With the recent signings of Leon Draisaitl ($8.5 MM AAV), and Connor McDavid ($12.5 MM), there are those around the league who are anxious to see how GM Peter Chiarelli will deal with the inevitable cap crunch on the horizon. David Staples of the Edmonton Journal contends that the possibility of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being moved in the short-term is overblown. That said, it stands to reason that Nugent-Hopkins will be a focus of trade speculation for a long while. Milan Lucic is the only other forward with as heavy a cap hit, also at $6 MM AAV, but he has a no-movement clause to accompany his deal. If money is moving out, Nugent-Hopkins could be the man in the cross-hairs.
Staples provides a useful breakdown of salary for the next three seasons, and shows how minimal that cap crunch might end up being. Still, it’s expected that Edmonton will attempt to build on its successful season and attempt to compete this year. If they want to add this season, they can certainly do so at the deadline. With their current $8.33 MM in space they’ll have over $30 MM in deadline space, so it seems reasonable to anticipate short-term buys. That said, any additions will complicate the cap picture in 2018-19. They’ve already moved multiple pieces who initially had great value, notably Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, and Justin Schultz, and received little in return, with the exception of Adam Larsson (for Hall). It seems unlikely that Chiarelli would risk having another top pick and valuable asset thrive elsewhere just in the name of saving a few dollars.
The trade of Jordan Eberle certainly alleviated some of the pressure that Nugent-Hopkins is bound to face, but that may only be temporary. His 18 goals and 25 assists in a full season are a sharp decline from even his rookie totals. For Nugent-Hopkins to cement his place on a team with two momentous contracts, his production will need to improve dramatically. He’ll certainly see more scrutiny this campaign if he struggles for long stretches, as the concern over money will only make fans and reporters more critical. If the 24 year-old were to be traded, it would most certainly be next summer, when the crunch really starts to surface as McDavid’s hit kicks in. Even after another season under 50 points, Nugent-Hopkins would likely bring in a sizable haul via trade, which might fill out the rest of the forward corps at a cheaper price in Edmonton. Thankfully for the Oil, the organization has multiple players who can slot in at center if necessary – Draisaitl, Mark Letestu, Jussi Jokinen, and Ryan Strome all have experience up the middle and could slot in after McDavid. Nugent-Hopkins will have to stand well above his competition at camp and throughout the year to prove his long-term value to the organization. If it’s another season of being outclassed by the likes of Letestu, he could find himself in the midst of intense speculation.