On Monday, Bruins goalie Linus Ullmark was awarded the Vezina Trophy and named the NHL’s best goaltender. The next day, Ullmark was rumored to be a trade candidate this summer. After a horrific collapse in the first round of the playoffs, Boston’s front office is aggressively shedding salary and is looking to trim the fat in net.
It crossed my mind. I’m not going to lie, it’s the business part of it. That’s what we live in. When you have two goalies that are so close and it comes to stats, there’s got to be some changes. There’s a personal side to it and there’s a business side to it. You’ve got to honor it. That’s just how being a professional hockey player is.- Linus Ullmark, Bruins goalie
Naturally, after the Stanley Cup is handed out, league GMs begin crunching numbers and yanking their hair out. We’ve heard it every offseason, the NHL is a copycat league. The champion Golden Knights are the newest club in line to be mimicked by desperate front offices.
First and foremost, the Stanley Cup winners debunked one of the league’s biggest playoff myths. The Golden Knights became league champs with a low-salary goalie tandem. In years past, even Vegas believed in paying goalies above market prices. Remember the $12M in goal the Golden Knights’ front office allocated in 2020-21? Well, they clearly learned from that unnecessary investment. Other teams noticed as well.
One of the unfortunate realities of the NHL landscape we currently live in is that the salary cap plays an important role in every hockey decision made by every team. That ramps up significantly when a team is try to contend, as the Golden Knights have been for the past five seasons and into their sixth.
Due to the pandemic, the salary cap has stayed stagnant for a few years now and is expected to do so for the next few to come. So, when a team pushes up close to the cap, it turns into a Newton’s Law type situation for them. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The Golden Knights want to add Alex Pietrangelo, they need to subtract Nate Schmidt and Paul Stastny. They want to add Jack Eichel, Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov must go. Truthfully, it’s not that simple, but until the cap rises dramatically from one year to the next, it’s an easy way to view things that isn’t all that far off from reality.
Luckily, the dramatic rise in the salary cap may be coming a bit sooner than previously expected when the league came back from the pandemic in late 2020.
This is huge news for the Golden Knights because when the cap does inevitably go up, it’s expected to push into the ninth digit. Yeah, Bill Daly, the NHL’s 2nd in command, is optimistic the $82.5 million salary cap will rise to close to or even exceed $100 million by mid-2024.
The Golden Knights have 13 players under contract for the 2024-25 season. They make a total of $68 million. These players are the big three, Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and Alex Pietrangelo, as well as William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Nic Roy, Keegan Kolesar, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb, Zach Whitecloud, Robin Lehner, Logan Thompson, and Shea Weber.
Of course, Weber’s salary will be buried in LTIR, meaning the Golden Knights will have a 12-man roster worth about $60 million, leaving them with nearly 40% of the salary cap to fill out the remaining eight to 11 spots. To contrast, the combination of just the six of Eichel, Stone, Pietrangelo, Karlsson, Theodore, and Alec Martinez currently takes up about 52% of the cap this season.
Vegas will have decisions to make on players like Jonathan Marchessault, Chandler Stephenson, William Carrier, Brett Howden, and Martinez between now and then, but the added cap space should alleviate a lot of the struggle they’ve been dealing with these past few seasons.
The sooner the cap goes up, the easier life will become on the Golden Knights. As long as the league’s revenues continue trending in the same direction, it appears that may come for the 24-25 season as opposed to the expected 25-26 year.
It’s complicated. Very complicated. And when all is said and done, it’s going to remain complicated, even if the Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup. As you read through this, and experience the rest of the Golden Knights’ 5th attempt to win the NHL’s greatest prize, remember that you don’t have to pick a side. You are allowed to have complex feelings about the entire situation. You can celebrate the great moments while also feeling a little dirty about them as well.
Ok, got it? Now, let’s get to talking about it.
On November 4th, the Golden Knights made the bold move of acquiring superstar Jack Eichel. The move was widely celebrated as a giant win for a team that has continued to throw caution to the wind and never stop going full steam ahead in their quest to win the Cup.
But, the rules didn’t, and still don’t, allow Vegas to bring Eichel onto this already strong team without other events taking place. When the Golden Knights added Eichel, their roster sat more than $10 million above the salary cap’s upper limit. Meaning, even though the Golden Knights now have Eichel on their team, he isn’t allowed to hit the ice until subsequent moves are made to satisfy the league’s salary requirements.
Most assumed they’d trade a few players away, but always lurking in the background was this idea taking advantage of the NHL’s convoluted long-term injured reserve rules. A year after the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Cup with a roster $18 million north of the salary cap, the option always seemed a possibility for Vegas as well.
