NHL general managers are inherently optimistic creatures, despite being 32 of the most jaded individuals in sports.
They have to believe what they’re building will work. They have to believe that the players they acquire will fulfill expectations. Most of all, right now, they have to believe that a trade market with the momentum of a semi-tractor trailer stuck in quicksand is going to get rolling before the March 3 deadline.
So far, hockey fans have been waiting for the earth-shattering kaboom like Marvin the Martian holding a malfunctioning Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. The most notable trade in the first three months of the season? One could argue it’s the New York Rangers dealing Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a fifth-round pick.
It’s been that kind of malaise. When “Gustav Nyquist might be traded” is the hottest rumor, you know the market’s in stasis.
“It’s not surprising really. We’ve got like six weeks to go. A lot of things can happen, whether it’s in the standings or injuries,” one general manager told me recently, when I asked for his trade deadline vibes.
“Do I think something will happen at the deadline? Always does,” another said, laughing.
“Every year we get asked this question. And I always think it’ll be busy. It’s slow going up to it, and then all of a sudden, boom!” another GM said.
This has been the trend for at least three seasons now, as the best laid plans of NHL general managers were scuttled by a flat pandemic-era salary cap. The only recent early-season blockbusters we’ve seen involved disgruntled players being moved: Pierre-Luc Dubois going from John Tortorella’s doghouse to the Winnipeg Jets, and the Buffalo Sabres ending the Jack Eichel saga with a trade to the Vegas Golden Knights, both in 2021.
The players are simply too content. We need more messy drama! You know, outside of Vancouver …
There’s optimism from general managers that this trade season won’t be a total bore, but there’s also realism about the market forces impacting it.
I spoke with a handful of general managers and sources on the players’ side to get a better topographic map of the landscape as we march to the March deadline. Here are a few key factors to consider:
When parity is a bad thing
Across the NHL, teams are having their organizational mid-winter meetings. Everyone gets together — hockey operations, pro and amateur scouts — and they compare notes. Some of it is geared toward the NHL draft, as teams develop their big boards and determine which prospects deserve a second or third look. At the pro level, they plan contingencies and determine, in a general sense, who stays and who goes depending on what the standings look like.
What’s incredible about the current NHL landscape is how quickly the seismic shifts occur. For example, one general manager told me that his team’s scouting meetings lasted about six days. “When we started, there were a few teams we thought were out of it. When we finished, they weren’t, and suddenly our thinking had to change,” he said.
It’s a real Econ 101 type of situation: Supply and demand, all of that. You have a few teams at the top that have yet to feel the need for playoff fine-tuning. You have a few teams at the bottom ready to allocate reinforcements to them.
And then you have what one general manager called the “puddle of mud” in the middle.
“It’s extremely quiet, and here’s why: In the East and the West, how many teams could you say are in the playoffs? How many teams could you say are out?” he said.
“There’s like six to eight that are buyers and roughly the same amount as sellers,” he continued. “The buyers are banking points and aren’t looking to do anything yet. The sellers are waiting for markets to heat up to create competition. The rest of the league is in a puddle of mud. They don’t know if they’re buying or selling or what the hell they’re doing. And that could be half the league.”
“We sort of know the tiers of who’s in it and who’s out. But there’s a lot of parity in the league,” another GM said. “There’s going to be lots of fluctuation. There are too many teams still in it. Every week is going to offer more direction. You just have to be prepared for it.”
One general manager said there’s a marketing component to trade hesitancy, too. Simply put, fans aren’t naive. No matter what the standings say, if a team begins cycling out players this month, that signals how it views the rest of the campaign.
“Teams could have 20 home games left. You have to still be able to sell tickets,” he said.
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association signed a new collective bargaining agreement in 2020. Because of the pandemic economy, they agreed to keep the salary cap flat at $81.5 million until hockey-related revenue surpassed $3.3 billion for the previous season. The salary cap increased for the first time under that CBA this season, up $1 million to $82.5 million.
