The Tampa Bay Lightning are not only up against the NHL’s $81.5MM salary cap upper limit, but also the league’s 50-contract limit. They’re not alone either; in addition to the Bolts, the Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators, and Anaheim Ducks each have 48 players already signed to contracts next season as well. Six other teams have 46 or 47 players signed. The closer a club gets to 50, the less roster flexibility they have during the season. When it comes to making trades, claiming players on waivers, or signing college or junior free agents, teams without room can be hamstrung and forced to either pass up on possibilities or make desperation moves to free up roster space. It’s not an ideal situation and could force more than a few teams to make a move or two as the summer wears on.
Tampa Bay is in the worst position of all, as not only do they have just two contract slots available, but they also have two NHL regulars who remain unsigned restricted free agents in need of contracts – Brayden Point and Adam Erne. It’s hard to imagine that the Lightning, who also need to open up considerable cap space, don’t move out a player or two to help clear things up in both regards. One other possible saving grace could be sending 2019 first-round pick Nolan Foote or fellow prospect forward Gabriel Fortier back to their respective junior teams. Even if under contract, 18- and 19-year-old junior players who are still slide-eligible do not count against the 50-contract limit once returned to the junior level. If Foote and/or Fortier don’t crack the Tampa lineup, they would additionally clear up some room. A surefire contender, who also could use some affordable support where they can get it, the Bolts will definitely be a player on the trade and waiver markets this upcoming season, assuming they have the means to do so.
Dallas is in a similarly difficult situation. With just two contract slots available, the Stars need to re-sign (or do something with) defenseman Julius Honka. If the team signs Honka or trades him for another signed player or prospect, they are down to just one open space. Fortunately, unsigned RFA Niklas Hansson is expected to spend the season in Sweden and will not need a contract to become Dallas’ 50th man. Junior forwards Ty Dellandrea and Riley Damiani would also no longer count against the contract limit if sent back to their respective teams, although many in Dallas would like to see Dellandrea push for a spot on the roster.
L.A. has just one unsigned RFA remaining, promising forward Adrian Kempe, so they aren’t in danger to hit 50 at this time. The Kings also have a number of young players under contract who will battle for roster spots, which could force Akil Thomas back to juniors for one more year, removing his contract from the mix. L.A. has been a highly active team on the college free agent market of late and will want some contract room later in the season for potential additions.
Similarly, Ottawa has just Colin White left to sign, so barring further additions are not at risk of hitting 50 contracts. However, the Senators are just narrowly over the league’s salary cap floor, which could prompt them to add another contract so that they don’t have to risk falling below the floor during the year due to a trade. Right now, only Jonathan Gruden is a candidate to go back to junior and remove his contract from limit calculations, so if Ottawa does make another addition, they’ll likely look to make a subtraction or two as well to remain flexible in-season.
The final team at 48 contracts is the Ducks. Fortunately for them, Anaheim has no one left to sign and by all accounts are not looking to make any other moves this off-season. They should be safe, but may look to move a contract just in case the opportunities present themselves to add on during the season.
One team who isn’t at all worried about the contract limit: the New Jersey Devils. New Jersey currently has just 39 players under contract, third least behind Carolina and Winnipeg, but also have just two unsigned RFA’s in need of contracts while the Hurricanes and Jets each have a handful. The Devils project to enter the season with the fewest players under contract, as well the smallest payroll other than Ottawa. That could change though, as the team continues to be included in rumors pertaining to many of the top unsigned UFA’s and top trade targets this summer.