Salary cap rises to $73 million, lower limit set at $54 million

The salary cap’s upper and lower limits were officially set Tuesday. The upper limit is $73 million, while teams will be forced to reach a $54 million minimum payroll.

With nine days to go before the NHL’s summer signing season officially opens, teams officially know what salary limits they’ll be working with come the 2016-17 campaign.

The NHL and NHLPA announced Tuesday evening that the salary cap for the upcoming season has increased to $73 million, with the lower limit set at $54 million. The official salary cap figure for the upcoming campaign sees an increase in the upper limit by $1.6 million, while the salary floor jumps from $52.8 million, meaning an increase of $1.2 million.

According to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, the NHLPA used the full “growth factor” allowable. If the Players’ Association had used only half of the maximum five percent growth factor, the cap’s upper limit would have remained flat at $71.4 million.

For teams fighting the salary cap, this is the first look at what, exactly, they’ll have in terms of space when the season opens. The minimal increase in the upper limit — early projections had the cap rising as much as $3.1 million — could mean that a trade season that has already seen a few teams forced to let unrestricted free agents walk for draft picks could see more teams decide to recoup what they can for free agents they can’t afford to re-sign.

The teams in the biggest salary cap crunch will be the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Minnesota Wild. Each of those teams, save the Penguins, has at least three players to sign with less than $10 million in cap space to do so. That definitely doesn’t mean any big splashes are coming in free agency.

The Blackhawks — surprise — have the least space of the teams that make to need significant additions. Chicago currently has 16 players who spent a significant amount of time on its NHL roster locked up for next season, so they’ll need to add on the blueline and up front with less than $7 million to do so. Add in that Andrew Shaw is expected to get a new contract, and the Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman could be working with as little as $3.5 million to ink two or three players.

It may surprise some that Minnesota is in a similar position. The Wild have only 15 NHL regulars locked up and roughly $9.2 million to work with. Minnesota will need to sign an entire line’s worth of forwards and a backup goaltender before the season begins. That could be pricy.

And while the Penguins don’t have to sign anyone, they will be forced to lose a piece from their Stanley Cup-winning roster in order to be cap compliant to start the campaign. With 23 players currently on their NHL roster, the Penguins are more than $1.4 million over the upper limit. Demoting two two-way contracts wouldn’t be quite enough, and ditching three to the AHL would mean the Penguins are entering the season without an extra player anywhere on their roster. That would become difficult when injury strikes.

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On the flip side, there are some teams who will have to get creative to hit the salary floor. At present, the Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes are all $4 million-plus under the lower limit.

There’s not much concern about Calgary getting to the floor — contracts for Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan should take care of that — and the Buffalo Sabres haven’t been afraid to pump money into the team. That leaves the Hurricanes, Devils and Coyotes as the teams working their way toward the lower limit. That said, this could be the year Arizona doesn’t have to take on a needless cap hit to get to the floor.

Arizona currently has eight forwards under contract, four defensemen and two goaltenders and roughly $14 million necessary to spend to get to the lower limit. Captain Shane Doan is coming back, and he could eat up $4 million. Then there are restricted free agent contracts for seven players to consider, including blueliners Michael Stone, Connor Murphy and Klas Dahlbeck. Combined, that could be $4 million-plus. Add in contracts for several RFAs currently in the AHL, as well as a possible player or two from the free agent market, and Arizona should be able to fill out their roster without artificially pumping up their salary cap — that is, if you don’t count the already-present Chris Pronger deal.

New Jersey has a lot of pieces to add before the season begins, too, but some may cost enough that the cap floor isn’t a worry. Kyle Palmieri is due a raise and there are several players the Devils could look at bringing back. They only have $8 million to add to reach the floor, so that’s not a big worry.

Carolina, however, could be the most interesting case. GM Ron Francis’ club has to add about $5 million somewhere, yet the Hurricanes don’t have a major roster spot to fill anywhere. They have 11 forwards, six blueliners and two goaltenders under NHL contract. A few RFA deals will be handed out, but enough to reach the floor? Hard to say.

With the salary figures official, though, armchair GMs can start getting out their pads and pens and working out some crazy deals. More than any other season, this looks like the year some of those seemingly far-fetched moves could come to fruition.

(All salary information via CapFriendly)