However, it’s not that easy. For it to work, a player has to be injured for the remainder of the regular season and then be healthy enough to play right when the playoffs begin. It would take a stroke of perfectly timed luck that would make hitting the PowerBall seem like a piece of cake. Or… it would take some slightly sinister, slightly shady, slightly unsportsmanlike behavior from a small group of people to caress a tricky situation into the perfect storm.
This brings us to the situation that may be unfolding currently for the Golden Knights. Eichel appears ready to return to action fairly soon, Alec Martinez as well, and that $10 million cap question must be answered, possibly as soon as Wednesday. And, voila, despite playing in the All Star Game and shooting pucks on the Bellagio Fountain just days before, Mark Stone is scratched moments before the second night of a back-to-back in Calgary, and league sources are speculating that he might be the solution to Vegas’ $10 million problem. Stone would take Eichel’s place on LTIR, sit out for the rest of the season, and rejoin the Golden Knights in the playoffs when there is no longer a salary cap.
If that is indeed the case, here’s the timeline we’re looking at.
October 14th, Stone leaves a game against the Kings with what appears to be a serious injury. Five days later, Pete DeBoer says he avoided surgery and is “somewhere between day-to-day and week-to-week.” Less than a month after the injury that was later confirmed by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun to be in his back, Stone returned to practice. 30 days after the injury, Stone played in a game at T-Mobile Arena.
Following that game, he said this.
With the medical staff, myself, the physical training staff we’ve done a good job getting it solved, getting my body into a position to feel comfortable on the ice, which I hadn’t for maybe a while and I kind of fooled myself into thinking I felt great… I feel good going forward that I’m going to get through the season and I feel as strong as ever. -Stone
36 days and 16 consecutive game appearances later, on December 19th, Stone was scratched from a game against the Islanders. He played in the next game on the 21st, but for just 11 shifts and 7:47, his lowest output of the season. This time it was described that he “tweaked something” and it “wasn’t worth pushing it with him with the (Christmas) break coming up.”
He went on to miss the next four games while participating in practice off-and-on sometimes wearing a no-contact jersey. He’d return to play on January 6th and play four straight games before being placed in COVID protocols. That forced Stone out of a pair of games before he returned to action on January 25th. He played all four games, competed in the All Star Game and Skills Competition before being ruled out yesterday.
One thing is very clear, Mark Stone has been battling through an injury. There’s nothing made up or contrived about it.
But the timing Stone going from a nagging injury that never kept him out for more than a few weeks to requiring exactly an 11-week stint on LTIR at nearly the exact moment Eichel is ready to return seems awfully convenient.
Note: It has not been confirmed at this time that Stone is headed for LTIR or is out for the season. Nor has it even been confirmed that he will miss the next game. But when a veteran reporter like Frank Seravalli speculates that it could be coming, we have to consider it a strong possibility.
So, enough with facts, let’s get into the theoretical and philosophical aspects of it all.
If it’s all legitimate, which it very well may be, the sheer luck of the timing would have to be absolutely astounding.
It hadn’t happened in 11 years, and it probably won’t happen for 11 more. The Golden Knights’ decision to only dress 15 skaters on Monday night in a critical game against the Colorado Avalanche was a bit of a shock. General Manager Kelly McCrimmon explained the situation and pointed towards unexpected injuries to several players at the same time. This left the organization without enough cap space to call up a player in time for Monday’s game. However, the explanation didn’t sit well with some in the hockey world.
Immediately after McCrimmon’s last minute Zoom conference, TSN’s Frank Seravalli challenged Vegas’ reasoning.
The Golden Knights have a salary cap problem and now that we have a set date for the 2020-21 season to begin there’s an official deadline in which that problem must be solved.
Luckily for Vegas, the new COVID-necessitated roster rules should stand to assist the Golden Knights in navigating the muddy salary cap waters this season.
As it currently stands, according to CapFriendly.com, the Golden Knights projected starting lineup (with backup goalie) comes in over the cap by a little more than $100,000. By rule, all teams must be cap compliant by the day of the first game on the league schedule, this year being January 13th. Thus, something has to give.
Normally, Vegas would be in a bit more trouble than they currently are because solving the cap issue would mean sending a player or players away from the team completely and down to the AHL. Plus, they’d be left without any healthy scratch players, which is never ideal. However, with the invention of the taxi squad, the Golden Knights will be able to have players practice with the NHL team, but not count against the cap.
Due to fear of positive tests forcing players out of games at the last minute, the NHL is allowing each team a taxi squad of four to six players. These players will practice and travel with the team but will only be eligible to play in games in the case of an emergency. Technically, the taxi squad players are not part of a team’s active roster, and instead will be treated financially like they are in the AHL. (They are slated to receive NHL per diem.)
