Ranking the NHL Teams with Salary Cap Issues Beyond 2014-15

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2014

Ranking the NHL Teams with Salary Cap Issues Beyond 2014-15

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    With the start of a new NHL season only a month away, all but four teams have payrolls under the $69 million salary cap. Those four (Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning) will either shed salary via trades, demotions or by placing injured players on long-term injured reserve to become cap compliant.

    Several NHL clubs also face significant cap issues beyond this season. Even if the salary-cap ceiling increases for 2015-16, these teams could be scrambling to find sufficient cap room to build or maintain competitive rosters.

    The teams on this list face difficult choices. They could trade away salaried players to free up cap space for more affordable moves. They also risk losing some talent to free agency next summer. The moves these teams make between now and next summer could also affect their efforts to re-sign players eligible for free agency in 2016.

    Here's a look at eight NHL clubs facing salary-cap issues beyond this season. Factors such as the number of free agents, available cap space and roster depth went into the compilation of this ranking. 

    Salary information via CapGeek.com.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Salary-cap payroll for 2015-16: $39.9 million invested in 13 players

    Notable free agents: Sergei Bobrovsky, Nick Foligno, Mark Letestu, Cam Atkinson

    Analysis: Whatever current restricted free-agent Ryan Johansen eventually receives in his new contract will further reduce their remaining cap space for next season. The Columbus Dispatch's Aaron Portzline speculates Johansen could receive a two-year deal worth between $9 and $10 million. That could push the Blue Jackets total to around $45 million committed to 14 players next season.

    Re-signing Bobrovsky ($5.625 million), winner of the Vezina Trophy in 2013 as the NHL's top goaltender, is their top priority. He'll have arbitration rights next summer, giving him additional leverage in contract talks. Another strong performance could push his asking price to $8 million annually. Re-signing Foligno ($3.083 cap hit), Atkinson ($1.15 million) and Letestu ($1.25 million) could cost an additional $10 million.

    The Jackets must also look ahead to 2016, when Johansen could again become a restricted free agent, but with arbitration rights. Promising Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray and David Savard will also become restricted free agents.  Veteran center Artem Anisimov will be eligible for unrestricted free agency. 

    While the Jackets appear to have sufficient cap space to re-sign their key players, much depends upon their willingness to keep pace with a rising cap ceiling. Their payroll for this season is currently among the league's lowest. If their internal budget remains significantly lower than the cap ceiling, it could make it difficult to retain their core talent over the next two seasons.

7. Boston Bruins

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Salary-cap payroll for 2015-16: $46.9 million invested in 10 players

    Notable free agents: David Krejci, Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, Adam McQuaid, Carl Soderberg

    Analysis: Should the salary camp rise to $75 million, the Bruins will have over $28 million to re-sign their key free agents. Krejci ($5.25 million cap hit) is among the Bruins' most consistent offensive players while Boychuk ($3.36 million) is one of their top-four defensemen.

    With both eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, it could cost nearly $13 million to re-sign them.

    Soderberg, another pending UFA, could seek over $3 million per season on a new deal. McQuaid, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille must also be re-signed or replaced.

    Hamilton will be coming off an entry-level contract and lacks arbitration rights. Torey Krug and Reilly Smith could become restricted free agents next summer (with arbitration rights) if they're only re-signed to one-year deals this summer. Both could seek more lucrative, longer-term deals.

    If the Bruins get pressed for cap space, they'll get relief from placing concussed center Marc Savard ($4.027 million) on long-term injured reserve over the next two seasons. Investing too much in re-signing their core players could hurt their overall roster depth. They must also ensure sufficient room to re-sign or replace Milan Lucic ($6 million), Loui Eriksson ($4.25 million) and Chris Kelly ($3 million) in 2016.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Salary-cap payroll for 2015-16: Over $47.9 million invested in 11 players

    Notable free agents: Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Andre Fleury

    Analysis: If the cap rises to $75 million, they'll have over $27 million in cap space. However, there won't be sufficient cap space for the Penguins to re-sign key players and still bolster their depth via trades or free agency.

    Re-signing Martin ($5 million), Fleury ($5 million) and Ehrhoff ($4 million) could cost more than $14 million. It could be just as expensive, perhaps more so, as finding comparable replacements via next summer's free-agent market. Considering what little talent is usually available via free agency, the Penguins could have no choice but to retain the trio. 

    It shouldn't cost much to re-sign or replace their remaining unrestricted free agents. Marcel Goc, Steve Downie, Craig Adams, Blake Comeau and Thomas Greiss are affordable depth players. Restricted free-agents Beau Bennett and Robert Bortuzzo should also be affordable re-signings.

    Such moves, however, will use up most of their remaining cap space. They could attempt to use the trade market to add affordable talent, but potential trade partners could seek promising assets like defensemen Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot as part of the return.  

5. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    Salary-cap payroll for 2015-16: Over $53.5 million invested in 14 players

    Notable free agents: Jonathan Bernier, Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, David Booth

    Analysis: If the salary cap increases to $75 million, the Maple Leafs will have over $21.4 million in cap space. That's sufficient to re-sign Bernier ($2.9 million annual cap hit) and Kadri (also $2.9 million), though it could cost over $10 million.

