Cap puts squeeze on middle class
Teams struggle to find cash for veteran role players
Stanley Cup-winning experience isn’t worth what it used to be. Neither is experience of any kind.
As NHL teams move toward paying their stars more money and relying on young players to fill the gaps, hockey’s middle class is being squeezed out. Veterans like 2018 Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly are finding it more difficult to land guaranteed contracts and are often forced to go to training camp on professional tryout agreements, which cover potential injuries at camp and not much else.
Hockey perhaps more than any other professional sport has put a premium on veteran players over the years. Guys who have been there before, have some gray in their beards and are valued at least as much for team chemistry in the locker room as they are for what they do on the ice.
Adding the salary cap in 2005 began the process of devaluing these so-called “glue guys” because there is only so much money to go around. This year, that cap is $81.5 million for a team and there is no wiggle room — teams are not allowed to play if they are over the limit.
“It’s sad because these veteran players are monumental to the team,” Blues center Ryan O’Reilly said. “Especially these guys that have won, too, like Devante Smith-Pelly. He’s been in every situation. He’s a guy that you’d want to have because he’s going to help and he’s been in these situations. When it comes around again, it’s not going to faze him.”
Smith-Pelly and Andrew MacDonald with the Flames and Troy Brouwer with the Panthers are among the experienced NHL players on camp tryouts this year. Even more are settling for one-year, prove-it contracts like 2019 Cup winner Patrick Maroon (31 years old) and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (30) with the Lightning, Derick Brassard (31) with the Islanders, defenseman Ben Hutton (26) with the Kings and forward Riley Sheahan (27) with the Oilers.
Shattenkirk went from making $7 million last season with the Rangers to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million.
“There’s something for me to prove,” Shattenkirk said. “I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now.”
This is all related to how the salary cap is managed.
Across the league, there are 32 players who chew up 10% or more of his team’s $81.5 million salary-cap space — with more potentially on the way when the Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen and Jets’ Patrick Laine sign deals. For example, Connor McDavid accounts for over 15% of the Oilers’ cap space.
It’s a trend that shows the value of elite talent but it means there is less money to go around for complementary players who are not on entry-level contracts.
Jonathan Toews, 31, and Patrick Kane, 30, eat up almost 26% of the Blackhawks’ cap space. They combined to win the Stanley Cup three times, but their deals and rich ones given to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to be blamed for a lack of depth on the Blackhawks, who have missed the playoffs the last two seasons.
It’s not just older players, either. SmithPelly is 27, Joe Morrow is 26 and trying to make the Rangers and fellow defenseman Alex Petrovic is 27 as a long shot to get a contract with the Bruins.
Grinding forward Garnet Hathaway played the last two seasons on one-year deals with the Flames making under $1 million each year. He went into free agency a bit nervous but was able to land a four-year, $6 million contract and some security with the Capitals.
“Contracts are hard to come by in this league,” Hathaway said. “It’s such a competitive league. Guys I know personally that have gone through it, they’re some of the most competitive guys. It’s guys who have played in this league a long time and have great careers. You wish them the best of luck, but it’s competitive.”
Devante Smith-Pelly is not alone as a veteran player on a camp tryout this year.