In the past few days, two teams in somewhat similar positions, perennial contenders who need to improve to compete but with limited funds, found some additional salary cap space, though for different and ultimately unhelpful reasons. For the Vegas Golden Knights, they traded away veteran forward Evgenii Dadonov in exchange for defenseman Shea Weber, who is injured and unlikely to play again in the NHL. The Washington Capitals lost center Nicklas Backstrom presumably to LTIR after he had hip resurfacing surgery on Friday, a procedure that has a lengthy recovery time, if not ending his career outright. With what appears to be new cap space they may not have been fully expecting, both teams have some flexibility to make the moves they need to this summer, retaining players and perhaps replacing the talent they lost.
Vegas is currently just over $2.6MM above the salary cap ceiling, but once Weber’s LTIR is factored in, they will have exactly $5.2MM in cap space. Because the cap space is created using LTIR, they will not accrue any beyond that. With key RFAs including Brett Howden, Nicolas Hague, Nicolas Roy, and Keegan Kolesar, as well as UFA and original Golden Knight Reilly Smith to re-sign, it’s hard to imagine Vegas will be able to add any additional talent, and may even be in a difficult position just bringing back those five alone without making an additional move. Still, the created space does give Vegas a chance to not be handcuffed and be able to have some leverage in any additional cap trades they might look to make. A primary issue they will have to deal with is the cap space came at the expense of Dadonov, a talented veteran who recorded 43 points in 78 games, not a magical season but production that will be missed, especially if Vegas can’t find a way to at least keep Smith in the fold too.
Heading over to the east coast, Washington already stood in a much more comfortable spot than Vegas, with just a touch under $9MM in available cap space going into this offseason. With Backstrom’s injury and likely trip to LTIR, Washington will have just under $19.2MM in cap space with which to work. Not all of that can be spent on additions to the roster, but after giving contracts to pending free agents, including Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson, and Justin Schultz on the UFA side and their goaltending tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov on the RFA side, the Capitals should still have a few million to work with. The issue in this is, after another first round exit in the playoffs, the Capitals were already in need of a few upgrades to their roster, and the departure of a superstar like Backstrom only adds to that need. Not only does Washington have to add, but they have to replace the production of one of the all-time greats in their organization. The team does have two options to add production up the middle, including young forward Connor McMichael who had 18 points in 68 games this season in the NHL and could be poised for a breakout 2022-23, and top prospect Hendrix Lapierre, who made his NHL debut this season before heading back for another strong season in the QMJHL.
The recent changes seem to mean more for Washington, and the league, than it does for Vegas, though it does buy Vegas some time, and power, in their negotiations, especially those focused on creating more cap space. To the Capitals, it provides much more flexibility and creates another interesting buyer on the trade and free agency markets, and an intriguing opportunity for those interested players who could have an opportunity to play with greats like Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.