    That leaves around $11 million to re-sign or replace unrestricted free agents, like Franson and Booth. Considering Franson re-signed a one-year, $3.3 million deal, it will take a multi-year deal worth around $4.5 million annually to keep him off next summer's UFA market. It won't leave a lot of cap space for other signings or additions. The Leafs could consider trading Franson later this season.

    With such limited cap space, the Leafs won't have sufficient room to significantly improve their roster via free agency. Unless they can shed additional salary by adding affordable talent via trades, they'll spend next summer shopping around for bargains to fill out their roster. 

4. Los Angeles Kings

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    Dave Sandford/Getty Images

    Salary-cap payroll for 2015-16: Over $52.3 million invested in 12 players

    Notable free agents: Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Alec Martinez

    Analysis: It's expensive maintaining a perennial Stanley Cup contender, let alone one who won two championships in three seasons. Kings general manager Dean Lombardi's done an excellent job thus far keeping his roster largely intact. A cap increase to $75 million next summer gives Lombardi over $22.6 million to work with, but it could still prove challenging to re-sign his key players.

    Williams ($3.65 million), Stoll ($3.25 million) and Martinez ($1.1 million) are unrestricted free agents next summer. Williams' value escalated by winning the 2014 Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. Stoll still has value as a checking-line center while Martinez could seek a significant raise. Retaining them could cost over $11 million.

    Toffoli and Pearson showed considerable promise during the 2014 playoffs. Both will be finishing entry-level contracts with no arbitration rights, providing Lombardi with leverage to ink both to short-term deals. Depending on their performances this season, it could cost up to $8 million combined to re-sign them.

    That leaves over $3 million to re-sign or replace goalie Martin Jones, defensemen Robyn Regehr and Jake Muzzin, plus forwards Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan. That's not counting any promising youngsters challenging for rosters spots or late-season acquisitions. Looming on the horizon is re-signing superstar center Anze Kopitar, who's earning $6.8 million annually and is eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2016.

3. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Salary-cap payroll for 2015-16: Over $66.3 million invested in 17 players

    Notable free agents: Kimmo Timonen, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schultz, Ray Emery

    Analysis: The good news is the Flyers core players are all under contract. Most of their current potential free agents are depth players who can, if necessary, be replaced via free agency. In August, NHL.com's Brian Compton reported the 39-year-old Timonen was diagnosed with career-threatening blood clots. That makes the possibility of his return next season more remote.

    The bad news is, if the salary cap rises to $75 million, the Flyers will only have roughly $8.6 million in available cap space. Placing sidelined defenseman Chris Pronger ($4.94 million cap hit) on long-term injury reserve bumps that to $13.5 million. While they can re-sign or replace their depth free agents, they still won't have enough to add a star player via free agency. 

    Management must also keep an eye ahead for 2016. The Flyers have over $45 million in cap payroll committed to just 10 players. Jakub Voracek, Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn, Michael Raffl and Nicklas Grossmann become unrestricted free agents in 2016, while Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier are restricted free agents with arbitration rights. 

2. New York Rangers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Salary-cap payroll for 2015-16: Over $45.1 million invested in 11 players

    Notable free agents: Martin St. Louis, Marc Staal, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin

    Analysis: Limited cap space this summer forced the Rangers to swap former captain Ryan Callahan at the trade deadline for St. Louis and to buy out Brad Richards. It still cost them Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle, who signed elsewhere as free agents.

    Cap payroll will become an issue once again next summer. It could cost over $16 million to re-sign St. Louis (current cap hit of $5.625 million), Staal ($3.975 million) and Zuccarello ($3.5 million). Stepan ($3.075 million) and Hagelin ($2.25 million) are restricted free agents with arbitration rights. Locking up this pair could cost $10 million.

    To re-sign these key players, the Rangers need the cap to significantly increase next summer. A $75 million cap gives the Rangers over $29.8 million in cap space. While sufficient room to re-sign all their key free agents, it won't leave enough space to replenish the remainder of their roster depth. The Blueshirts could face losing more talent to free agency.

1. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Salary-cap payroll for 2015-16: Over $65.7 million invested in 15 players

    Notable free agents: Brad Richards, Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Michal Rozsival

    Analysis: The Blackhawks must shed over $2.2 million to become salary-cap compliant before the start of this season. ESPN.com's Katie Strang (subscription required) speculated Johnny Oduya ($3.375 million cap hit), Niklas Hjalmarsson ($4.1 million) or Nick Leddy ($2.7 million) could be dealt as a cost-cutting measure.

    Their cap issues, however, will continue next summer. Assuming the salary cap for 2015-16 rises to $75 million, they'll have roughly $9.4 million to re-sign their restricted free agents (Leddy, Saad, Kruger and David Rundblad). They must also re-sign or replace their potential unrestricted free agents like Richards, Oduya, Rozsival and Peter Regin.

    Of their restricted free agents, Saad will be coming off an entry-level contract and lacks arbitration rights. Kruger and Leddy, however, will be eligible for arbitration next summer. Just re-signing this trio could cost more than the Blackhawks' projected cap space.

    Looking ahead to 2016, the Blackhawks currently have over $52 million committed to just nine players. Depending on management's moves next summer, they'll have to find a way to free up sufficient room to re-sign defenseman Brent Seabrook, who's eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2016. Seabrook's current annual cap hit is $5.8 million. He could command over $8 million on the open market by 2016.