How do the top teams in the NHL structure their cap?

The Calgary Flames’ cap structure has not yet been defined. Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are set to be two of the team’s highest-paid forwards for a while yet, and will likely dictate just what the team looks like going forward – and just what, exactly, the team will be able to spend.

We’ve already seen it set in motion with some of the bloodletting this off-season.

But in order to establish long-term success, a team needs to have responsible cap management. Dish out too much to too many, or to the wrong players, and a team can risk it all crumbling down. We may be seeing the Chicago Blackhawks in the midst of this, as they’ve lost players like Brandon Saad and Teuvo Teravainen due to cap concerns.

We don’t know where the Flames will be – but let’s take a look at how the most successful teams as of late structure their salaries.

The 2015-16 salary cap was $71.4 million, which is what we’re talking about for the bulk of this piece. Some teams went over due to LTIR commitments or bonus overages. Please note the below figures aren’t necessarily perfect due to player movement throughout the season.

For the purposes of this, I am comparing seven teams: the Penguins (Stanley Cup champions), Sharks (runners up), Capitals (President’s Trophy winners), Stars (top team in the West in the regular season), Blackhawks and Kings (five Stanley Cups in six years between these two teams), and Flames (us!).

cap space allocation by position

(The Penguins’ forward percentage would be higher, but Evgeni Malkin was on LTIR towards the regular season’s end. With him, their forwards take up roughly 65% of the cap – about on par with the Blackhawks.)

Obviously, the Flames stand out quite a bit here: they were one of the worst teams in the NHL in 2015-16, while the other six teams listed here were among the best. There are three very notable differences:

  1. They spent significantly less. This is going to change soon, as they move out of the rebuild phase.
  2. They’re the only team here to spend more on their defencemen than their forwards.
  3. The Flames and the Stars were the only teams to allocate over 10% of their cap to goaltending (and ask them how well that worked out). (Well, the Blackhawks did by .03%, too.)

These should all change this upcoming season. Monahan and Gaudreau’s extensions should see the Flames spending much more on forwards. As for goaltending, their new tandem currently makes up just 5.75% of their cap.

The way the Flames’ 2016-17 cap is shaping up is actually starting to resemble the Sharks’. Limited spending on goaltending, and a bit more on defencemen, buck most of the trends other teams have shown. They aren’t big differences – but they’re differences, all the same.

There’s also a note of caution here. Look at just how much more the Blackhawks spend on forwards than all of the other teams, and recall the cap struggles they’ve had in recent years. 

Who are the highest-paid players?

A cap hit of $7 million sees a player take up nearly 10% of his team’s cap space. The following players occupy that amount (or at least come close to it).

Penguins: Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 million), Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million), Kris Letang ($7.25 million), Phil Kessel ($6.8 million) – four players, ~45% of the cap

Sharks: Joe Thornton ($6.75 million), Patrick Marleau ($6.667 million) – two players, ~18% of the cap

Capitals: Alex Ovechkin ($9.5 million), Nicklas Backstrom ($6.7 million) – two players, ~23% of the cap

Stars: Jason Spezza ($7.5 million) – one player, ~11% of the cap

Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews ($10.5 million), Patrick Kane ($10.5 million) – two players, 29% of the cap

Kings: Drew Doughty ($7 million), Anze Kopitar ($6.8 million) – two players, ~19% of the cap

Flames: none

Jamie Benn, Brent Seabrook, Anze Kopitar, Mark Giordano, and probably at least Gaudreau will or should join this group within the next year or two.

Having a lot of high-paid players isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the Penguins and Blackhawks are the most prominent in this position, and they have some pretty good prizes to show for it – but it does mean teams will have to stock up more on lower-paid depth.

Who has the most cheap depth?

For the purposes of illustrating “cheap depth”, I’m counting players who have cap hits of $1 million or below. Note that some of these guys weren’t up for the entire year, particularly as hands changed during injuries.

Penguins: Beau Bennett ($800k), Matt Cullen ($800k), Tom Sestito ($575k), Kael Mouillierat ($575k), Tom Kuhnhackl ($575k), Brian Dumoulin ($800k), Jeff Zatkoff ($600k)

Penguins on ELCs: Oskar Sundqvist ($700k), Bryan Rust ($652k), Conor Sheary ($575k), Olli Maatta ($894k), Derrick Pouliot ($863k), Matt Murray ($620k)

The Penguins totalled 13 players that count for cheap depth, six of whom were on entry-level contracts. Not all of these players played in the NHL throughout the year. These 13 players made up for ~13% of the Penguins’ cap, which really goes a long way towards having four huge names.