Teams typically don’t know what the salary cap for the following season is going to be when they head into their trade deadline war rooms. They have inklings and estimates. It’s not exactly conducive to long-term planning, but that’s the reality when the salary cap is linked to revenue.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman teased a 2023-24 salary cap increase of $4 million earlier this season, saying, “We believe that there’s a good probability that the escrow will be paid off this season.”
There was much rejoicing, from teams and players.
Then Bettman was a little more pessimistic at December’s board of governors meeting. The new estimate: a league salary-cap rise of only $1 million next season unless revenue outperforms current projections.
According to estimates, and barring an unforeseen windfall, there will be $75 million to $125 million left in escrow debt by the end of the season. By puck drop for 2023-24, it’s possible that the debt would be paid off. The problem is that the NHL calendar turns over at the end of June with a new salary cap.
The general managers, for what it’s worth, have been working under the impression that the 2023-24 salary cap will be set at $83.5 million, which is what Bettman told them at their November 2022 meeting in Toronto.
“There’s been rumblings that it’ll go up if there’s a significant revenue boom late in the season,” one general manager said. “If enough series go seven games. If the right, big-money teams are playing in those series. But you can’t count on that.”
But there is another way. An NHLPA source told me last month that bridging the two cap numbers — the $1 million increase and the $4 million surge that Bettman initially mentioned — has been discussed internally, and the collective bargaining agreement does allow for it.
I checked in on that possibility, and there hadn’t been any formal discussions with the NHL about executing that plan. But it could happen.
There’s also a question about who would drive that effort to bridge the numbers. Will it require NHLPA concessions, or is there enough support within the board of governors — with so many teams capped out — to compel Bettman to raise the number for 2023-24 without there being a labor skirmish with the players?
“The real question is whether it’s the right thing to have the cap rise by a $1 million and have all of these players and teams impacted by it, and then have a huge jump the cap [in 2024-25] and have teams spending like drunken sailors,” one source on the players’ side said. “Or do they want a more reasonable escalation of $3 million next season and then maybe [$3 million] to $4 million the following season?”
It’s the kind of decision that could impact the trade deadline if there’s any clarity on it.
During every trade season, there are players whose trades will get the machinery turning. Either they set the market or the teams that miss out on them seek alternatives.
Vancouver Canucks center Bo Horvat is that player right now. During his very candid news conference on Monday, Canucks GM Jim Rutherford acknowledged that the team took its “best shot” at Horvat with a contract that’s on the table, but that its best shot might not be good enough when he has embarked on a career year before free agency.
“We’re in a pickle here. He’s had a career year, a career run, and he’s looking for his money and he deserves it,” he said.
The notion that Horvat will be traded is becoming as canonical in Vancouver as the notion that Rick Tocchet is going to replace Bruce Boudreau as Canucks coach. Once that trade happens, every other contender looking for a scoring center will seek alternatives.
What makes Horvat unique, however, is that his market isn’t restricted to contenders. As one GM told me:
“A guy like Horvat, you can bring 31 teams into play with him if he’s willing to sign somewhere long-term. In other words, there could be non-playoff teams in the mix for him too.”
“I think everybody’s going to be watching Chicago, with Toews and Kane,” one general manager said.
Once the dominoes start falling, the others should follow — provided the salary cap allows it.
There are a few ways to drill through the salary-cap ceiling. The most popular method is long-term injured reserve, which temporarily removes a player’s hit from the cap.
As of Wednesday, there were 18 teams with players on LTIR. Of the top five teams with the most players on the long-term injury list, four of them have zero projected cap space according to Cap Friendly: The St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Vegas Golden Knights and Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet the Blues, Knights and Canadiens all have over $4.4 million in current cap space because of LTIR.
The general managers I spoke to all mentioned injuries as an unknowable factor at the trade deadline, either in creating cap space or the necessity to make a deal. But there’s a more predictable salary-cap solution they could also utilize to make deals: the third-party broker.
