NHL teams and fans were thrilled to hear earlier this season that the NHL salary cap could be getting a significant bump over the next three years. The original plan was for an increase of $1M next season followed by a more significant jump the two seasons after that. Of course, when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that if the escrow debt could be paid off this season the cap could jump to $87.5M next year, teams started to salivate.
As most things that sound too good to be true, the most recent NHL Board of Governors meeting poured cold water on that theory:
Although not a foregone conclusion, if the salary cap is to just move by $1M then the Calgary Flames could be in serious trouble. Let’s take a look:
2023–24 Flames Roster
Using CapFriendly’s Armchair-GM tool, the Flames 2023–23 NHL roster currently has ten forwards, six defencemen, and two goaltenders signed at the NHL level.
The cap total? $81,712,500. This leaves them with just under $1.8M in salary cap space to fill up to five roster spots. If you’re keeping track at home, that is logistically impossible to get done, even if you have the Brad Treliving magic.
How did the Flames get here? Well there are a number of key changes to the salary structure next year that significantly impact the total number.
- Jonathan Huberdeau’s AAV increases from $5.9M to $10.5M (+$4.6M)
- MacKenzie Weegar’s AAV increases from $3.25M to $6.25M (+$3.0M)
- Dan Vladar’s AAV increases from $750K to $2.20M (+1.45M)
Just without looking at new players, the team is adding $9.05M to their cap between those three players. Vladar’s new contract was a no-brainer and is already looking like a steal, but most would agree that Huberdeau and Weegar’s contracts at this point in time look to be a bit of a pain point.
Now outside of those three players, the team is going to lose $8.3M off of their books thanks to the expiring contracts of Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, Brett Ritchie, Radim Zohorna, and Michael Stone. Those depth players are just what the team would be looking to replace, so although they aren’t currently on the books it would be wise to assume one or two could be back.
Fortunately for the Flames, they only have two “prominent” restricted free agents that they have to issue new contracts for: Matthew Phillips and Connor Mackey. Both players most likely won’t be commanding massive salary increases, although most are hoping that Phillps turns this season into one to remember.
The heavy lifting will come next season when the team has to tend to a ridiculous amount of unrestricted free agents.
Calgary’s cap options
To make the math work, the Flames clearly need to move money out to form a full roster.
Even if the Flames promoted from within it still would leave them in dire need of space. If both Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier make the NHL roster, they would have just over $60K in cap space with a full NHL roster but no room to have any extra bodies.
Now the first thing people will think of would be to buy out the final year of Kevin Rooney’s deal, which is very likely if they can’t find a deal to move out his cap hit. Buying him out would save the Flames $866,666 next year and just cost them $433,334 in the following season. That would open up $927,500 in cap space, but the team would have just created an additional problem by needing to fill the roster spot that Rooney just left. So all of that would just go to filling his spot once again.
A trade would alleviate the complete $1.3M in cap space, and if the team were to sign say Lewis to a minimum of $775,000 contract, they would be left with this:
$585,834 isn’t enough to sign an additional player, so the team would be back to square one.
The status of Oliver Kylington adds to the mystery here. Everyone is wishing for him to return to the team at some point, but if he doesn’t then the team would need an additional roster spot to fill without any salary cap relief. If the Flames didn’t have his cap hit to deal with, they could promote a younger player and sign a league minimum defender to round out their defence.
Of course everyone involved would prefer to just have Kylington.
Early signs of trouble for the Flames
Depending on how this season goes, the Flames could be an absolute tire fire heading into next season. With the Flames predicted to have a two-year window for the Stanley Cup, surely they won’t achieve that by trading away a core piece or signing replacement level players after this year.
With so many expiring deals coming off the books after 2023–24, the Flames could look to deal a pending UFA if the situation was right. That being said, it would once again leave a hole that they then need to replace.
It’s not going to be easy, but if the Flames are wishing for one thing, outside of turning this season around of course, would be for the higher earning teams to make a deep playoff run so that the salary cap ends up increasing more than it’s intended to.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire