The purpose of the salary cap in the NHL is to maintain a sense of competitive balance across the league. That means both limiting how much a team can spend, the salary cap ceiling, but also ensuring that every team is competitive with a minimum expenditure, the salary cap floor. Some teams, generally those in smaller markets or undergoing rebuilds, tend to try to toe the line of the salary cap floor, paying as close to the minimum as possible for their roster. In years past, some teams have even struggled to hit that mark, taking on injured players or overpaying players in order to pass the floor. It’s unlikely that any of the 31 franchises will face that problem in 2018-19.
This season, with a corresponding jump in the salary cap ceiling, the floor moved to $58.8MM. With the bulk of unrestricted free agency accounted for, just three teams currently sit below that mark: the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, and Winnipeg Jets. However, both the Rangers and Jets can immediately be crossed off as a salary floor concern. The pair are perhaps the two teams with the most potential salary tied up in salary arbitration this off-season.
The Jets currently have the lowest projected payroll in the league, with a 16-man roster that accounts for approximately $52.7MM. However, Winnipeg’s list of restricted free agents who have filed for arbitration include Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck, defenseman Jacob Trouba, and forwards Adam Lowry, Chris Tanev, and Marko Dano, as well as defenseman Tucker Poolman who did not file. Those six players could easily combine for more than $20MM in combined salary when all is said and done, putting the Jets well clear of the floor and closer to the ceiling. Defenseman Josh Morrissey, who is not arbitration eligible also needs a new contract. Winnipeg is far from a floor concern.
In New York, the Rangers sit at $55.8MM in projected cap committed to 16 players, just $3MM shy of the floor. They also need to re-sign a majority of their young core, with forwards Kevin Hayes, Ryan Spooner, and Jimmy Vesey and defenseman Brady Skjei having filed for arbitration. The Rangers could pass the floor by extending just one of those players, nevertheless all four. New deals for those three forwards still leaves New York one or two shy of a full roster as well, meaning more salary will come into the fold via promotion or an additional acquisition.
As for the Devils, New Jersey is already close to the floor at a projected $56.4MM for 19 players. Forwards Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen have filed for arbitration and the deals for both could be enough to push the Devils to where they need to be. Even if it doesn’t, the team will still need to sign non-arbitration eligible RFA’s Miles Wood and Steve Santini, whose deals should definitely be enough. New Jersey will likely be a team that hovers close to the floor next season; that didn’t stop them from making the playoffs in 2017-18, though.
Perhaps the only team who should be legitimately concerned about the salary cap floor next season in Ottawa. The Senators and owner Eugene Melnyk have made it no secret that they are trying to shed salary and come in as close to the minimum as possible. Right now, the team sits just $3MM above the floor at a projected $61.8MM roster for 20 players. However, that isn’t including the arbitration resolutions for both defenseman Cody Ceci and forward Mark Stone. Those two deals will put Ottawa well above the floor. Even if the team was to trade star defenseman Erik Karlsson, they should remain above the floor, especially with additional salaries likely to be added in the trade return. The one scenario in which Melnyk could succeed in dropping significant salary would be if both Karlsson and Bobby Ryan were to be traded away. The resulting $13.75MM loss in payable salary would more than offset the contracts for Stone and Ceci and likely the contracts of those players coming back as well, potentially dropping the team below $58.8MM. Yet, even in that case, the Senators’ efforts to fill out their roster after losing Karlsson and Ryan – either by promotion or acquisition – could easily be used to get back to that mark.
The salary cap floor was never intended to be used as a target for teams to hover above and spend as little as possible. The goal of the NHL is have each and every team be competitive, not simply trying to maximize profits. As such, the 2018-19 season has some parity promise as seemingly no team will struggle to get over the floor or have to use contracts for the old and injured to get there. For the first time in years, every team seems set to be competitive and comfortably over the minimum cap hit.
All cap figures are courtesy of CapFriendly.com.