For years, the Islanders and the NHL salary cap had a distant, almost adversarial relationship. The team spent so little on players that hitting the cap seemed like something only our grandchildren would experience.
Don't look now but the Islanders are a for real NHL team these days and they (and us) have to navigate a suddenly shrinking amount of cap space with many tough decisions to make on who to keep and who to part ways with.
Inspired by posts like this at Broad Street Hockey, I exchanged some Batman: Arkham Knight time for spreadsheet time and wrote up some charts detailing who's making what and how much of the owners' money Garth Snow has to play with.
A few notes before the charts:
- All of these numbers come from General Fanager, which I find the easiest to use of the A.C. (After Capgeek) era sites.
- Brock Nelson is not included as he has yet to sign an extension as a restricted free agent. When he does, we'll run an update.
- Kirill Petrov also is absent, although Arthur Staple feels he has a shot at being on the opening night roster. Same deal as Nelson; when he's in, we'll update.
- Ryan Pulock is in because he seems like a likely candidate to make the team out of camp. He almost did last season before getting hurt, plus there seems to be a No. 6/7 spot just waiting for him.
- Every other prospect has been excluded but training camp can change things.
Okay, on to the pies.
Full Roster with UFA/RFA Status
(click to enlarge)
Observations in no particular order:
- The largest slice here is the one labeled "Cap Space." That's good, and means Snow has room to maneuver. But remember Nelson, who's not on here? Once he signs, he's most likely going to commandeer at least $3 million of that $8.3 million slice. Anything less will be a bargain and a favor to the team on Nelson's part.
- The light blue slices are the players set to become unrestricted free agents after this coming season. Both Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo spent some time on the trading block this offseason and Frans Nielsen's name has been thrown around by fans looking to maximize an aging asset. Most of us would like to give Brian Strait away to any team who will pick up a phone, but he wouldn't make much of a dent.
- I wonder, perhaps naively, if one of the reasons Strait sticks around is because he's basically making the NHL equivalent of minimum wage. As bad as he is - and brother, is he bad - there aren't many who could come that cheaply, even rookies. And the Islanders are at the point where two hundred grand here or there could make a big difference elsewhere.
- The pie also explains why the Islanders haven't signed your favorite and most-desired free agent this summer; there just simply isn't that much money to go around, especially considering Nelson's status. Before you throw $4 million per season at Cody Franson, or even $3 million per at fan favorite Lubomir Visnovsky, remember that one of them plus Nelson can turn that $8.3 million in cap space into $2.3 million or even $1.3 million in a hurry.
- Trading Grabner would open up even more space, but doing so hasn't been easy. His $3 million cap hit comes with a $5 million payout and a season lost to injury, any of which could be scaring teams off.
- Looking at this also puts a focus on the severity of Okposo's situation. The $2.8 million ticket he's on now is peanuts compared to the production he brings, whether you're a fan of Kyle's or not. Should he get $6 million in his next contract (which is very close to what the comps say he could make), his next slice becomes what he and Grabner have now combined.
- John Tavares has the team's second-highest cap hit behind Johnny Boychuk, and 2018 will be a critical season for the Islanders beyond just the captain's UFA payday. Nearly a third of the Islanders roster as constituted today goes unrestricted that year, including Jaroslav Halak. Three seasons is a long time from now; players will come and go and the cap will (probably) rise again. But it's not so far off that planning how to dedicate a good chunk of the pie to Tavares isn't already a consideration. I'm sure Snow is already aware of this.
- One hidden danger is Ryan Strome, who will be an RFA after next season. That tiny slice of the pie won't be so tiny next time around.
- I'm not trying to scare anyone, I swear. But we have plenty of evidence that being tight up against the cap isn't a good idea and can force teams to make moves they might not want to. Ask the Bruins.
- I'm sure I forgot something.
Islanders Salary Cap Distribution by Position:
Islanders Salary Cap Distribution by Age:
UPDATE! (see, I told you I probably missed something. I found a mistake in this chart and uploaded a new pic. Apologies.)
Peace! The Islanders are getting good value out of younger players on team-friendly contracts and aren't spending too much on guys closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. The 25-30 group includes the aforementioned Grabner and Okposo, as well as Josh Bailey and Cal Clutterbuck, productive players whose usefulness and worth will need to be harshly evaluated soon.
For Whom The Cap Tolls
In a salary cap league, no one is immune to the ceiling.
The Blackhawks just won their third Stanley Cup in the last five years and a few weeks later lost talented RFA Brandon Saad, valuable forward Patrick Sharp and solid defenseman Johnny Oduya because they couldn't fit them all under their cap.
If the Lightning want to get back to the Final, they're going to have to operate with a tighter wallet. If the Sharks want to fix what went wrong last season, they don't have a lot of dough to work with right now. The Rangers are up against it, but will probably find a way to wiggle into some room somehow (dammit). The Flyers are eternally trapped in "salary cap hell" and now don't have the results to justify it.
The Islanders find themselves on the precipice of unknown territory. Where they allocate their remaining cap space will say a lot about how the team wants to operate after they move into Barclays Center. Being right up against the cap isn't a death sentence, but it does make things exponentially more difficult for Snow to do what he needs to do to keep the team competitive in the Metro Division.
So far, he's done a good job of building a talented team with a healthy slice of breathing room. It only gets tougher as time marches on.