The clock is ticking for teams above the salary cap. In the NHL, teams can exceed the salary cap by 10% in the offseason. But the fun and games are over once the calendar turns to Opening Day. At that time, every team in the league must be cap compliant, under the $82.5 million threshold.
According to CapFriendly, 14 of the league's 32 teams are currently above the salary cap. This summer, we've already seen teams shed useful but highly-paid players to cut salaries. And it appears there's still a lot of work to do.
Not only are there a lot of teams looking to bring their caps down, but there aren't many teams left who can solve those problems. Just nine teams have more than $4 million in cap space. Among them are bottom-feeders with no interest in being competitive, like the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes.
So it's a buyer's market if you're one of those nine teams like the Minnesota Wild are. And it's been a buyer's market all offseason. The Vegas Golden Knights traded Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov for nothing this summer. The Nashville Predators took Ryan McDonagh for a song. The Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames actually paid to drop Matt Murray and Sean Monahan's salaries.
Thanks to Minnesota getting in on the trading-a-player-for-future-considerations game, they're poised to weaponize their cap space to add to their team. They're currently sitting at $5.7 million under the cap, seventh-most in the NHL. If you want to shed salary, Bill Guerin's one of the only games in town.
So, which teams can Guerin go after?
The over-the-cap teams range from Vegas ($15 million over) to the St. Louis Blues ($125K over). At first, it maybe makes sense that Minnesota can squeeze the teams furthest over the cap, but it's not so simple.
Remember, teams can bury salaries by placing injured players on Long-Term Injured Reserve. If they're on for the whole season (as, spoilers, a lot of these guys will be), their cap hits go away. But that doesn't happen until right as the season starts, so these cap hits can be deceiving.
Take the Montreal Canadiens, for example. They're sitting at $10.2 million over the cap, with one player needed to fill out their roster. That's a bad spot to be in! But since Carey Price won't be playing this year, his $10.5 million cap hit vanishes. So in effect, Montreal is squeaking just under the cap ceiling.
That ability to stash salaries on LTIR will save a lot of teams' bacon next week. Injuries to Nicklas Backstrom ($9 million), Ryan Ellis ($6,25 million), Micheal Ferland ($3.5 million), and Pacioretty are going to drive the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks, and Carolina Hurricanes under the cap.
Even the Golden Knights can wriggle their way out of their situation. Robin Lehner is out for the season, and Shea Weber and Nolan Patrick may never play again. Once those three players are LTIR'd, Vegas' cap hit drops to $83.5. Since that figure accounts for 27 roster players (the max is 23), they'll easily dip under the cap.
So if the Wild are going to go poaching, it's going to have to be teams that aren't going to be able to LTIR their way out of these jams. But who are those teams?
We're not exactly Capologists here at 10K Rinks, but some back-of-the-napkin math gives us a good guess at who might be vulnerable now.
The list just shrunk quite a bit. We're talking about seven teams that can't squeeze under the cap after LTIR. And even some of these teams will be able to. As we said, Vegas needs to shed their four extra roster players. The San Jose Sharks can also get under the cap by going from 26 to 23 players.
So that leaves us with five prime candidates: The Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, and Edmonton Oilers. Come on down.
Now comes the next question: Who's ripe for the taking?
Toronto is probably the most vulnerable of all these teams, but it's hard to play matchmaker between them and the Wild. Basically, everyone on their team makes either $10 million or $700K. They have exactly one skater who makes more than $2.9 million but less than $5 million. That would be Alex Kerfoot and his $3.5 million cap hit.
He's a solid, two-way middle-six type who can play center or wing. But then again, that describes like eight players on the Wild roster already.
So what about the Florida Panthers, who are also cap-strapped? Florida's mid-tier salary players consist of Sam Bennett ($4.43M), Carter Verhaeghe ($4.17M), Brandon Montour ($3.5M), and Anthony Duclair ($3.0M).
Bennett is locked into such a reasonable contract that it's hard to see the Panthers ultra-willing to trade the 28-goal-scorer. Ditto Verhaeghe and Duclair, who formed an elite line with Sasha Barkov last year. Montour is part of a very thin Florida blueline that needs to add, not subtract.
Maybe someone a bit more expensive will attract Guerin's eye, though. Patric Hornqvist ($5.3M) is a right-shot winger in the last year of his deal. At age 35, his scoring touch isn't what it once was, but he has two things Guerin values. The first is a hard-nosed game, and the second is the familiarity that comes from winning two Cups for Guerin's Penguins.
Speaking of Pittsburgh, the Penguins will still be over the salary cap, even after going from 24 roster players to 23. Kasperi Kapanen ($3.2M for two years) is an obvious cap casualty coming off a down year, but he's also an obvious fit for the Wild. He'd bring a much-needed right shot to a lefty-heavy lineup, and his strong transition game would give Minnesota a poor man's Kevin Fiala.
Boston doesn't need to add any players to their roster, but they're at $1.4M over the salary cap. They also have plenty of mid-tier salaries to part with. Craig Smith makes a lot of sense, as he's a right-shot who has done nothing in his entire career except drive play to the offensive zone.
But come on, if the Wild are going to make a move on the Bruins, you'd have to put your money on Nick Foligno ($3.8M for one year) coming back. Foligno chose Boston over Minnesota last season after both teams pursued him heavily. Foligno might not bring much else, but he possesses that classic Marcus Foligno-style grittiness that Guerin craves. There's no real smoke behind this, but you can feel it in your bones.
As for Edmonton, hey, we wrote a whole article on how Jesse Puljujarvi ($3 million for one year) is there for the taking. You can read that, but the TL;DR is: he's a big right-shot winger with power play success. That's a good fit. Kailer Yamamoto ($3.1M, two years) and Warren Foegele ($2.75M, one year) also fit the bill as movable salaries. So does Cody Ceci ($3.25M, three years), we suppose, but let's please not imagine that.
Of course, the Wild can hold onto their flexibility and save it for the deadline. That might be prudent, as it may allow them to address needs that they don't currently foresee. But if Minnesota wants to strike now, five teams are very vulnerable to losing a useful player for nearly nothing. If they do go that route, they have to move fast. The clock is ticking.