Thus, at any time, Vegas is allowed to keep six players, which must include a third goalie, around the NHL team without them counting against the cap. In the past, the Golden Knights have had to yo-yo players back and forth to properly manage the cap. We’ve seen it with guys like Nic Roy, Brandon Pirri, and Jason Garrison, and the first season Alex Tuch, Shea Theodore, and Vadim Shipachyov were sent down before Opening Night to satisfy the cap, but this year they can do it on paper and keep the players around to practice and even travel with the team to road games.
So, let’s talk about exactly how it works, what the Golden Knights can and can’t do, and then lay out a few options they might take to clear the final $100,000 in cap space prior to their first game on January 13th.
Last year it was Erik Haula, Colin Miller, and Nikita Gusev. This year it was Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt. Cap casualties. Players the Golden Knights had to give away for basically nothing in order to remain under the cap.
The Golden Knights have been toeing the salary cap line for the past few years and it looks like that dance is going to get even more difficult over the next half-decade.
If the players owe us more money than anybody imagined, the salary cap could well be flat or close to flat for the next five or six years, and players into the future will be repaying what we’re owed. –Gary Bettman at Sports Business Journal panel
It’s essentially a threat from Bettman to NHL players that if they aren’t willing to make some amendments to the agreement put in place a few months ago, the cap isn’t going up for the foreseeable future.
It sounds like a nightmare, but according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, many are already preparing for it.
I think that’s what people are expecting. I think teams have been preparing for that for a while and even the agents are preparing for that. That this cap isn’t going to move anywhere for a while. –Friedman on VGK Insider Show
The Golden Knights certainly do not appear to be one of those teams who have prepared for it. They just signed a 30-year old defenseman to a deal scheduled to pay him $8.8 million per year against the cap until he’s 38. Along with lengthy deals to Mark Stone, William Karlsson, Alex Tuch, Shea Theodore, and Robin Lehner, the Golden Knights currently have nearly $40 million committed to just six players each of the next five seasons.
The St. Louis Blues did it, same with the Washington Capitals, so why can’t the Golden Knights do it? I’m not only talking about winning a Stanley Cup, but doing it with one of the highest payrolls in hockey.
"I think we're done (making moves) for this season. I don't think there's much of anything else that's going to happen. The money's dried up (in the league). I believe we're in a good spot, it just hurts me that we don't have Schmidt." -Foley on Sportsbook Radio
The Creator is a rare owner driven to win and willing to spend to the limit, and he’d probably spend over it if he were allowed. That’s why the Golden Knights owner is considered a fan’s owner.
We all know about the cap jam Vegas is in and there’s no doubt they’ll fix it by the next time they play. It’s might’ve cost them a lot, but it’s hard to question their elite-level talent and championship-caliber roster. The Golden Knights are not only a highly rated team but they’re also built to win championships.
Cup Winners (Payroll Rank) 2019-20: Tampa Bay (18th) 2018-19: St. Louis (7th) 2017-18: Washington (3rd) 2016-17: Pittsburgh (6th) 2015-16: Pittsburgh (6th)
With the exception of the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the past handful of winners were in the upper quarter of the league’s salary threshold. When the Capitals beat the Golden Knights in 2018, Washington boasted a $75.3M cap hit, while Vegas was #18 on the list with a $68.7M payroll. Clearly, a difference in cost and expensive talent helped result in a five-game Capitals win. Washington’s high-priced talent paid off and could’ve been a motivating factor towards the Golden Knights direction of signing league stars to big contracts.
This year, all ten of the highest cap teams made the postseason, but I think it’s safe to say we can throw out the 24-team bubble playoff format. Going back to 2015-16, teams in the top 10 have no missed the playoffs often.
Highest Payroll Teams To Miss Playoffs 2015-16: Vancouver (2nd), Toronto (9th)
2016-17: Philadelphia (2nd), Arizona (4th), Detroit (7th)
2017-18: Chicago (2nd), Dallas (7th), Detroit (8th), Vancouver (9th), St. Louis (10th)
2018-19: Detroit (1st), Edmonton (4th), Anaheim (8th)
Although it’s happened over the years, it’s a small percentage of teams (13/50 since 2015) that missed the postseason. Also, many of those teams were mismanaged or at the end of their playoff windows.
Assuming the Golden Knights remain within the top ten highest payrolls next season, fans should confidently expect them to clinch a playoff berth. And possibly go on another deep run. Vegas’ window was open before but after this offseason, it’s wide open right now.