Entering the 2020-21 season, the Hurricanes had a potentially challenging next off-season looming in terms of making the salary cap math work while also keeping together the current roster and leaving some budget for modest upgrades.
Front and center in terms of budget needs were re-signing Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton. And likely to figure in the math was Alex Nedeljkovic being an inexpensive but capable backup goalie next season.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe checks in on the interesting twists and turns on this path to salary cap compliance for the 2021-22 NHL season.
Nedeljkovic’s 2020-21 season has been interesting. Had I been a general manager on a rebuilding team that had room for a goalie trial looking for upside, Nedeljkovic would have been gone when the Hurricanes floated him across waivers to get him to the taxi squad at the start of the season. Did I think Nedeljkovic was a sure thing? Not at all. I am on record as a Nedeljkovic skeptic prior to this season. But for a goalie with pedigree, success at the AHL level and a track record in big games, I simply put Nedeljkovic in the category of player who you at least want to take the dice roll on. Luckily, I was not a general manager at a rebuilding type team, so Nedeljkovic’s career continued as a Hurricane.
To start the year, the ‘would at least be helpful’ bar for Nedeljkovic was simply playing well enough to be a competent backup for the 2021-22 season which would save salary costs for the other contracts. Now 15 starts into the 2020-21 season with a goals against average just below 2.00, Nedeljkovic seems to have cleared that first bar. But more significantly, early returns suggest that that dice roll could turn out to be a really good one.
And therein lies an interesting problem. If Nedeljkovic does not play eight more games (more than 30 minutes), he will become a Group 6 unrestricted free agent. So let’s say he plays well in five more games. At that point, there should definitely be bidders for his services for the 2021-22 season. The Hurricanes could lose Nedeljkovic altogether. Or if not the benefit of having him signed to a near minimum contract could go away. And even he reaches the 28 games, if Nedeljkovic’s numbers keep tracking like they are currently, he could net a bunch more than the minimum with his arbitration rights.
An ideal world would see Nedeljkovic play eight more games to become a restricted free agent and also come back to Earth stats-wise, so arbitration is not really costly.
The biggest reason the Hurricanes need to save salary cap dollars for 2021-22 is the need to re-sign Svechnikov. Entering the 2020-21 season, the potential range on his next contract was wide. If he went off to the tune of 40-ish goals and nearly 100 points (for 82-game season), the ceiling starts to push $10 million per year. With a flat-ish season, the floor maybe goes as low as $6 million per year.
Shot out of a cannon to start the season, something in the $8 million or more range seemed inevitable. But Svechnikov’s ongoing scoring woes have changed that outlook. Currently, Svechnikov is on pace for only 56 points in an 82-game season which is a significant step down from his 73-point pace in 2019-20. Svechnikov has shown enough that he is going to get paid regardless, but there is a range that is still being sorted out. When Sebastian Aho signed his second contract for $8.5 million per year, he was coming off a point per game season. So if Svechnikov finishes in the neighborhood of a 60-point pace, it becomes feasible that he slots a bit below Aho.
The ideal world here is that Svechnikov continues at a modest scoring pace, but finds a higher gear in the playoffs when it really matters and despite having to settle for a lower salary still commits long-term versus doing a shorter deal to cash in again later.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Are you a bit surprised that the team is not more aggressively pacing Nedeljkovic to reach the 28 games needed to keep him a restricted free agent? With the variety of possibilities, how do you think this one ends?
2) For Svechnikov, do you figure he finds a higher gear and plays his way back closer to a point per game pace? If not, where do you think he finishes and what does that net him for salary for his next contract?