NHL free agency has added wrinkle with salary cap remaining unchanged

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The NHL free agent market opens Wednesday with a unique dynamic: lots of good players available, little space under the NHL salary cap across the League and a new team joining the bidding.

The new team isn’t just another piranha in the tank. It’s a sea monster. It’s the Seattle Kraken, who prioritized saving cap space in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft on July 21 and will try to use at least some of it to bolster their roster now.

“We’re hoping to stick our toes in the water for sure,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis told NHL Network.

Among the players set to hit the market are several in their prime like Gabriel Landeskog, Dougie Hamilton and Philipp Grubauer; veterans like Zdeno Chara, Nick Foligno, Ryan Getzlaf, David Krejci, Zach Parise, Corey Perry and Ryan Suter; and many others who can fill a variety of roles.

The key, of course, is signing them without committing too much cap space for too long.

Easier said than done.

Teams used to look at free agency as a way to acquire players without giving up assets.

But free agency always has been an area where teams make mistakes, because they generally have to outbid their competitors to sign who they want, meaning they end up overpaying.

And now more than ever before, cap space is considered an asset, along with players, prospects and draft picks.

The salary cap used to be tied to hockey-related revenue under the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association. Teams would forecast how the cap would rise with revenues and budget accordingly.

But then came the coronavirus pandemic. Revenues plummeted without fans in the stands. In short, the NHL and the NHLPA agreed to keep the salary cap flat at $81.5 million until revenues recover to a certain point.

“It’s certainly made it very tricky to get players signed, players that are earning their raises and demanding more money for the term of their contract,” Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff told NHL Network. “It’s hard when the salary cap is not elevating.

“We’ve done deals in the past where you kind of try to do some future planning, but right now with the flat cap for the foreseeable future, it does make it very, very difficult, and that’s why you’re seeing a lot of the different trades and the different kind of ways that teams have had to operate to maybe move players.”

Teams have had to trade and buy out players to create cap space, and they have had to hold firm on dollars and term to stay within their salary structure. 

“It’s not just what their value is but how we’re going to make this all work with the cap,” Carolina Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said. “We’re fortunate to have an owner that’s willing to spend to the cap. We know we’re going to be a cap team. But we’ve also got to make sure we spend our money correctly.”

With many players jockeying for few dollars, the top players likely will get their share first. The rest will divvy up what’s left over. That might be where the best values are.

The more cap space a team has, the bigger advantage it has. But that doesn’t mean it should blow it all in free agency, especially if the team is rebuilding. There will be other opportunities to improve. 

“It just doesn’t end when free agency opens up,” New Jersey Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald said. “Obviously it continues. You’re still talking to teams about potential trades, needs. Maybe teams still have to shed some cash. It doesn’t have to be done in the next few days.”

If the money is equal or close, teams will have to recruit players with what else they have to offer: a chance to win, a chance to play a bigger role, quality of life.

That certainly goes for Seattle. 

The Kraken can point to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights, who entered the NHL as an expansion team in 2017-18 and went to the Stanley Cup Final. Vegas has continued to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs each season, advancing to the third round each of the past two years. Playing for an expansion team no longer necessarily means you’ll lose.

At least up front, especially at center, the Kraken have lots of opportunities for big roles.

They also have a new arena and new practice facility under construction, and they have a world-class city with a passionate fan base. It was on display during the expansion draft at Gas Works Park on the north shore of Lake Union, overlooking the skyline with fans decked out in Kraken gear on the grass and in the water.

“Hopefully a lot of people watched the broadcast the other night and saw how beautiful Seattle is with all the boats in the water and the sunshine,” Francis told NHL Network. “Hopefully that sells a few guys. We’ll see on Wednesday.”

When analyst E.J. Hradek pointed out Washington has no state income tax, Francis couldn’t help but underscore it. Hey, it’s free agency. In this era — in any era — you use any advantage you have.

“Thanks for pointing that out, E.J.,” he said. “Appreciate it.”

NHL.com staff writer Tim Campbell contributed to this report

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