Hang in there, just a bit longer. The flat NHL salary cap increased by $1 million this summer, giving cap-crunched teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins a little more breathing room. The best is yet to come as the NHL’s financial windfalls, dwindling NHLPA debt, and the Penguins expiring contracts will stuff GM Ron Hextall’s cap wallet, unlike any time since the league instituted the cap after the 2004-05 lockout.
Hextall is going to have money.
Over the next two years, Hextall will also be able to build his team, replace the roster spots that aren’t producing, and pluck productive veterans off the free agent market.
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 carry a below-market AAV in exchange for extra years on the contracts.
Those lower AAVs will significantly help, but that’s not the primary source of additional cap space.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said last week that he expects the salary cap to rise “significantly” after the 2023-24 NHL season, but that’s in two years.
Next summer, Brian Dumoulin and Jason Zucker will become UFAs. Their combined cost is $9.5 million, which will come off the books, coinciding with another smaller cap rise.
Lesser-priced players like Teddy Blueger and Danton Heinen will also become UFAs. However, their replacement costs will equal their current salaries, and for an analytical look, we’ll call those a wash.
Starting goalie Tristan Jarry is due for a raise. Top prospect Joel Blomqvist most likely 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 will eat into the windfall.
Factoring in the UFAs, replacements, and Jarry’s bump, the Pittsburgh Penguins, could have about $8 million in cap space next summer with only two spots to fill.
Perhaps one of the young Penguins defensemen, such as PO Joseph or Ty Smith, will be ready to play beside Kris Letang?
The Hextall would finally have real cap flexibility and the chance to chase a big-name free agent.
Big-time players such as David Pastrnak, current NHL trade rumor darling Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Max Pacioretty will be free agents. So, too, will some guy who recently mocked being traded to the Penguins “like 20 times” this summer, JT Miller.
2024 Cap Spike
Even more tantalizing, the Penguins could gain far more cap space in two years as the cap spikes due to the NHLPA paying off the COVID-season debt and increased US television revenues. A few more retro jerseys shouldn’t hurt, either.
In two seasons, Jeff Carter’s and Kasperi Kapanen’s contracts came off the books, too. For Carter, it will likely be the end of the line. If Kapanen doesn’t find his best game, his cost will also be one that is replaced elsewhere.
Without factoring in any trades, Hextall could have another $10 million or more to spend in two summers.
Of course, the other drunken sailors who are part of the NHL GMs 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 build and retool plans will perfectly coincide with hockey economics and put the Penguins in a prime position to control their fate.
Heck, William Nylander is supposed to become a UFA in 2024, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Now, about getting under that pesky 2022 salary cap.