NHL Salaries

Nearly 20 years into the salary cap era, NHL front offices universally cherish cap space

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact point in history when NHL general managers collectively learned some of the harsh realities of the salary cap, but here are two examples that stand out:

  • Free Agency Frenzy 2016

  • COVID-19 salary cap freeze

It’s 2016, and NHL general managers universally agree that the salary cap, which was put in place following the 2004 lockout, would rise as it does pretty much every year like clockwork. To stay competitive in the marketplace, NHL front offices have disastrously spent marquee players with little star power. Perhaps no year has been more embarrassing than 2016, when the likes of Kyle Okposo, Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, David Backes and Andrew Ladd. Each player has signed contracts of at least five years and at least $5.5 million AAV.

Wow! What could go wrong?

In the spring of 2020, when the world was shut down due to COVID-19, the NHL froze salary cap increases for what ended up being two full seasons. With declining revenues across the league, how can players justify an increase in future salaries?

Now, in the summer of 2022, it looks like most of the NHL is in jail with a salary cap. Hell, you could say the whole reason the Columbus Blue Jackets were the winners of the Johnny Gaudreau coin toss was because of their cap flexibility. Other teams, such as the presumptive favorites to land Gaudreau, the Philadelphia Flyers, alleged that they could not even participate in making a bid because their cap circumstances did not allow it.

But the Blue Jackets weren’t entirely immune to the aftermath of the Covid-related salary cap hiatus, and Oliver Bjorkstrand was a victim, and the Seattle Kraken the beneficiaries of the organization suddenly running out of cap. Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen was devastated to move the winger, and many club supporters were upset.

Athleticism Aaron Portzline reported that, to leave Gus Nyquist, for example, it would have had to be a pure loss of salary, “which means the Blue Jackets might have had to include a better prospect (Marchenko ) or a first-round pick to make it happen.” This, to go from a productive player to a reasonable cap of $5.5 million.

This type of move was completely alien even a few years ago and was usually reserved for injured players who would never play again or anchors who could no longer make it to the NHL level. Nyquist is neither of those things.

The salary cap has completely changed the landscape of jobs in the NHL. Division rival Carolina acquired perennial 30-goal scorer Max Pacioretty from the Vegas Golden Knights, who also had to ship productive 24-year-old defenseman Dylan Coghlan … in exchange for literally nothing.

Nazem Kadri, who was in the most valuable player race midway through last season and was a key player for the Stanley Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche, only signed a contract last week when the Calgary Flames finally took over. After the signing, the Flames sent former first-round pick Sean Monahan, the final year of a contract that pays him $6.375 million, as well as a future first-round pick, to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for …literally nothing.

There has been a paradigm shift in the NHL. “Literally nothing” no longer means literally nothing; it now represents, more than ever, the flexibility to make your organization stronger by signing future players with suitable contracts.

And that is literally worth everything.