None of the NHL offseason’s major events has happened yet. The expansion draft is first up Wednesday, followed by the entry draft Friday and Saturday, free agency next week and trades scattered throughout.
But a few things are already clear.
This unprecedented offseason — a chaotic confluence of league expansion and salary-cap stagnation — is going to redefine how teams are built, change how assets are valued and set a precedent for offseasons to come.
Salary management is the biggest priority, far bigger than ever before. The cap will be stuck at $81.5 million in 2021-22 for a third consecutive season, a far cry from the $88 million-$90 million many general managers expected when signing stars to large contracts two or three years ago.
Many teams are crunched against the cap with no relief in sight, many players now carry negative trade value because of their cost-inefficient contracts and the rare cap-space chunks that do exist are now almost more valuable vacant than filled with actual players. (The Blackhawks, thanks to Brent Seabrook’s unofficial retirement and Duncan Keith’s departure, are actually in relatively good shape.)
Teams’ decisions when forming their expansion-draft protected lists — merely precursors to the first major event — foreshadowed these shifting priorities.
Weeks after Carey Price miraculously carried them to the Stanley Cup Final, the Canadiens exposed their franchise icon, betting the Seattle Kraken won’t take on his $10.5 million cap hit. And they might be right: Canadiens defensemen Brett Kulak ($1.85 million) and Cale Fleury ($771,666) are considered just as likely to be selected as Price.
Five other teams joined the Canadiens in exposing their highest-paid players — headlined by the Predators, who exposed not one but both (Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene, at $8 million each).
The Blues can’t find any suitors for Vladimir Tarasenko and his $7.5 million cap hit, nor can the Devils with P.K. Subban and his $9 million hit, nor the Ducks with Adam Henrique and his $5.8 million hit. The Flyers technically weren’t part of that group, but they exposed their second- and fourth-highest-paid players: longtime cornerstones Jakub Voracek ($8.25 million) and James van Riemsdyk ($7 million).
The Wild and Panthers bought out household names Ryan Suter and Keith Yandle to protect Matt Dumba and Gustav Forsling, respectively. The Flames left captain Mark Giordano exposed to protect Rasmus Andersson.
Clearly, the perceived value of players in the league already has flipped. And that trend is unlikely to change Wednesday because the Kraken are seemingly planning to pass on most of these exposed high-profile stars.
“The one thing we think is extremely valuable in this environment is cap space,” Kraken GM Ron Francis said Sunday. “We’ve got $81.5 million . . . [and] we want to make sure we take advantage of [that].”
The most prominent victims will be the unrestricted free agents hitting the market July 28.
They used to receive big paydays. Now, all but the most elite of the bunch will be squeezed into bargain deals because their teammates who signed long-term contracts before 2020 are occupying an oversized share of the dollars in the market.
That reality will become particularly obvious because the 2021 UFA class is the most loaded in recent history: Dougie Hamilton, Alex Ovechkin, Gabriel Landeskog and Taylor Hall sit at the top, but solid role players such as David Savard, Mike Hoffman, Ryan Murray and Petr Mrazek can’t even crack the top 20. The few teams with substantial space to spare — including the Hawks to an extent and the Kraken most of all — could rake in talent on the cheap.
If Francis navigates his franchise in the manner that is expected this summer, it’ll reinforce an important lesson to the 31 other GMs about the new NHL: Financial flexibility and the leverage it provides trump everything else.
The repercussions of that lesson will be evident in many offseasons to come.