle) the question, again, becomes what you pay those guys to hopefully be almost as good as Wheeler.

The issue for the Jets isn’t so much the salary cap as it is the fact that they’re a budget team. They have a small venue in a small market and have traditionally shied away from really approaching the cap ceiling. Last year they were more than $5 million short of it, and the season before that their obligations were about $6.5 million short. So the question becomes not only if the Jets will be able to keep those guys, but if they have the stomach to push that close to the cap ceiling (likely over $80 million at the very least) to do it. They have never exceeded $70 million in cap obligations, and though they probably will this year, one wonders if there’s a natural stopping point south of whatever the cap’s upper limit is.

If so, that creates some potentially uncomfortable questions for Kevin Cheveldayoff. On the one hand, the Jets are likely to be a top-five team in the league again this season and that carries with it the need to be as competitive as possible with an elite roster. But can this team really afford to potentially let Wheeler and/or Myers walk in free agency and get nothing in return?

There is only one bad contract on the roster that could be moveable, because that ill-advised Dmitry Kulikov deal expires after 2019-20 and you might be able to talk someone into taking your $4.33 million bottom-pair defender if you sweeten the pot or pull off a stunning con.

I don’t know that there’s a comfortable answer in what to do here, especially if there’s an internal budget that must be adhered to. You probably can’t trade a Wheeler-type player if you’re in the thick of a divisional title and potentially going after the Presidents’ Trophy. But if you keep him, don’t win the Cup, and then maybe have to let him walk in free agency, that’s going to be tough to deal with organizationally.

Again, you don’t often get multiple years of a guy scoring a point a game for just $5.6 million, so the Jets have enjoyed a significant luxury. They likely won’t get anything like it again in this league.

This is, to be sure, a rich man’s problem. When you have so many good players it becomes difficult to pay them all, it’s a lot better than the alternative. And Cheveldayoff has really put the Jets in a position where they have relatively few contracts on the books that could even be considered “iffy.”

How he maneuvers out of this fix will be pretty telling when it comes to the future of one of the best young teams in the league.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks’ power play wasn’t that good the past few years, but is it really something they can fix?

Arizona Coyotes:It’s good that we’re getting more stories about how it’s not easy to be a person of color and play this sport at a high level.

Boston Bruins:Yeah, pretty hard to disagree with this assessment.

Buffalo Sabres: Jack Eichel has been in the league too long to be able to change his number without also changing teams. It’s unacceptable.

Calgary Flames: If Spencer Foo makes the Flames’ roster, that’s probably not a good sign for the Flames’ depth.

Carolina Hurricanes: You really have to like that Calvin de Haan deal but at the same time, it’s not some sort of huge game-changer.

Chicago: Bowman hasn’t made a move to improve this team’s not-good defense, which seems like it’s not a good idea.

Colorado Avalanche: Where did anyone on earth get the idea that John Tavares might have even considered signing with Colorado? Come on.

Columbus Blue Jackets: That was a nice little extension for Boone Jenner. Can’t be mad at it.

Dallas Stars: If you get the chance to add Erik Karlsson, you take it regardless of what’s being asked. But Jeff Skinner wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize.

Detroit Red Wings: It’s possible that Filip Zadina would be able to play in the AHL if he doesn’t make the Red Wings roster, but he’ll probably make the Red Wings roster.

Edmonton Oilers: Who could have seen this Lucic deal turning into a nightmare on the day it was signed? No one!

Florida Panthers: The Panthers are gonna be a cap-limit team. Probably should have kept those Vegas guys, eh?

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings have invested in a startup with four employees and no headquarters that makes it cheaper to make good ice for hockey rinks. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Minnesota Wild: Remember when it used to be a big scandal to suggest the Wild didn’t have a lot of impact talent on the roster? Well…

Montreal Canadiens: This Shea Weber thing is so awful for the Canadiens and Marc Bergevin specifically. There are EIGHT years left on this guy’s deal.

Nashville Predators: The Preds just made a big free agency mistake.

New Jersey Devils: No. Next question.

New York Islanders: This is one of those whether he likes it or not” things.

New York Rangers: A thing teams with cap space should always do is try to get in on trades as third-party negotiators, take on some salary and get picks and prospects out of it. Always use as much cap space as you can if it gets you something.

Ottawa Senators: This headline is bleak.

Philadelphia Flyers: Based on where Christian Folin went to college, this is a very savvy pickup.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Barring a bounceback year from Matt Murray (possible), the Pens are firmly outside the top five teams in the league but also probably somewhere solidly in the top eight.

San Jose Sharks: Nice little contract for Dylan DeMelo. Term and money look good for both sides.

St. Louis Blues: Dmitrij Jaskin never really panned out as expected, huh? He only had six goals last season.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Pretty amazing how fast you can go from we might be done for the summer” to “we might trade for one of the best players alive.”

Toronto Maple Leafs: We’re still gonna act like the Leafs have the flexibility to trade for a defenseman of note, huh?

Vancouver Canucks: Im… improve the power play? Am I reading that right?

Vegas Golden Knights: I love this Colin Miller deal. Really good player signed cheap for his entire prime.

Washington Capitals: Real nervous to see how this Tom Wilson deal works out. It’s gonna be bonkers.

Winnipeg Jets: This is bold prognostication.

Gold Star Award

This is very nice from Vegas.

Minus of the Weekend

Just trade Karlsson already!!!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “xNogaitxhas it figured out.

To Montreal:
Carl Hagelin (4M)
Daniel Sprong (750k)
2019 1st round pick
Conditional 2021 2nd round pick *

To Pittsburgh:
Max Pacioretty (4.5M) – Retained 2M
Paul Byron (1.16M)

Signoff

No mother, it’s just the Northern Lights.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

What to read next