Salary-cap flexibility keeps dictating NHL trade market

The Blackhawks’ decisions to trade Alex DeBrincat and acquire Petr Mrazek, along with almost every other trade recently completed around the NHL, have been heavily affected by cap implications.

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Petr Mrazek tracks a puck with the Maple Leafs.

The Blackhawks moved up 13 draft spots for taking Petr Mrazek’s contract from the Maple Leafs.

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Alex DeBrincat, 24, is an elite scorer, and he’ll carry a very reasonable $6.4 million salary-cap hit next season and will be due a deserved raise to at least $9 million on his next deal.

But even his contract situation is considered cumbersome in the current NHL.

That was a significant reason why the Blackhawks weren’t able to get nearly as much back in trading DeBrincat as anticipated at the NHL Draft, general manager Kyle Davidson claimed.

“[It’s] not that there wasn’t interest in Alex, but it’s a little harder of a deal to make given the [contract] uncertainty moving forward,” Davidson said. “Even great players have to fit under cap and upper limits, so that made it a little tough on some teams. And most of the league is in a cap crunch.”

And it was also a significant reason why Davidson opted to trade DeBrincat in the first place instead of extending him and orchestrating the rebuild around him. That decision is worth questioning, even doubting, but it’s the truth nonetheless.

“That [trade was about] not only the return we got, but also [about] the flexibility it gave us to either add younger players to the roster [or] use our cap space to add more assets,” Davidson said. “That all goes into the ‘return’ for Alex.”

Indeed, the pandemic’s lasting effect of stagnating the salary cap has skewed the trade market significantly.

After 15 years of relative stability regarding the market’s dynamics, cap hits have become far more important the last two years, and they’ll remain that way for at least another year or two until the cap finally begins to rise again.

Almost every trade completed in the last month has been affected by teams’ desire for cap flexibility.

The Golden Knights traded forward Evgenii Dadonov to the Canadiens for functionally retired defenseman Shea Weber just to exchange Dadonov’s cap hit for Weber’s, which can be put on long-term injured reserve.

The Wild traded star forward Kevin Fiala to the Kings because they couldn’t afford to re-sign him as a restricted free agent. After re-signing Marc-Andre Fleury, they have just $1.4 million left. The Hurricanes’ similar situation prompted the trade of Tony DeAngelo to the Flyers. The Lightning flipped defenseman Ryan McDonagh to the Predators for the far inferior Phil Myers to simply create enough space to re-sign Nick Paul.

Even the Hawks took advantage of the leaguewide crunch, as Davidson referenced, moving up 13 spots in the draft (to select Sam Rinzel) by taking Petr Mrazek’s contract off the Maple Leafs’ tied hands.

This is the first time since the years immediately after the salary cap’s introduction in 2005 that the Hawks haven’t been tight against it. They have an estimated $15 million in space, albeit with some contracts left to sign. With the contracts of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews expiring next summer, they have only $35 million committed for 2023-24 — less than half the cap.

And with more opportunities to weaponize cap space (a la the Mrazek trade) likely to pop up in the future — reacquiring Brent Seabrook’s dead-weight contract from the Lightning could even be a possibility — -Davidson is intent on keeping it that way.

That’s how he subtly justified in advance not giving Dylan Strome or Dominik Kubalik qualifying offers, which will become official Monday.

“The one thing that’ll be truer now, and in the next couple years, more than anytime is that cap space is going to be a huge asset,” Davidson said. “We don’t want to compromise that. That’s not to say we’ll let everyone walk — that’s not the case at all — but we’ll be discerning with where we do go, especially with players with arbitration rights.”

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