With a Tip of the (Salary) Cap, NHL Stars Apt to Depart for Greener Pastures

There’s a rumbling on the horizon, do you hear it? The thundering hooves of inexorable change are coming. They came for the phonograph, they came for the evening paper, they came for the flip phone, and they’re coming for your favorite hockey team’s roster.

The salary cap (which players hate) and its accompanying salary floor (which players love) have molded the face of professional hockey into something a bit more perfect, a bit more equitable, and a whole hell of a lot more likely to suffer a lockout. The last part is profound bullshit, but the salary cap is, by and a large, a win for equity and parity in the NHL. The only real losers in the salary cap era are fans hoping for an uninterrupted stream of hockey and the vague metaphysical concept of “dynasties.”

The NHL hasn’t had a back-to-back champion since 1997-98, when the Detroit Red Wings swept two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals en route to securing a place in the Hall of Fame for just about the entire roster. Shanahan. Yzerman. Fedorov. Lidstrom. Holmstrom. Osgood. The list reads like a murderer’s row of canonical talent. So why has it been nearly 20 years since a club repeated, two-timing into the record books like a memorable Maury guest?

The salary cap and its iron-clad dictates.

It’s already been written that the Washington Capitals, long the also-ran darlings of Nader and Perot fans, have their last chance this season to be the bride and not the bridesmaids, due largely to the salary cap and its exigencies. But what about the other perennial would-be prom queens of the NHL? What looms on the horizon for them?

I’m glad you asked.

Washington Capitals

Name a hockey player, any hockey player, not named Crosby. Did you say Alex Ovechkin?

Ovi has been the gap-toothed face of the NHL for more than a decade, smiling that cobblestone superhero’s smile at us on everything from video game covers to insurance commercials. At 31, Ovechkin’s not getting any younger (and if you are, please, my investment group would like to speak with you). But the stopwatch ticking away overhead reads “One Year,” and that has far more to do with the cast around him.

The Capitals finally—finally—surrounded Ovechkin with an impressive array of talent last season. Longtime stalwarts Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson were joined by veritable superstars T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and they got plenty of help from human excitement eruption Evgeny Kuznetsov, just 24 years old.

But the Caps knew from the get-go that this was a “two-year window,” and they failed to get it done last season, falling to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. So, what happens after this year?

As a gypsy with an email problem once said, “Outlook not so good.”

After this season, forwards Oshie, Williams, and Daniel Winnik, and defenseman Karl Alzner, all will be unrestricted free agents, free to a good home that pays them sufficient millions. Further, bright young stars Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt will be restricted free agents with new, certainly larger contracts to negotiate. Those eight players alone make up nearly one-third of the projected cap space, so suffice it to say that, well, the house will be getting some new furniture.

Of course, winning now would eliminate all those problems and let some players ride into the sunset like action-movie heroes, never looking back at the Capitals’ roster exploding behind them.

Pittsburgh Penguins

They say that if you come at the champ, you’d better not miss. That phrase doesn’t really apply here, but it’s badass, and I have a sneaking suspicion at least one of the Penguins players probably got it tattooed on his backside this offseason.

O, Penguins, how didst thou dominate last year? Let me count the ways: a time-warping mix of skill and speed that left dusty Brooks Orpik of the Capitals huffing and puffing like he was cleaning off old photo albums; a head-standing rookie goaltender who inverted himself for so long he learned to walk around on his hands like some nightmarish Cirque du Soleil freak; and goddamn golden calf Sidney Crosby.

But although they ran roughshod over the NHL postseason like so many scythes through Cadbury cream eggs, the bell tolls for Pittsburgh next offseason, too. Like the Capitals, whom they dispatched like taxis, the Penguins will have to reckon with the salary cap jeopardizing some of their most crucial players. Forwards Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, and rookie standout Conor Sheary will be free agents, with the last certainly due a fat raise.

At the other end of the ice, three of the Penguins’ top six defensemen will be free agents, and most important, so will the aforementioned goaltending juggernaut Matt Murray, who will be getting, how do we say, paaiiiiiiiiid.

Currently sitting $2.6 million over the cap limit according to General Fanager, the Pens will have some tough shuffling to do if they want to keep the band together for an encore next year.

San Jose Sharks

Finally, finally, the Sharks made it to a Stanley Cup Final last season, eventually falling to the Penguins as so many brave rebel star fighters fell to the Death Star. As I’ve written before, the Sharks are the plucky protagonists from every Disney Channel movie, a long-suffering band of brothers, largely unchanged for years, who keep finding new and discouraging ways to come up just short.

You could set your watch, or perhaps your calendar, by the Sharks’ roster. Every season, like clockwork, as sure as the sun rises, you would see Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Brent Burns lacing ’em up in the teal and black. But baby, there’s blood in the water next offseason.

Thornton, Marleau, and Burns all will be unrestricted free agents after this season. With Thornton and Marleau each making north of $6.5 million and Burns just south, there’s some serious coin ready to be flipped. Thornton and Marleau, God bless them, each will be 38 years old and will have to accept serious senior and hometown discounts to stick around. Ain’t nobody paying nearly $7 million for a 40-year-old. They’re just not, not even for Jagr.

Burns, meanwhile, is just 31, and he will command at least his current salary. Coming off an utterly dominant season in which he received votes for the Norris Trophy (OK, just one, and it was a fourth-place vote, but how many did you get?) and dazzled onlookers with his prodigious facial follicles, Burns may even be due a raise.

Throw in the additional free agencies of Tommy Wingels, Melker Karlsson, and Joonas Donskoi, the last definitely due a raise from his current $900 thousand, and the Sharks will have to decide whether to stay the course, even with the ship’s captains likely headed overboard.