Salary retention in trades became a thing in the 2013 CBA. A team can retain up to 50% of a player’s cap hit when trading him. But by trading him to a third-party team before he’s eventually moved to his final destination, that third-party team can also retain up to 50% of his salary. By the time that player lands on his new team’s roster, his salary-cap hit is just 25% of what it originally was.
Recall the way David Savard ended up with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that sees the salary-cap system like Neo sees the true code of the Matrix. The Blue Jackets traded Savard to Detroit, retaining 50% of his salary ($2.125 million); the Red Wings traded him to the Lightning, retaining 50% of that salary ($1,062,500). The Blue Jackets and Red Wings got picks for their financial assistance, and the Lightning got a blueliner who helped them win another Cup.
How many of these deals might we expect ahead of the 2023 deadline?
“There might be a couple of teams that are good that have cap space, but the large majority of them don’t. So to keep adding to your roster, you’re going to need to help to get that third party to keep reducing the number,” one general manager said. “There’s not going to be 10 of those deals. The teams that can do them are limited in how many they can do.”
Each team can only have a maximum of three retained-salary transactions.
“There are only so many draft picks that can change hands, and there are a limited number of times teams can pick up portions of salaries,” another GM said.
Speaking of the draft …
The Connor Bedard factor
Say, have you heard about this Connor Bedard kid?
An incredible playmaker with a shot that could thread a needle, and a generational talent who will reshape a franchise’s future?
The GMs have heard of Bedard. So have their teams’ owners. And a few of them have designed their rosters to maximize their chances of drafting Bedard, to put it kindly.
“Management and ownership are the ones who care about that. The coaches and the players don’t. They want to win every single night,” one GM said with a chuckle. “They don’t care about a draft pick. They really don’t. So they actually make it really hard on the management. But I love it. That’s the beauty of our sport.”
Will there be a Bedard Effect at the trade deadline? Frankly, there’s already been one.
Consider that only one team has traded its 2023 first-round pick so far: The Florida Panthers, who sent a conditional first to the Montreal Canadiens in the Ben Chiarot trade last season. Florida’s pick in 2022 was outside the top 10; under the conditions of the trade, Montreal acquired Florida’s 2023 pick instead.
Other than that, every other team has kept their ticket for the Bedard Powerball jackpot.
One general manager felt that the chance to draft Bedard is “absolutely” going to have an impact on this trade season, too.
“It seems like he’s going to be a special player,” he said. “Very few teams are going to be in on him [in the lottery], but this draft is so strong I think teams are going to be very hesitant to give up their picks.”
The Panthers gambled that their dominant regular season meant they were a few veteran players away from a real Stanley Cup run — they picked up Chiarot and Claude Giroux at the same deadline. Florida managed to make the playoffs before bowing out in the second round. But with so many teams in that “puddle of mud” in the standings, how many would shoot their shot at this deadline, knowing that it could potentially cost them a lottery pick?
“If you start wheeling those picks around, what happens if you don’t get in?” one NHL GM asked. “Even if you don’t move up [because of the lottery], you’re still picking 12th.”
That’s important to remember: This is the Connor Bedard draft, but the draft class is also absolutely loaded after the top pick. And in a salary-capped league, having young talents on cheap contracts has become the key to sustained success.
“I think this draft is going to influence it. But if we’re being honest, every draft does,” one general manager said. “Look around at the environment that we’re in. You need young players. If you trade your picks, you don’t have them, which hurts your system. It’s a real balancing act.”
That’s the trade deadline. A balancing act.
Balancing a checkbook and a salary cap. Balancing current needs with future wants. And for the league’s executives, balancing the optimism that this could be “the year” with the realism that it won’t be for 31 teams.
Hopefully the current landscape in the NHL allows for those chances to be taken, and for a lively deadline after a dreary lead-up.