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The harsh reality about the lack of cap space available leaguewide this summer (and why the Canucks may pay to dump quality players)

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
8 months ago
Space, they say, could be an infinite frontier.
Cap space, on the other hand, is decidedly not infinite. Especially not right now.
The summer of 2023 is a financial crunch several years in the making, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting loss of league revenue. Ever since the 2012 CBA was signed, the NHL’s upper salary ceiling had gone up by at least $2 million per season, and sometimes as high as $4.7 million.
That stopped with a rise from $79.5 million to $81.5 million to start the 2019/20 campaign, and then the world was put on pause for a while. League revenue dried up to almost nil, players were still owed their contracts, and NHL owners were still promised their 50% of the share. In order to keep the players being paid, an enormous amount of escrow began to be held as soon as play resumed, and that backlog of debt is now almost — but not quite — paid off.
In the meantime, however, the salary cap has been kept intentionally low, so as to not further inflate the debt disparity. It stayed at $81.5 million for 2021/22, rose to $82.5 million for 2022/23, and now stands to rise to $83.5 million as of 2023/24.
That’s an increase that used to pass for the low-end of annual increases, and now it’s taken four years to get there.
NHL GMs, famously slow to adjust, have struggled to make decisions that match the reality of their new financial situation, and that limited cap space has been further eroded by folks spending like it was the old days. It was crunchy already in 2020, some ill-fated contracts were handed out, and it got crunchier. Rinse and repeat for three straight offseasons.
And now, in 2023, those chickens have come home to roost. Leaguewide cap space is a well that has run dry, for the time being, and everyone is feeling it to some extent, the Vancouver Canucks perhaps most of all.
We’ve heard a lot about how little cap space there is available, and how it could result in GM Patrik Allvin and Co. having to add on additional sweeteners to move the heavy contracts of even productive players like Conor Garland and Brock Boeser.
Some refuse to believe it. Why should the Canucks have to pay to sell a player that we all know darn well other teams could make good use of?
The answer to that question, in a roundabout way, is that nobody seems to really understand just how little cap space there is available. They just don’t get that, when cap space is in such short supply, it gets sold, not spent.
But in order to facilitate that understanding, we thought it might be useful to actually estimate how much spending room teams will have on hand for the summer of 2023, with the hope that when folks see the harsh reality, they’ll understand how difficult Allvin’s stated goal of cutting cap is going to be.
To start, it’s definitely useful that all your favourite cap-tracking sites — including our favourite, Puckpedia — have flipped their charts over to the 2023/24 books.
A quick glance at the reported cap space for the offseason tells us that the 32 teams collectively have about $433.5 million on hand, or an average of $13.547 million per team.
What cap crunch? That’s enough for every team to add TWO Brock Boesers!
Unfortunately, there’s a fair bit of trimming we’re going to have to do before we arrive at an actually realistic number.
First and foremost, those totals do not represent complete rosters, and rosters will need to be completed before the 2023/24 season starts.
Assuming every team runs a 23-player roster (they won’t, but this is just an estimate), there are still a rough total of 218 player contracts to be added to these books, or an average of 6.8 per team.
Now, this is where our estimate really becomes a guessimate. Those 218 player contracts will be made up of some combination of extended RFAs, newly-signed UFAs, and internal promotions. Each of those players will have a contract, and will take up cap space, but we can’t possibly predict how much.
If we go with an exceptionally low estimate and say that these 218 players will make an average of $1 million each, there goes more than half of your $433.5 million cap space, right then and there.
If, instead of $1 million, we use the current amount of the average NHL salary — about $3.2 million — we begin to see the scope of the issue.
Add 218 players to the 2023/24 cap books at $3.2 million each, and you’ve spent nearly $700 million — which is almost double the amount of actual cap space available.
The average salary of the players added to rosters from here on out is going to have to actually be a little under $2 million. Which is not a lot, especially when some of those players are definitely going to be well over and above that amount.
It’s true that not every team will run a 23-player roster. But then it’s also true that not every team will be willing to spend all the way to the salary cap, either. There might actually be less money available than what we’ve laid out here, and that’s a scary thought.
Which brings us to the crux of our issue. There isn’t just very little cap space available right now, there’s zero. In fact, based on the contracts that probably should be signed this summer, there’s arguably less than zero.
And that makes cutting cap nearly impossible.
There will, of course, be individual teams with cap space. The Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks currently have $90 million just between the two of them, and they won’t be able to spend all that even if they try.
But with the reality of the rest of the league, cap space has become even more of a hot commodity than it was before. It’s become perhaps the single-most valuable asset in the NHL.
If you do wind up one of those few teams with spending room, you’ll find yourself with options. There are more than a hundred UFAs with NHL experience available, many of whom will have to sign for less than they’re worth due to the cap crunch.
The vast majority of the other teams, meanwhile, are actively trying to cut cap, and many of them are willing to pay up in order to do so.
Boeser, Garland, and even Tyler Myers are useful players, sure. But there’re going to be a lot of useful players hitting the market this summer, and the buyers will truly rule the day.
Even if someone like Garland is the most skilled winger available at his price, which seems unlikely, even that doesn’t guarantee that anyone would be willing to pay for him. Take the Ducks and their mountains of cap space, for example.
Could the Ducks make use of Garland on their roster? Absolutely. Could they afford him? Sure.
But would acquiring him be the best use of their cap space? Probably not. He doesn’t move the needle in getting them any closer to contention. He doesn’t line up well with their young core. On the whole, they’re probably much better off to go for a lesser player at an equal or greater salary because that player will come with a draft pick, something they’ll ultimately make better use of than any veteran they add now.
Put another way, if the Canucks aren’t willing to add sweeteners to a Garland or a Boeser, and we know that other teams are willing to pay to dump their own players, a team would have to be willing to leave assets on the table in order to specifically seek out the services of one of the Canucks. Expecting someone to take on cap space without payment, when cap space is at such a premium, seems like a non-starter. Again, even for a player of relatively positive value.
And where does that leave a team looking to cut cap without being willing to add sweeteners? It probably leaves them holding the bag.

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