In the words of Professor Farnsworth from Futurama: Good news, everyone!
The National Hockey League’s tenuous salary cap situation could be getting less tenuous next season, and by a decent amount, per reports from the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting that indicate that (a) the player escrow debt could be paid off this season and (b) as a result, the cap for 2023-24 could be jumping up by $4-4.5 million, way more than the projected $1 million.
I’m sorry, we need to talk about escrow
It goes without saying that the onset of a worldwide pandemic in March 2020 was a massive hindrance to the NHL’s business. The season was paused, and eventually cancelled, when teams had between 11 and 14 games left to play, but players got paid for the entire season despite only playing 85% of it. Between money the players were paid for games that didn’t happen, and revenues that the teams didn’t get, the players ended up owing the owners about $1.1 billion that they had to pay back in order to maintain the 50-50 revenue split laid out in the CBA.
So since the 2020-21 season, players have agreed to escrow – a holdback of pay on each paycheque – in order to pay down the $1.1 billion debt, and during that period the salary cap only nudges up by $1 million per season. But NHL business bounced back more quickly than many anticipated, with the league reportedly hitting a new revenue record in 2021-22. With that increase in revenue, we’ve also seen more money go towards paying down that escrow debt than originally anticipated.
The debt has (almost) been paid
The previous expectations, via Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman from an interview with deputy commissioner Bill Daly, was that the escrow debt would be paid off following next season (2023-24), which would lead to a big cap boost in 2024-25.
But an update from Tuesday’s Board of Governors meeting from Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli on hour one Flames Talk with Pat Steinberg, indicated that it could happen even earlier than that.
“The NHL did say, commissioner Gary Bettman, they expect or project or are optimistic that the entire $1.1 billion debt from players to owners will be repaid this season. That would mean that the salary cap could go up this upcoming summer, 2023, by anywhere from 4 to 4.5 million. Which would be music to the ears to any team that’s near the cap, which is seemingly like 25 out of 32 teams.”
More cap space could be huge for the Flames
Here’s a quick snapshot of the established NHL regulars that the Flames have locked into contracts for the 2023-24 season:
- F Jonathan Huberdeau – $10.5 million
- F Nazem Kadri – $7 million
- D MacKenzie Weegar – $6.25 million
- G Jacob Markstrom – $ 6 million
- F Andrew Mangiapane – $5.8 million
- F Mikael Backlund – $5.35 million
- D Noah Hanifin – $4.95 million
- F Blake Coleman – $4.9 million
- F Elias Lindholm – $4.85 million
- D Rasmus Andersson – $4.55 million
- D Chris Tanev – $4.5 million
- F Tyler Toffoli – $4.25 million
- D Nikita Zadorov – $3.75 million
- D Oliver Kylington – $2.5 million
- F Dillon Dube – $2.3 million
- F Kevin Rooney – $1.3 million
These 16 players eat up $78.75 million of the cap, leaving the Flames about $4.75 million of cap space to fill six roles if the escrow debt isn’t paid and the cap only goes up to $83.5 million (e.g., a $1 million bump). But if the debt is paid and the cap goes up more significantly – perhaps up by $4 million, the lower end of Seravalli’s range – then the cap goes up to $86.5 million and the Flames would have $7.75 million to fill out six roster spots
If you were someone assuming Dan Vladar was departing after this season because there’s no dang way the Flames could afford his inevitable off-season raise under the smaller cap increase, suddenly the chances of Vladar sticking around because significantly more realistic. Heck, Vladar is arguably the only significant off-season negotiation on the NHL roster, as the other expiring deals are Milan Lucic (who’ll be taking a pay cut if he sticks around), and Brett Ritchie, Trevor Lewis and Michael Stone (who all make close to the league minimum and likely will continue to do so).
So if you’re somebody who loves the Flames as currently constructed and (a) wish they could keep the band together or (b) wish they had a bit of cap wiggle room to add to the group, the escrow debt getting paid off sooner than expected should be music to your ears.
We should get more definitive cap news for the upcoming season in subsequent Board of Governors meetings, set for later in the year.