Although the St. Louis Blues are dangerously close to the salary cap ceiling and the defending Stanley Cup champs of the past three years, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, are within an uncomfortable distance, the Detroit Red Wings are the only team who have surpassed the NHL’s $79.5MM limit at this point in time. When the team re-signed franchise center Dylan Larkin to a five-year, $30.5MM contract last week, his $6.1MM salary boosted Detroit’s payroll for the coming season to $82.772MM for just 21 players. The Red Wings currently sit more than $3.2MM over the salary cap with a roster that contains just six defenseman. While the NHL CBA allows teams to surpass the cap by 10% in the off-season – up to $87.45MM – the Red Wings must clear enough space to begin the season under the cap.
Once the season is underway, the salary cap is unlikely to be much of an issue. Johan Franzen, who last played in October of 2015, has been sidelined with post-concussion symptoms for the past three seasons and is almost surely not going to return to the Detroit lineup. His $3.955MM contract on the long-term injured reserve will wipe out all of the Red Wings’ cap overages. Additionally, it remains a very real possibility that captain Henrik Zetterberg may also be on the shelf this year and possibly done with his hockey career altogether, with a nagging back injury reportedly making his availability over the final two years of his contract an “unknown”. If Zetterberg doesn’t play, his $6MM cap hit added to Franzen’s on LTIR would give the Wings more than enough space.
However, injured reserve transactions cannot be made until after the official start of the NHL season. This has previously caused teams to trade away players unlikely to ever play again due to health, with the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa as the latest example, even though their cap hits can be absorbed. A team tight against the cap, like Detroit, may struggle to manipulate their roster enough to fit those injured players under the cap on day one. As such, the easiest way that the team could get under the cap prior to the start of the season would be to find a taker for Franzen’s contract. The Wings would have to part with a pick or prospect, but may be able to unload the deal to a team far from the cap ceiling. If Detroit is certain that Zetterberg is also done, they could do the same with his contract, although a higher cap hit means parting with greater trade capital.
Barring an injured player salary dump, the Red Wings are likely left with the reality that they must trade a roster player in the next two months. The team may be able to sneak players like Martin Frk and Luke Witkowski through waivers before the season begins, but it would not result in enough savings to make a difference. Detroit would be unlikely to expose anyone else to waivers simply to clear space briefly. As such, it appears as if someone must go. While Red Wings fans and leadership alike might like the idea of shipping an aging defenseman like Niklas Kronwall or Jonathan Ericsson away or trying to sweet talk some team into taking on the behemoth contract of Frans Nielsen or Justin Abdelkader, it would be a surprise to see any team with interest in that foursome. The likes of Danny DeKeyser and Trevor Daley may also be immovable for a team rife with poor contracts. Instead, impending free agent Gustav Nyquist or two-way center Darren Helm are the most likely candidates, while a player like Luke Glendening heading elsewhere paired with some clever waiver action could do the trick. There is also a chance that, if he proves to be healthy, some team might be interested in Zetterberg.
It’s never a great situation for a team to be forced into trading away assets simply to become cap compliant for one day, but trading away an older player would nevertheless be a step in the right direction for a team that has never truly embraced a rebuild. Opening up salary with a trade, as well as an LTIR placement for Franzen, would allow the Red Wings some flexibility to test out some young players this season while building around their established young core, headlined by Larkin. The salary cap crunch could prove to be their ally long-term, but in the short-term the team is left with little option but to make a move and hope for the best.