Cap puts squeeze on mid­dle class

Teams strug­gle to find cash for vet­eran role play­ers

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Stephen Whyno

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.”

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY

De­vante Smith-Pelly is not alone as a vet­eran player on a camp try­out this year.

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