Flat salary cap forcing NHL teams to get creative with roster moves

In the 16 years since the salary cap has been a reality in the NHL, it never has been this much of a challenge to manoeuvre.

'This is the hardest year to manage a flat cap,' Blues GM Doug Armstrong says

Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, seen here on January 7, 2019, has been forced to put some of their top young players through their taxi squad for no reason other than to bank cap space for later. (Minas Panagiotais/Getty Images)

In the 16 years since the salary cap has been a reality in the NHL, it never has been this much of a challenge to manoeuvre.

Teams that made moves in 2019 and right up to the 2020 trade deadline expected the cap to increase substantially from the current $81.5 million US. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, the league and players' association agreed to freeze the ceiling at that number and executives had to get creative to be cap-compliant for opening night of the most unusual season in hockey history.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning set a roster that, when injury allowances are factored in, is just $334 from the cap ceiling. It's a similar situation for the St. Louis Blues, who are within $300,000 of the cap with hopes of adding Vladimir Tarasenko when he's ready to return from another shoulder operation. The Vegas Golden Knights started with the an unusual lineup of five defencemen and 13 forwards because they figured playing short on the blue line was less risky than exposing a young player to waivers.

"This is the hardest year to manage a flat cap," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said by phone. "It's certainly no one's fault at the league or the PA or the players or the management. It just caught everybody off guard."

A team can't be over the cap and would have to play with fewer than the standard 18 skaters if necessary. It has happened a handful of times since the cap was implemented in 2005.

What's usually a difficult balancing act became a trapeze show this year for GMs and their cap gurus to save every dollar. According to the database site Puckpedia, 22 of 31 teams either started the season using the long-term injured reserve exemption to go over or were within $2 million of the cap.

'It isn't ideal'

The Lightning faced a crunch before becoming bubble hockey champions and were only able to avoid more treacherous cap gymnastics and losses when star Nikita Kucherov was lost for months because of a hip injury that required surgery. They still gave up a second-round pick and centre Cedric Paquette in a trade with Ottawa and had to play opening night without forward Tyler Johnson to make it work. He was stashed on the taxi squad — created this season to help teams deal with roster headaches — after clearing waivers.

"It isn't ideal, but it's manageable," Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois said. "Part of the ingredients necessary to success in the NHL is team depth. In order to have team depth, you need to properly manage your cap space."

Even without Kucherov — who could be activated for the playoffs when the cap doesn't matter — Tampa Bay is again a title contender.

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"A big part of that is what Julien was able to do," coach Jon Cooper said. "To be able to keep a group together that had some success last year, obviously, that took some work. And you have to be prepared for every scenario that's going to come at us. He was."

Armstrong and Blues assistant Ryan Miller were, too. They went through several "what if?" scenarios after it was clear that forward Alex Steen couldn't keep playing because of an injury.

Much like the Washington Capitals used long-term injury cap allowances to make up for losing goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and defenceman Michal Kempny by signing former Boston captain Zdeno Chara, the Blues made the most of Steen's retirement by adding one of the top free agents available in Mike Hoffman just before training camp.

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Oh, and they should get Tarasenko back healthy and under the cap just in time for the stretch run.

"Our goal is to have him ready," Armstrong said.

And the dance isn't over. The Montreal Canadiens continue to cycle some of their top young players through their taxi squad for no reason other than to bank cap space for later; those players don't need waivers and instead are paid a minor league salary for taxi squad days while they practice and await a call-up.

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