With what could be a salary cap-limited and more subdued start to free agency starting at noon on Friday, I will at least put up placeholder in general and a more specific post for discussion if the Hurricanes do any deals.
For much of a decade, the Carolina Hurricanes had an internal budget that was $15 to $20 million below the NHL’s salary cap ceiling. During most of that time, that budget capacity was off limits and something that could be used as an advantage. The potential to gain an advantage over the league seemed to build mostly just prior to the ownership transition when the signed key players Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Teuvo Teravainen to contracts below market rates. Though Sebastian Aho’s contract was maybe not as favorable especially with its front-loaded structure, the average salary was reasonable at $8.5 million.
Growing into the cap ceiling
At the point when Tom Dundon bought the team, there was untapped potential to leverage favorable financials to gain an advantage on the rest of the league. And for as frugal as Dundon has been with the AHL, staff and even broadcasters, he has opened his wallet to spend on player personnel. A small but striking example of how things have changed was when the Hurricanes took on Patrick Marleau’s contract to buy him out basically paying cash to buy a first-round draft pick from the Maple Leafs.
Along the way the Hurricanes have meandered their way up into the range of most of the NHL teams that are cap-constrained mostly on a yearly basis. Earlier this week I detailed the Hurricanes situation from a salary cap situation for 2020-21 and 2021-22.Reasonably detailed math suggests that the Hurricanes current roster (restricted free agent signings) will be within about $2 million of the salary cap ceiling. 2021-22 will be similar with the team current on target to have about $11.5 million available but with a need to re-sign or replace 4 or 5 players.
The Hurricanes have basically used the vast majority of the previously unused gap up to the salary cap ceiling. The burning question is if the team maximized the advantage that they had financially only a couple years ago. The answer to that is partially dependent on what you assign those dollars to which can be arbitrary. But if you look primarily at the most recent meaningful additions salary-wise, one could argue that that is Jake Gardiner at $4.05 million, Brady Skjei at $5.25 million and Vincent Trocheck for $4.75 million and a total of $14.1 million of the once $20 million gap.
Did the Canes successfully gain an advantage? …still TBD?
Especially with Skjei and Trocheck mere games into their Hurricanes tenure, it is too early to declaratively say if these investments were the right use of the cap space. But at a basic level, my inclination is to say that I would have hoped for more of a unmistakable difference-maker. Further, I think it is fair to say that this trio has some question marks around it. Gardiner did rebound in the second half of the season, but significantly most of that was in a sheltered third pairing role which is not ideal given his contract. Skjei did step into a top 4 role. I was more negative than positive on his regular season play, but more positive on most of his playoffs. Finally, Trocheck arguably looked better than his top level statistics that projected to 22 points in 82 games, but at his price and where the Canes need him to slot, he needs to produce more.
How these three players perform or possibly Waddell’s ability to unload a contract or two if they do not, will have a large say in whether the Hurricanes gained an advantage from the previously unused cap space and more generally how the team fares in the next few years. If those three players struggle, the Hurricanes start to look much like a bunch of other cap-strapped teams who are decent but not great and hamstrung financially in terms of trying to fill gaps and fix problems. If those three players excel, the Hurricanes will have used their financial advantage to build an incredibly deep team.
What could have been
As an aside, I cannot help but think how differently things might be if the Canes schedule was backed up less than a full year. The Hurricanes added $10 million of salary in Skjei and Trocheck literally weeks before COVID-19 shut down the NHL and put the league on a wildly different course for the current off-season. If the Hurricanes had $10-14 milliion of dry powder this summer, what might that buy in a market with a flat cap and some teams holding back a bit on spending because of decreased revenues. Might it have been possible to add Taylor Hall on a short-term contract and maybe another big name or two via trade from other cap-strapped teams? We will never know, but my thoughts are that the Canes might have been able to take an aggressive run at upgrading significantly on the cheap at least for the short-term given the current financial environment. To be clear, no one could have predicted the pandemic and therefore known of the current opportunity, but it is interesting to think about.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think the Hurricanes have successfully leveraged previously unused cap space to gain advantage (or at least make up ground) against the rest of the NHL?
2) Had the Hurricanes instead entered this off-season still with $15-20 million of dry powder and a willingness to spend it, do you think it would have been possible to build a short-term Cup favorite by capitalizing on the current financial situation?