James Neal is a Calgary Flame. His addition gives the club a lot of options in how they’ll deploy their top two forward lines and their power play. But his deal – a reported $5.75 million cap hit over five years – is substantial, and will have ripple effects on the team’s decisions for the next couple seasons.
How freaked out should everybody be about the Flames’ salary cap situation?
The 2018-19 cap situation
Established NHL players signed to deals include:
- Goalie Mike Smith ($4.25 million)
- Defensemen Mark Giordano ($6.75 million), TJ Brodie ($4.65 million), Travis Hamonic ($3.857 million), Michael Stone ($3.5 million) and Dalton Prout ($800,000) as the seventh defender
- Forwards Johnny Gaudreau ($6.75 million), Sean Monahan ($6.375 million), James Neal ($5.75 million), Mikael Backlund ($5.35 million), Troy Brouwer ($4.5 million), Michael Frolik ($4.3 million), Derek Ryan ($3.125 million), Sam Bennett ($1.95 million), Austin Czarnik ($1.25 million), Curtis Lazar ($950,000) and Matthew Tkachuk ($925,000)
That’s a total cap hit of $65.94 million, including Lance Bouma and Ryan Murphy’s buyouts. With a $79.5 million cap ceiling, that leaves $13.56 million in cap space to fill six roster spots (a goalie, two defenders and three forwards) and to re-sign David Rittich, Brett Kulak, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Mark Jankowski and Garnet Hathaway. (In my mind these six guys fill those six open spots, with Lazar and Hathaway as healthy scratches.)
Let’s pay the depth players first:
- Rittich made $725,000 last year and became the de facto backup goalie, so let’s give him a modest raise to $800,000 – I choose him over Gillies as backup because he performed better until Smith went down, and he’s waiver eligible.
- Kulak made $650,000 last year and played 71 NHL games (a career high) and was good. He gets a raise, too, to $800,000 – a bigger raise because he played a lot more.
- Hathaway’s a fringe body, but he should get around what Lazar gets because that precedent has been set. Since Hathaway has less NHL experience than Lazar, let’s give him $850,000.
- And finally, Jankowski should get more than Czarnik because he’s played more in the NHL and scored more in the NHL. Let’s go with $1.5 million for Jankowski.
So what’s left for Hanifin and Lindholm? $9.6 million. Presuming a long-term deal for Lindholm that carries a cap hit of around $5 million, that leaves $4.6 million to sign Hanifin and have in-season wiggle room for injuries, acquisitions, and the general wacky stuff that teams have to deal with on the fly.
Matt Cane’s model has been almost spot on this free agency cycle – it missed Neal’s deal by $100,000 and Ryan’s by $65,000 – and predicts five years at $4.93 million for Lindholm and two years at $2.336 million for Hanifin. Rounding up to $5 million for Lindholm and $2.4 million for Hanifin would leave the Flames with $2.2 million in wiggle room.
Neal’s signing makes the cap very tight and necessitates doing a bridge deal with Hanifin, but he does provide many, many top six and power play options that weren’t there before.
The 2019-20 cap situation
Let’s assume the cap goes up by $1.5 million – a 1.8% increase and less than the smallest increase since the 2012-13 lockout – to $81 million.
Still signed for 2019-20 are: Giordano, Brodie, Hamonic, Stone, Hanifin, Gaudreau, Monahan, Neal, Backlund, Brouwer, Frolik, Ryan, Czarnik and Lindholm. The Flames have $15.94 million to sign two goaltenders, two defensemen and five forwards. The most expensive player to re-sign will likely be Tkachuk, who will probably fetch something close to Lindholm (if not higher) over the same term.
Based on the projected cap tightness next summer, that’s when the likelihood of a Brouwer buyout to gain $3 million in additional cap space likely becomes a possibility.
The 2020 expansion draft
If we assume that the Seattle Grinders join the NHL for 2020-21 and that there’s no lockout – knock on wood – then we’ll have an expansion draft in June 2020. Presuming the same exposure requirements and protection rules, the Flames are probably in good shape.
If they choose to protect a goalie, three defensemen and seven forwards, they’ll need to find a goalie before 2019-20 but everything else seems fairly simple. Giordano, Brodie and Hanifin are probably the three protected defensemen, and the seven protected forwards are likely some combination of Gaudreau, Monahan, Backlund, Lindholm, Tkachuk, Ryan, Bennett, Neal and Jankowski.
If the age curve has battered Neal already, then exposing him won’t be a big deal. If he’s still productive, exposing Ryan might work – he’s from Washington State and might be a fit for Seattle in the same way Deryk Engelland was for Vegas.
Sum it up
So how freaked out should you be about the Neal deal? It’s not a steal, but it won’t trigger a cap ordeal. The Flames have cap flexibility going forward, even without the cap leaping up by large amounts. The only “big” impact it will have is pushing the Flames towards a bridge contract with Hanifin, a direction they might have been headed towards anyway.
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