If the Carolina Hurricanes enter the 2016-17 with an opening day roster built from players already signed by the team, the team’s total salaries will be about $54 million and its cap hit about $56 million both well below the salary cap ceiling of $73 million.
The task of building a playoff-capable NHL team for up to $17 million less than other teams will spend is challenging but not impossible in today’s NHL.
Building a good hockey team on the cheap requires avoiding players whose value is significantly less than what they are being paid and combining that with having some players who are worth significantly more than their salary.
There are 3 basic ways to build a good team at a discount to its fair cost:
Good players on entry-level contracts
The best way to beat the big spenders is to have players on entry-level contracts who are playing like a top half of the lineup player. If they put up big stats, some of the top players salary cap hits are inflated by performance bonuses, but the run of the mill entry-level contract sees a player play for less than $1 million per season. If those players are merely serviceable third line players, it is not a bad thing, but the savings is minimal compared to an older free agent depth forward who might be signed for $1-2 million. The real savings come when a player on an entry-level contract can be a top 4 defenseman or top 6 forward.
Defense: The Carolina Hurricanes are positioned to do incredibly well in this regard over the next few years. All of Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce all have 2 more years remaining on their entry-level contracts all at less than $1 million per year. Depending on how things go with the development of these players and also Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown, Ryan Murphy and Trevor Carrick, it is possible that the 2017-18 Hurricanes blue line features Justin Faulk and 5 players making less than $1 million per season and be 1 of the strengths of the team.
Forward: Sebastian Aho, who is widely expected to make the NHL team this season, has 3 years remaining on his entry-level contract. Teuvo Teravainen and Phil Di Giuseppe will similarly be playing for less than $1 million for 1 more year in 2016-17. Depending on how well those players play and where they slot, that could make for 3 young players on ELCs playing in the top 9 for less than $1 million per season.
The formula: There are 2 primary factors that drive success in this regard. The first is using at least the 7 draft picks allotted for each NHL draft and ideally an extra pick here and there. With failed playoff chases, Francis aggressively converted soon to be free agent players into extra draft picks in his first 2 years as GM. Those extra selections are just starting to pay rewards.
The other key factor is leaning toward patience with regard to boosting recent draftees to the NHL level. Ron Francis has used the word ‘overripe’. The basic idea is burn very few entry-level contract years while the player is still just learning and not significantly better than an inexpensive veteran. By pushing these players down and having the ELC ‘slide’, the chance of having a player who is significantly better then his entry-level contract salary increases. I wrote about the entry-level contract slide and related things at the bottom of this article. Hindsight being 20/20, I think in the case of Elias Lindholm, pushing him up to the NHL in his draft year yielded minimal extra performance relative to his inexpensive ELC. Had the Hurricanes left him in Sweden for 2 more years, he would still have 2 years remaining on his original contract for less than $1 million per season. This situation could come into play this fall for Julien Gauthier when management will need to decide if it is worth burning 1 of his 3 entry-level contract years in 2016-17 or if they would prefer to send him back to juniors and keep all 3 cheap years intact.
Reference: Teuvo Tervainen, Sebastian Aho, Phil Di Giuseppe, Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce.
Bargain free agent finds
Another tool for building a good NHL roster for significantly less than $73 million is to find bargains in free agency. This is hard to do. In free agency, many top-tier players actually sign for more than they are worth because that is what it takes to win the bidding war. But it is possible to add players from free agency who outperform their contract.
In his first 3 summers (counting the current one which obviously is not over yet) as GM, Ron Francis has not been very active in free agency, instead preferring to use the team’s prospects and a couple trades to build the roster.
But this summer, Francis made 2 free agent additions. First, he added Victor Stalberg who projects to be a depth forward likely to play on the fourth line. Second, he added Lee Stempniak who will play somewhere in the top 9 forwards and seems destined for a look on a Skinner/Rask line that could be the team’s top scoring line.
At $2.5 million per year for 2 years coming off a season with 51 points and with advanced stats that rate positively, Stempniak figures to be an attempt by Francis to find a bargain in the free agent pool without taking significant risk. Ward’s new contract for a $3.3 million middle ground could also be considered an attempt to spend less than the premium price but get much more value than is paid.
Reference: Lee Stempniak, Cam Ward.
Bargain contracts on internally-developed players
The final tool for building a $73 million team for more like $55-56 million involves getting internally-developed players under contract for less than they are worth. There is an element of being a shrewd negotiator, but the bigger driver might be strong decision-making on when to take calculated risks in locking up players before their price escalates.
The idea is lock a player in at a reasonable price before they become a higher caliber player who will cost more. To do these deals, a GM must be willing to pay a bit more than a player might be worth right now to get a price that has the potential to be significantly less than the player might be worth later if he continues to grow as a player.
Victor Rask’s contract last week is a prime example. Francis might have been able to push Rask’s contract down a tiny bit had he decided to do a 2-year bridge deal. Such a deal avoids the risk of committing to a young player long-term but adds the risk that he costs significantly more 2 years later if he has 2 great seasons.
Hits: Justin Faulk is probably the best example of a deal like this that has already paid dividends. Just prior to Francis taking the reins as GM, Faulk was signed to a long-term deal for $4.8 million per season that now looks like a bargain compared to other comparable players’ deals.
Misses: Both were short-term deals, but last summer Ron Francis re-upped with both Eddie Lack and Elias Lindholm a year early, before their previous contract had expired. Neither player had a great 2015-16 campaign and could arguably have been signed for a little less this summer had Francis waited. In the case of Lack, one could reasonably argue that had Francis not already committed to 2 more years of Lack that he might instead have gone a different direction with the second goalie slot this summer.
Reference: Justin Faulk, Victor Rask and to some degree Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal.
General approach and early assessment
Though it will take awhile to yield results, the single biggest thing that I like about Francis’ tenure as Hurricanes GM is his commitment to building the pool of prospects. Having a steady stream of good but inexpensive young players constantly rising up to fill roster spots at a discount is the purest way to build a good but inexpensive NHL team. Simply avoiding the high-risk game of signing top-end free agents and the big mistakes that often come from this game also goes a long way toward avoiding bad contracts that decrease a team’s performance relative to its cost.