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Which teams will benefit most if NHL salary cap hits $78 million-plus projections?

The salary cap could go as high as $82 million next season, giving GMs around the league reason to rejoice. But which teams will be most excited by the prospect of a beefed up spending limit?

When the NHL’s board of governors met late last week, the headline story was, without a doubt, the potential addition of a franchise in Seattle. It’s a story that only picked up steam with the announcement that a ticket-drive had been given the go-ahead by the league and that any team joining the NHL would need to fork over a $650-million expansion fee.

Overlooked, though, was the other major bit of business that came out of the meetings: one of the first projections of the league’s 2018-19 salary cap. 

This season, the spending limit for NHL clubs sits at $75 million, a $2-million increase from 2016-17, but the early outlook on next season should be giving GMs reason to celebrate. In addressing the cap projections for next season, commissioner Gary Bettman noted that, depending on the NHL Players Associations’ decision on a growth factor, the cap could rise anywhere from $3 million to a whopping $7 million by the time 2017-18 rolls around.

For a number of teams, most notably the budget teams which often spend closer to the cap floor, the increase won’t matter much. This is to say the Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers aren’t about to go spend until the well has run dry. However, for several organizations facing potential cap crunches or spending concerns next season, the news of a rising cap couldn’t come at a better time. But which teams stand to benefit most from an inflated spending limit?

NEW YORK ISLANDERS
No matter what happened with the salary cap next summer, the Islanders were almost always bound to be big spenders. After all, retaining captain John Tavares isn’t going to come cheap, even if he inks a deal to stay in town before he hits the open market. It’s not beyond reason to believe he could carry a $10-million cap hit on his next contract, and such a salary would’ve eaten close to one-third of the $33 million the Islanders are projected to have available to them next summer in a $75-million cap world. Of course, that would still leave the Islanders with upwards of $20 million. And while ahead of the season it might have been fair to wonder how much an extra few million was really going to help New York, it’s fairly evident now that the Islanders are going to need every penny.

On top of having to retain Tavares, the Islanders also have eight pending unrestricted free agents and five arbitration-eligible restricted free agents, with some big names among those due fresh deals. Chief among those, especially given his production this season, is Josh Bailey. The 28-year-old is having a monster year – he’s on pace for 90 points – and signing him at this point isn’t going to be cheaper than $5 million-plus per season. Beyond Bailey, the Islanders have two notable rearguards, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey, eligible to hit the open market, as well. And that’s to say nothing of the price tag that could be associated with locking up RFA Brock Nelson, who has three 20-goal seasons under his belt.

Add in the reality of the Islanders’ goaltending situation — few teams could more use a starting netminder — and New York could end up needing every penny of the $33-plus million available to them next summer if they want to keep Tavares, bring back important pieces and stay a top Metropolitan Division contender.

ANAHEIM DUCKS
The following is a list of Ducks currently with the big club who are set to become UFAs at the end of the season: Andrew Cogliano, Antoine Vermette, Dennis Rasmussen, Derek Grant, Chris Wagner, Michael Liambis, Kevin Bieksa and Francois Beauchemin. And here’s a list of pending RFAs: Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Kevin Roy, Logan Shaw, Brandon Montour and Andy Welinski. In total, there are 15 players who are currently in Anaheim who will need a new deal come the end of the seaon. So, what kind of money do the Ducks have to work with to get that done? Well, if the cap stayed flat, they’d have $14.1 million. That works out to less than $1 million per player. Not near enough. That means Anaheim is in line for some tough decisions. 

In all likelihood, the Ducks will say goodbye to veteran defensemen Bieksa and Beauchemin, freeing up money to spend on Montour, who has been a standout and made Shea Theodore expendable at the expansion draft. Montour won’t be cheap, either, considering Josh Manson earned $4.1 million per year on a four-year extension having scored 10 goals and 32 points and averaging 18:42 across 111 games. Montour already has eight goals and 22 points to his name in 56 games, as well as logging 18:57 per game. He alone could cost $4.5 million next season, which would leave Anaheim less than $9 million in cap space with only seven of their current forwards locked up.

At equal cap hits next season, keeping Cogliano, Vermette, Roy, Ritchie and Kase would cost upwards of $7 million, but the reality is the price is going to increase, especially in the cases of Ritchie, Kase and Roy, all RFAs. Cogliano could likewise expect a raise, as he’s on pace for another 35-point campaign and has proven his mettle as a rock-solid middle-six contributor. And Vermette, if he comes back, might not take a discount to do so. Thus, if Anaheim had only $14.1 million to work with, keeping the band together would be all but impossible. Doing so with an extra few million, though, could give the Ducks the option to pick and choose who stays while adding some secondary pieces to make a good team even better.

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OTTAWA SENATORS
Historically, the Senators aren’t a team that throws caution to the wind when it comes to their budget, but a trip to the Eastern Conference final last season paired with some summer payouts and additions in the off-season has left Ottawa with less than $2 million to work with next season. It’s not as though there’s much coming off the books when this campaign, a disappointing one thus far, comes to a close, either. With their current roster, only six players are set for free agency next season, giving the Senators a projected $10.1 million to work with ahead of the 2018-19 season.

Under some circumstances, that may seem like quite a bit of cash, but, realistically, Ottawa is still going to be up against it to find a way to make everything work out just right. One of the biggest reasons for that is Mark Stone, who is on pace for a 41-goal, 73-point campaign, is due a new deal in the off-season, eligible to take the matter to arbitration and could very well be in line for upwards of $6 million per season. Already, that would eat more than half the available spending room if the cap remained the same, and that’s without retaining defensemen Cody Ceci and Frederik Claesson, both of whom can also go to arbitration.

Consider the additions the Senators might try to make after a down year, too, and they’re going to need cap room to operate. Even if the cap only rises to $78 million, the extra few million should be enough wiggle room to get everyone signed and take another crack at a deep playoff run before Erik Karlsson’s pending free agency becomes an even greater issue.

DETROIT RED WINGS
The Red Wings sit in the bottom third of the league, alongside the likes of the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers. And while not much separates those teams in terms of points in the standings, there’s quite a bit dividing them when it comes to dollars spent on the group that’s taking the ice. At present, the Red Wings have the second-highest projected cap hit in the league and, were it not for long-term injured reserve space, Detroit would have zero dollars to spend. Recall that the Red Wings had to shuffle money to sign Andreas Athanasiou to a one-year, $1.39-million deal and you get an idea of how tight their cap situation is. 

So, while Detroit may not strike anyone as a team in dire need of cap space when you look at the standings, few teams need it more. Unlike others, though, the Red Wings need the space not to keep their UFAs from going to market, but rather to simply keep their RFAs under wraps. Next season, the following current roster players will be due new deals: Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, Martin Frk and Petr Mrazek. Given Detroit would have only $12.8 million to work with under a flat cap, the Wings will breathe a sigh of relief if the spending limit hits $80 million.

An extra $5 million would no doubt allow Detroit to spend significantly to lock up Larkin and Mantha, their two scoring leaders and likely to be the most expensive signees, as well as kick the tires on a new deal for Athanasiou, Bertuzzi and Frk. If he stays around, Detroit could also test the waters on a new deal with Mrazek, and still have some money left over to dip their toes into free agency to shore up the lineup.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Go figure, the Blackhawks are among the teams most in need of some breathing room under the cap. With the twin $10.5-million cap hits for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, another $10.5 million committed to Brandon Saad and Artem Anisimov and an additional $22.25 million tied up in Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Connor Murphy and Corey Crawford, Chicago is already heading towards next season with nearly $65.9 million set to be paid out to 14 players. Under a flat cap, that would leave the Blackhawks with little more than $9.1 million to find a way to secure another nine or so players, and that’s before giving any consideration to the raises that could be due to some upcoming RFAs.

Most notably, the players who will be in line to earn a bit extra next season are three young depth forwards, all of whom are eligible for arbitration: Ryan Hartman, John Hayden and Vinnie Hinostroza. The latter, a recent call-up, will likely have the least bargaining power at the end of the campaign, but Hartman, who has 23 goals and 46 points in 111 career games, and Hayden, who has four goals and 14 points in 41 games, are most certainly going to cross over the million-dollar mark on their next deals. If Hinostroza performs well and follows suit, that would leave Chicago with, say, $5 million with which to work.

And while that gives the Blackhawks some breathing room, it’s not really enough to address a couple of pressing issues. Primarily, the Blackhawks need to add on the blueline and would ideally like to add a depth forward at some point. Neither addition will come cheap, and the only way to make either happen is with the extra cash that will come Chicago’s way if the cap far exceeds its current $75-million limit.

(All salary cap data via CapFriendly)

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