The Stanley Cup Final run of the expansion Golden Knights contributed to what is expected to be a healthy increase for the salary cap, giving NHL teams more freedom to make deals. With elite centre John Tavares, top defenceman John Carlson and a strong group of free agents available soon, the ceiling for player spending will rise to between $78 and $82 million from $75 million.
“The higher the better,” said Brian MacLellan, whose Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup. “It makes it a lot more fun.”
Gentlemen, open your wallets — players like Tavares, Carlson and forwards James van Riemsdyk and Paul Stastny won’t come cheap.
With GMs meeting Thursday in Dallas ahead of this weekend’s draft, trade talk is percolating before free agency opens July 1. Ottawa has already traded winger Mike Hoffman, and Buffalo centre Ryan O’Reilly, Pittsburgh forward Phil Kessel, Montreal captain Max Pacioretty and Washington backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer could all be on the move.
Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson is the star who will go to the highest bidder if the Senators are willing to trade the Norris Trophy-winning defenceman with one year remaining on his contract. GM Pierre Dorion seemed to be in a tough spot after it was revealed last week that Karlsson’s wife had filed an order of protection against Hoffman’s girlfriend, Monika Caryk, alleging harassment and bullying. He solved that issue by acquiring Mikkel Boedker from the San Jose Sharks for Hoffman in the first major trade of the off-season.
San Jose flipped Hoffman to Florida soon thereafter, freeing up salary-cap space to pursue Tavares or Russian standout Ilya Kovalchuk. The Panthers got a 20-goal scorer in Hoffman, who’s just 28.
More immediate decisions await the Islanders and Capitals. New York could make a move to re-sign Tavares before he can begin speaking with other teams on Monday, and recently hired president of hockey operations Lou Lamoriello has to hire a new coach.
The Islanders might’ve gotten a fortunate bounce when Barry Trotz resigned from his job with Washington less than two weeks after lifting the Cup. Re-signing Tavares and hiring a replacement for fired coach Doug Weight go hand-in-hand.
If it doesn’t work out and Tavares hits the open market, a contract with an annual salary approaching Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million isn’t out of the question. Nashville GM David Poile said cap situations put five or six teams in position for top-end free agents — and knock about half the league out of the running.
“We all have different commitments already of contracts,” Poile said. “Some teams have a lot of room. Some teams don’t have very much room.”
Big-revenue teams with money to spend include the retooling New York Rangers and the rising Toronto Maple Leafs. The Rangers are among several teams linked to Kovalchuk, the 35-year-old winger who’s looking to return to the NHL after five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Former Los Angeles Kings defenceman Slava Voynov, who won an Olympic gold medal with Kovalchuk, is back in the U.S. and could be on the way to returning. Voynov was convicted of domestic abuse and is suspended indefinitely by the NHL, which makes it unclear how a team will pave the way for him to play.
“Right now he’s a suspended player, and until anything changes there, I don’t think we’re in a position to comment any further,” Kings GM Rob Blake said. “A lot of this has to take place between him, his agent and the National Hockey League.”
Dozens of current free agents don’t know where they’ll be playing next season. Beyond Tavares, Carlson is the most in-demand pending free agent after leading all defencemen in regular-season and playoff points.
Carlson plans to have his day with the Stanley Cup in Washington, but because of the uncertainty of the off-season, there’s no guarantee he’ll be there this fall.
“We’ll see what happens,” Carlson said. “I love it here and all that, I want to stay here, but there’s more to it than that.”