The NHL salary cap is unique to that of every other cap in the four major North American sports in that there is almost no way to get around it. NBA teams can pay a luxury tax, NFL teams can renegotiate contracts, and MLB teams have nearly unrestricted spending rights. This truly hard cap often forces teams into parting with valuable assets to avoid overspending. The amount teams are forced to alter their rosters to avoid going over the cap varies from year to year, but has been especially high this offseason due to a lower than expected cap increase from the previous season. This year’s ceiling of around $71.3 million was nearly $5 million less than projections had placed it a year ago. The trade market has been drastically altered as a result.
While the obvious effect of a tight salary cap is teams having to shed roster players to clear space, the cap has also forced teams to part with additional assets just for the privilege of saving money. A great example of this can be seen in the recently completed Patrick Sharp trade that saw Sharp and prospect Stephen Johns sent to Dallas for Trevor Dalley and Ryan Garbutt. The asking price for Sharp was originally rumored to be a 1st round pick, a top prospect, and a roster player, but the Blackhawks ended up receiving far less than their initial valuation in return for their prolific winger. Additionally, Chicago had to part with Johns: a promising prospect who had a very good chance of making the roster this season. There are several factors that contributed to this underwhelming deal for the Blackhawks.
For one, the Stars retained half of Garbutt’s $1.8 million cap hit as part of the deal, allowing the Hawks to inch closer to the ceiling. This may have been why Chicago GM Stan Bowman was forced to part with one of his favorite young players in Johns. As opposed to simply retaining salary and being content with acquiring the four-time 30-goal-scoring Sharp, Dallas GM Jim Nill knew that Chicago needed cap space in order to complete the deal and asked for an asset in return. Additionally, while there were plenty of teams looking to move scoring forwards in an attempt to save money, there were very few teams with the cap space necessary to take on a large contract as part of a trade. This greatly limited Bowman’s options in finding a trade partner and forced him to settle for what he deemed the best offer – as opposed to initiating a bidding war for the services of his veteran sniper.
The Keith Yandle trade between New York and Arizona at last season’s trade deadline is another example of this. Arizona was able to acquire Anthony Duclair (an elite young prospect), 1st and 2nd round picks, and John Moore for the inconsistent Yandle in large part due to their ability to retain half his cap hit in the deal. Meanwhile, Boston was only able to acquire a trio of draft picks for the younger and more talented Dougie Hamilton this offseason due to their limited salary cap space. This once again illustrates how teams have been using cap space as a tradable asset with value equivalent to that of a player or draft pick.
All of these deals point to a dynamic NHL trade market that looks favorably upon teams with cap space to spend. Not only are there fewer teams with the ability to acquire big-salary players in the league today, but those teams are also able to maximize their returns in trades due to their financial flexibility and willingness to retain salary as part of a deal. But with the cap projected to rise to around $77 million for next season, those teams would be wise to take advantage of their luxury of cap space to acquire as many assets as possible while the demand for space is still high.