If you go to CapFriendly, you will find the Maple Leafs at the top of the list, with lots of red numbers. OMG, they are over the cap!! Even with Jake Muzzin on LTIR, they have to find $3 million in cap space somewhere, and in much the same way William Nylander is the only player negotiating a contract, the Leafs are the only team who need to do something by October to be cap compliant. Or so it would seem.
Dig a little deeper and it's not hard to find the secretly cap-strapped teams that are hiding their problems in short rosters and unsigned RFAs. Of course, Toronto hasn't signed Ilya Samsonov yet, so their problem could get worse before it gets better. But they aren't the only ones.
Of course Anaheim aren't in a cap crunch, but it superficially looks like they have the opposite problem right now – they aren't at the floor. They have to find some defencemen somewhere, they currently only have five, and they only have one goalie who wants to be traded. But their big story is the contracts due for Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry. They'll get to the floor, but they are also the team most likely to benefit from having waited so long to add players from teams who must shed someone.
Possibly the most surprisingly secretly cap-strapped team, the Senators have just over $9 million in space with only 15 players signed. In addition to the 15, they have the injured Josh Norris and Anton Forsberg, who should be on the regular roster in the fall, so 17 players and nine million.
But they have a nine-million-dollar problem, and that is, of course Alex DeBrincat sitting with a Qualifying Offer of that exact amount and a pending arbitration case. If this mess goes to arbitration, he could get less, as little as $7.65, which would leave enough to sign about two more players, one of whom has to be DeBrincat's most frequent linemate from last year, Shane Pinto. It's not technically impossible, but it would be un-ideal to say the least. It seems to me that DeBrincat holds all the leverage here, and can absolutely push for the trade he wants now.
Until they manage this trick, they are hard against the cap and can't put a plausible forward corps on the ice. They've limited themselves in who they can take at forward in free agency, and are now competing with teams awash in space who want to improve like the Ducks and the Coyotes.
But OMG the Leafs are over the cap!
The Wild are not so much cap-strapped as understaffed and with some hard decisions to make. They have $7.5 million in space, 17 signed players, and only one really important player to sign: Filip Gustavsson, the goalie who saved their bacon last year when Marc-Andre Fleury turned out to be exactly what any reasonable viewer of the game would have expected – highly variable in his results.
Gustavsson has arbitration rights, and a QO of $866,250. The Wild got a freebie season out of him, but he's going to want to get paid now. Walking into an arbitration hearing with a playoff .921 following a regular season .931 should get that done. So with Gustavsson eating up a lot of the cap-space, there's very little room for the needed forwards and defenders. They will have to just fill in with low salary recalls or depth signings.
Their situation is why they were willing to pay Ryan Reaves over two years. And that's why the Leafs are paying him over three years.
Boston's issue is exactly that of the Wild. They have $6 million in space, and only they know what Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci will re-sign for, but it will be low enough to not be a problem and fill in at forward. But they also have to get RFA with arbitration rights Jeremy Swayman re-signed.
Or do they? His numbers – the things GMs actually look at – are not as good as Gustavsson's and they have a lot more faith in Linus Ullmark than the Wild should have in Fleury. Maybe they deal him out. If they want to do that, though, they waited until it's much harder to find a skater to add on a tight budget. Of course, they spent some time in free agency thinking they were getting Tyler Bertuzzi, and that didn't work out.
Sorry, Bruins, oh and we took your assistant coach too. Sorry twice (hear it in that Canadian accent that likely grates on your last nerve).
New York Rangers
The Rangers look like they're this close to just going on vacation for two months, roster set. They just need to get K'Andre Miller and Alexis Lafrenière in under $6 or $6.5 million. That can be done if they convince them both to take short bridge deals. The Rangers pre-solved their cap problem by letting their biggest UFA walk, and signing Blake Wheeler and Jonathan Quick for low money. That's the technique of seeming to add value while actually letting the roster degrade. They are an excellent example of what a "balanced" cap team looks like where there's a lot of $4- and $5-milliion players filling out the forward corps to the point the youngest players have to be squeezed and the top end talent can't be kept.
Calgary has $1.5 million in space, 19 signed players, no one left to re-sign, and that's not easy, but it's workable. No problem.
Except their problems are a list of players heading into their last year before UFA who won't re-sign and who the Flames don't want to have walk away for nothing. Whenever you see two guys over 30 whose contract disappears off the right side of the CapFriendly page, you have a long-term problem. When they're your two highest-paid players, you have a problem casting a shadow into the short-term.
There's a lot of talk that the Flames want to trade someone, and they may. But it's a lot more likely at this point that they kick the can down the road to the deadline. They aren't cap-strapped, so much as in stasis, unable or unwilling to act and running back the same roster as last year, pretty much down to the man.
Their only significant move was to trade their biggest value contract in Tyler Taffoli to the Devils for a player they signed for 73% of Toffoli's cap hit, and who could be expected to produce about 50% of his value.
They got worse mostly through inaction.
Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins
Both teams are straight up over the cap. They are both going to solve this problem by losing one of their three goalies one way or another. There's a lot of goalie moves yet to come.
The Canucks aren't really cap-strapped at all, I just wanted to insult them. They have enough LTIR to cover adding the extra goalie they need, but they did nothing clever to improve the team and make Elias Pettersson want to stay there. It's baffling that you would eat the horrible buyout of Oliver Ekman Larsson and then your big addition is Carson Soucy.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have about $4 million in LTIR space to re-sign Tanner Jeannot and find a backup goalie. That should be easy enough, but again, like the Rangers, they pre-solved the problem by letting Alex Killorn and Ross Colton go. Unlike a lot of past years, there's no really obvious replacement in the wings. It's hard not to see Tampa as a team losing ground to others in the Atlantic, which is going to be a problem if the Sabres make good on their promising season last year.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs are very much cap-strapped, and it isn't an exaggeration or a secret.
There's more than one path to resolve this. Going cheap on goalies is one – that means trading Samsonov and getting someone cheaper in the short term. Bundling up the excess players at over $1 million and moving them all out while taking on another low-cost defender almost does the job.
It looks like a big thorny problem because the choice was to – Vegas style – buy now and sell later to get compliant. Most of the other teams made quieter tough decisions out of the spotlight and just quietly got worse in a lot of cases as salary moved to former tank teams.
If you look at the whole league, Arizona, Chicago, Detroit, Anaheim and Columbus drained a lot of talent off of teams that were in the playoffs last year. What the net effect will be is hard to guess. Will one of those teams make it or will it just be easier for teams like St. Louis and Calgary to get in?
No matter what the Leafs do, though, the Atlantic is going to be a case study in why "may you live in interesting times" is a curse, not a blessing.