The Columbus Blue Jackets stunned the hockey world on Wednesday night with the signing of coveted free agent forward Johnny Gaudreau. The move didn’t come cheap: at $68.25 million, it is the largest contract in franchise history, surpassing the $62.4 million contract Rick Nash signed in 2009.
So, how does this affect the cap, and how does one make room in an already crowded forward depth chart?
Thanks to increased revenue, the NHL’s salary cap was able to increase one million dollars from the previously “flat cap” of $81.5 million. Per CapFriendly, the 26 NHL contracts add up to $79,333,333, leaving $3,166,667 of cap space.
The first thing to remember is a team can allocate up to 110% of the cap space during the off-season. They just have to be cap compliant at the start of the season. That can be achieved through cuts, trades, or injured reserve. So, even if the remaining RFAs sign for more than $3,166,667, there’s no immediate penalty for that.
Speaking of RFAs, there are four players who received qualifying offers: Trey Fix-Wolansky ($750,000), Emil Bemstrom ($832,500), Nick Blankenburg ($807,500), and Patrik Laine $7.5 million). Any of these players could accept the QO and play the year on that one-year contract. Laine is the only player who is arbitration eligible, and he could file for that by July 17. That would also result in a one-year contract. Once these players are re-signed, that brings the roster number to 27. All but Blankenburg are eligible to sign an offer sheet with another team, and the Jackets would not be in a position to match for TFW or Bemstrom. For Laine, the salary would be high enough that taking the draft pick compensation could be worth it. But that also makes it more unlikely that any team would pay that additional price for him, as opposed to making a different trade offer directly to the Jackets.
So, how do we trim the roster to 23 and get under the cap? Well, the number of players is the easy part. Anyone making under $1.25 million has their cap hit buried if they’re in the minors, so one could demote Justin Danforth, Brendan Gaunce, Mathieu Olivier, Carson Meyer, Bemstrom, Gavin Bayreuther, and Blankenburg. Meyer and Blankenburg are waiver-exempt. The others would be at risk of being claimed, though their AHL salaries are high enough that it’s likely they’d clear.
And if any of these depth roster guys get claimed?
That takes the roster down to 20, and the $3,237,500 currently assessed for Danforth/Olivier/Guance/Bayreuther brings the cap number down to $76,095,833. Still not enough to fit even the $7.5 million QO for Laine, so there is still work to be done. Some roster players will have to be traded.
The first, obvious target is Jake Bean. He started the last season showing great chemistry with Werenski, but then battled injuries and inconsistency and ended up as a third pair afterthought. He is just the fifth highest paid defenseman on the roster, but there are other options in Cleveland who can get called up and play a third pairing role for cheaper. Trade him for a pick or prospect and that’s $2,333,333 in cap savings over the next two seasons.
Next we turn to the forward corps, where there are two veterans who are over 30 and have cap hits over $5 million, but who lack trade protection. Jakub Voracek’s $8.25 million price tag for two more seasons may be too high to attract any buyers. Gus Nyquist, on the other hand, has just one year left at $5.5 million. It would be tough to lose his leadership and production, but he also has enough in the tank that he would bring a good return from a contender.
(Oliver BJORKSTRAND has also been talked about as a high value trade piece, but he has a 10 team no-trade list and due to his relative youth and his own leadership role, his very cheap $5.4 million AAV over the next four years, and because he’s my favorite, I want to find a way to keep him as part of this team going forward)
That leaves us at $68,262,500 for 18 players. $14,237,500 would be more than enough to cover Laine’s new deal ($8.5 million, like Filip Forsberg got?) plus the additional call-ups to get to 23.
This is the part where it gets really fun. After making those moves, what might the lines and pairs look like?
Using the moves I suggested above, I came up with the following 22 man roster with a cap hit of $77,662,500 and $4,837,500 of space. No need for LTIR trickery, and room left to make a deadline move if necessary.
I kept Jack Roslovic with Laine and Voracek, where he clicked so well down the stretch. Ride the hot hand, right?
On the second line, Cole Sillinger can take his offense to another level by playing with two wings equally adept at passing and shooting. This is a line that could match up against other top lines and hold their own defensively, as well.
I’m taking a risk with the third line that Kent Johnson is ready to play center now. We know he is an excellent passer, and these two Russian wingers love to shoot. This line could get a sheltered, offensive zone deployment.
The fourth line could do fourth line things, while containing players capable of creating offense. On some nights, you could see Brad Larsen giving this line the third or second-most 5v5 minutes.
At $4 million it’s likely they want to try Gudbranson with Werenski. That’s a mistake! Gudbranson was solid in Calgary, but it was in a sheltered, third pair role. Keep him there.
For the power play, there is an absurd number of options. One idea to start is (with the goal at the top):
So, what do you think? What is the right price for Laine? Who should be traded to make room for his contract? What would your preferred lines be?
If we keep Laine, is this roster good enough for the playoffs? Good enough to go beyond the first round?