Sharks: Micheal Haley ($600k), Dainius Zubrus ($600k), Matt Tennyson ($625k)

Sharks on ELCs: Joonas Donskoi ($925k), Tomas Hertl ($925k), Matti Nieto ($759k), Chris Tierney ($711k), Mirco Mueller ($894k), Dylan Demelo ($633k)

The Sharks total nine players that count as cheap depth, with two thirds of them being on entry-level contracts. They made up for ~9% of the Sharks’ total cap – but the Sharks weren’t as in dire straights as the Penguins in need for cheap depth.

Capitals: Mike Richards ($1 million), Michael Latta ($575k), Stanislav Galiev ($575k), Mike Weber ($833k), Nate Schmidt ($812k), Taylor Chorney ($700k), Philipp Grubauer ($750k)

Capitals on ELCs: Tom Wilson ($894k), Andre Burakovsky ($894k)

The Capitals had nine players on cheap depth, most of whom were veterans. They made up ~10% of the cap. The Capitals were geared more towards contracts in the middle than extreme highs or extreme lows, but some of those middle guys – Evgeny Kuznetsov, for example – will likely end up in that higher end of salary soon enough.

Stars: Curtis McKenzie ($675k), Colton Sceviour ($650k), Patrik Nemeth ($800k), Jamie Oleksiak ($875k), Jordie Benn ($700k)

Stars on ELCs: Valeri Nichushkin ($925k), Radek Faksa ($863k), Mattias Janmark ($733k), Stephen Johns ($800k)

The Stars totalled nine players as cheap depth, which made up ~10% of their cap – right on par with the Capitals, albeit with a few more guys on ELCs (but they spent less on big name guys) Somewhat similar to the Caps, they had some players making a relatively big amount of money – just not 10% of the cap money.

Blackhawks: Dale Weise ($717k), Richard Panik ($975k), Andrew Desjardins ($800k), Tomas Fleischmann ($750k), Dennis Rasmussen ($575k), Brandon Mashinter ($562k), Michal Rozsival ($600k), Viktor Svedberg ($575k), Scott Darling ($587k), Michael Leighton ($575k)

Blackhawks on ELCs: Teuvo Teravainen ($894k), Artemi Panarin ($812k), Trevor van Riemsdyk ($925k), Erik Gustafsson ($667k)

The Blackhawks had 14 players counting as cheap depth, making up ~14% of their cap. Like the Penguins, they would have been unable to even ice a complete roster without hordes of extremely cheap depth available to them. The lesson here? If you’re going to pay your stars a ton of money, you have to be ready to find as many good deals as possible.

Kings: Nick Shore ($600k), Nic Dowd ($600k), Andy Andreoff ($587k), Brayden McNabb ($650k), Jamie McBain ($600k)

Kings on ELCs: Kevin Gravel ($667k)

The Kings had just six cheap depth players, totalling just ~5% of their cap. They had nine players in the $1-3 million range instead, giving them plenty of room to ice a full roster.

Flames: Josh Jooris ($975k), Micheal Ferland ($825k), Derek Grant ($700k), Jyrki Jokipakka ($900k), Joni Ortio ($600k)

Flames on ELCs: Sam Bennett ($925k), Sean Monahan ($925k), Johnny Gaudreau ($925k), Hunter Shinkaruk ($863k), Jakub Nakladal ($817k)

The Flames, being a young team, had 10 players that came in rather cheap, making up ~12% of their cap. This is obviously going to change very soon – but if some of those ELC guys end up with big money, then the Flames are going to have to find ways to acquire more and more extremely cheap depth in order to come in under the cap. The Penguins’ situation with Cullen – who had 32 points over the full season for a mere $800k – is an ideal scenario, but a lot of things have to go right all at once in order for that to happen. 

Meanwhile, with big contracts, a team can’t really afford to pay a player like Lance Bouma $2.2 million. As their young stars start to get paid, smart spending is going to have to dominate future cap discussions.

The Flames do already have a formidable top three defence set in place, which could see them continue to spend a little more on defence than this group of top teams did. (Dennis Wideman’s salary will soon be a thing of the past, but if someone like Oliver Kylington pans out, well.) In the coming years, we’ll see just how well spending a little more on defence ends up working out.

  • Parallex

    The Flames salary is a mess. Fortunately it’ll get realigned after this season When the 12M bucks they’re spending on 5/6/7 defensemen (Yuck) goes away. Unless Treliving makes a mistake somewhere (makes another Engellend type signing for instance).

