NHL free agency has GMs not knowing what to expect with salary cap flat

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Lots of good players will be available when the NHL free agent market opens at noon ET on Friday, Oct. 9.

Need scoring? How about forwards Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman and Tyler Toffoli? A defenseman? Come on down. We’ve got Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug and Tyson Barrie. Goaltending? Boy, do we have goalies for you. There’s Jacob Markstrom, Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin and more, even Henrik Lundqvist and Corey Crawford. Depth?

The list of unrestricted free agents is long in each area.

The only problem is the reason so many players are on the market in the first place. Plenty of teams are tight against the NHL salary cap or an internal budget, and the economic outlook is uncertain.

And so, no one knows quite what to expect.

Is free agency still a frenzy, at least for the top players, or does it become a longer process? Do players accept cheaper, shorter-term contracts than they would have otherwise, especially from teams they feel have a chance to win the Stanley Cup? Are teams creative to clear cap space through trades?

“Ultimately we’re all trying to improve our teams and we’re all at different stages, so everybody’s generally motivated to do things,” said Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman, who does have cap space and is looking to use it to his advantage in a rebuild. “We’ll see. I really don’t know the answer. I’m hopeful that there’s opportunities for us.”

The situation is a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

What we call the salary cap has been really the upper limit of a salary range calculated by a formula in the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement. It’s complicated, but basically it has been tied to NHL revenue. The more revenue, the higher the cap.

The cap was $81.5 million for this season. In early March, when the NHL GMs held their annual meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the League told the GMs the cap was expected to be between $84 million and $88.2 million.

The League was on track for another season of record revenues. The cap was going to grow for the eighth straight season.

Then the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association crafted a Return to Play Plan featuring a 24-team postseason tournament in two hub cities without fans in the stands, plus a four-year extension to the collective bargaining agreement through the 2025-26 season, addressing the cap and economic uncertainty.

Video: The guys on NHL Tonight talk unrestricted free agents

The cap will stay at $81.5 million for next season. The NHL and NHLPA are targeting Jan. 1 as a start date for next season and hope to have fans in the stands, but what happens remains to be seen. Again, it’s complicated, but basically the cap will remain at $81.5 million until NHL revenue surpasses $3.3 billion.

The effect of the “flat cap,” as many GMs are calling it, has already been felt. Teams have traded players at least in part for cap reasons. They also have bought out players and declined to make qualifying offers to restricted free agents, adding to the pool of unrestricted free agents.

“Everybody’s living in the same cap world right now,” Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “We’re at an $81.5 million cap, and it’s going to be tight for most teams, so most teams have to move some money around in order to fit something new.

“… We’ve got to be cautious and smart and look forward to the challenge that we have ahead of us.”

An added wrinkle is that there has been no interview period as there has been before the usual July 1 opening of free agency. Unable to visit teams or host them, players might speak to teams via phone or video conferencing when the market opens.

“I don’t anticipate that everything is going to happen rapidly on Friday at noon, and so it may take a few days,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said. “And in addition to that, I just think the economic landscape is going to force things to sort of lengthen a few days out or perhaps even a week, and it may resemble something closer to NBA free agency or MLB free agency where things don’t happen as rapidly right off at the starting gun.”

It will be interesting to see how the dominoes fall as players sign, others scramble for the money that remains and teams maneuver. The trade market was relatively quiet during the 2020 NHL Draft on Tuesday and Wednesday, but that could change.

“I think it’s a bit of a standstill, and free agency will probably aid that quite a bit in terms of starting to shake it loose,” Dubas said. “I don’t know what the trade market will look like, though. Beyond that, and because this is such an uncertain time … we just have to be prepared as possible for whatever may come our way in terms of opportunities for trades.”

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