Hang on, just a little longer. The NHL’s fixed salary cap increased by $1 million this summer, giving under-pressure teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins a bit more wiggle room. The best is yet to come, as NHL financial windfalls, shrinking NHLPA debt and expiring Penguins contracts will fill General Manager Ron Hextall’s cap portfolio like never before since the league instituted the cap after the 2004-05 lockout.
Hextall will have money.
Over the next two years, Hextall will also be able to build their roster, replace non-producing roster spots, and remove productive veterans from the free agent market.
The drama turned to the status quo as Evgeni Malkin, Rickard Rakell and Kris Letang signed new contracts in the days leading up to free agency. Bryan Rust signed weeks earlier. All but Rakell will have below-market AAV in exchange for additional years on contracts.
These lower AAVs will help considerably, but they are not the main source of additional ceiling space.
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said last week he expects the salary cap to go up “significantly” after the 2023-24 NHL season, but that’s two years away.
Next summer, Brian Dumoulin and Jason Zucker will become UFA. Their combined cost is $9.5 million, which will come off the books, coinciding with another smaller capitalization raise.
Cheaper players like Teddy Blueger and Danton Heinen will also become UFAs. However, their replacement costs will be equal to their current wages, and for an analytical look, we’ll call them a washout.
Starting goaltender Tristan Jarry is due for a raise. Top prospect Joel Blomqvist probably won’t be ready for at least a year, if not two (and there’s no guarantee he’ll be as good as Jarry). So, Jarry is going to eat on the windfall.
Factoring in UFAs, substitutions and the Jarry bump, the Pittsburgh Penguins could have about an $8 million cap next summer with just two spots left to fill.
Maybe one of the Penguins’ young defensemen, like PO Joseph or Ty Smith, will be up for playing alongside Kris Letang?
The Hextall would finally have real cap flexibility and the ability to hunt a marquee free agent.
Top players such as David Pastrnak, Patrick Kane, current NHL trade rumor, Vladimir Tarasenko and Max Pacioretty will be free agents. So will a guy who was recently mocked for being traded to the Penguins “like 20 times” this summer, JT Miller.
Spike 2024 Cap
Even more enticing, the Penguins could gain significantly more cap space in two years as the cap climbs due to NHLPA repayment of COVID season debt and increased US television revenue. A few extra retro jerseys shouldn’t hurt either.
In two seasons, the contracts of Jeff Carter and Kasperi Kapanen are also canceled. For Carter, that will likely be the end of the line. If Kapanen does not find his best match, his cost will also be the one replaced elsewhere.
Without factoring in trades, Hextall could still have $10 million or more to spend in two summers.
Of course, the other drunken sailors who are part of the NHL’s general managers’ club will also get a windfall in two seasons. Don’t expect to see two dozen teams not spending their cap windfalls.
However, Hextall’s construction and retooling plans will dovetail perfectly with the economics of hockey and put the Penguins in a prime position to control their destiny.
Heck, William Nylander is supposed to become UFA in 2024, but let’s not go too far ahead of us.
Now, about going under that damn 2022 salary cap.