    The way I see it the big cap pressures (Hopefully) coming up after this year are…

    17-18: Bennett, Elliot
    18-19: Backlund
    19-20: Tkachuk

    … there is also likely to be inflationary pressure due to raises on (potentially) some of Ferland, Shinkaruk, Chiasson, Gillies and “bridge” d-men (Kulak/Wotherspoon/maybe Nakladal) I’m calling them the “bridge” because hopefully they’re the intermediaries to Kylington/Andersson/Hickey.

    The bulk of the pressure points are going to be on forward which means we’re going to need a steady supply of cheap D so that we can allocate those resources to the forward group. Wouldn’t be surprised to see an bit of an emphasis on blueliners in the next draft.

  • Over the next two transitional years, the operational goal for the Flames should be to move all the bad money at the bottom of the roster to the top of the roster. So: convert Engelland (3M), Wideman (5.25), Smid (3.5) and Bouma’s (2.2) $14M to better investments in the top-6 or top-4.

    After that, they can populate the depth portion by spreading out Bollig and Stajan’s $ to better, cheaper depth.

    • freethe flames

      We already have 3 of the top 4 defenders covered so adding one more at a reasonable cost should be doable. We still more skill in the top 9, hopefully some of that develops from within.

    • Parallex

      Not gonna be easy… let’s assume that Bennett and Elliot are all that we hope. That’s probably at least 5.5M more on Bennett and 2.5M more on Elliot factor in that we’ll need replacements on Smid/Wideman/Engellend/Bouma (call that 750K-1M per for 3-4M total) so 11-12M of that 14M is already spoken for. If Shinkaruk clicks as a complementary top 6 guy he probably get’s a 3Mish bridge deal like Reilly Smith got on his 2nd contract so that eats up the rest. We lose the bad money on Stajan but half of that likely goes to Backlund bringing him up to the deal that Bolland got out of Florida and Nielson got in Detroit (fair comparables I think). The cap probably goes up but most of what we can expect it to go to likely goes to Tkachuk.

      That was rambly but the point is that to just maintain the team we have now we’re capped out for the next 4 years unless something goes wrong. If I were BT/BB I’d be making a case to KK for a bigger budget for the scouting department and analytics department because very soon the Flames are going to need a steady diet of cost controlled and/or undervalued assets.

        • Parallex

          Who, like I said, will likely all cost somewhere between 750K-1M (and get progressively more expensive from there).

          19-20 is probably going to be an awkward year salary cap wise, like this year… we’ll probably have some young players needing to get paid but we’ll still have Frolik (now on the wrong side of thirty) and Brouwer (really on the wrong side of thirty) still under contract for one more year.

          • Joe Flames

            But, if some of our prospects start proving themselves to the point where they will command more salary cap space, we will be in the position to move some (not many, you keep a core group) of our higher paid veterans for more picks prospects, and make room for the next generation. That is how good teams stay good.

            You can’t fall in love with a group of guys and keep paying them big money way past their prime, that is how we got into this mess in the first place. At least we are now moving out of the rebuilding mode; the next couple of years will be key to develop the players to get over the hump.

          • freethe flames

            Looking to far forward also has it’s own issues, there are too many things to try and predict. Signing guys as you go along, making trades, salary cap adjustments etc all make it hard to predict. 19/20 may indeed have it’s issues but that all depends on what happens this year. I would hope that the core of the teams top 6-8 forwards, top 4 defenders and a starting goalie all get signed by then and that the farm system is able to absorb any other needs if the bottom 6 forwards and bottom 3 defenders demands get to high.

      • cberg

        In general I agree, but with a couple issues. First, if the Cap escalator goes up 5% as it has every year except once, that means the Cap should be rising $3.5-$4mm every year. Secondly, adding $5.5mm to Bennett’s already $925k would put him up in the $6.5mm range, after essentially only 2 years. This is likely Monahan territory but Monahan had three consistent years, with 2 at 30 goals which is way better than Bennett, unless he blows the doors off this upcoming season. I don’t see it. Much more likely there’s a bridge deal for 1-2 years to get the consistency proven before the Flames are going to be giving out big bucks to Bennett (we hope).

  • Kevin R

    Nice stuff Ari. It would be interesting to add another set of graphs for each team show % of cap allocated to top 6 forward & top 4 D. I think once Flames get past Widemans, Smid, Engellend’s cap hits & we replace with ELC A prospects & we move on from Stajan 3.2 hit on the 4th line, we will see our graphs shift more in line with the other teams.

    I honestly don’t know how we will be able to resign Backlund in 2 years for the $$$ he is going to command.