The recently agreed CBA extension and MOU (April 2020) includes provisions suggesting a flat salary cap for years to come, and as a result, general managers and players have experienced an unprecedented draft, free agency and arbitration marketplace this fall. NHL league activity is expected to continue under a particularly unique context caused by loss of hockey related revenue from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the upcoming Seattle expansion draft.
Under this challenging and uncertain financial landscape, I endeavored to conduct contract research to better identify league-wide contract negotiation trends and evaluate anticipated flexibility of NHL team’s salary cap structures by looking at:
– No-trade clauses
– Signing bonuses (S.B.)
– Injury reserve (IR) and long term injury reserve (LTIR)
Previous Contract Analysis Work
Having started my journey in analytics with the opportunity to grow as part of the inaugural hockey-graphs mentorship program, it is a privilege to take this opportunity to build on the inspiring contract negotiation and player valuation work of Matt Cane (The Time Value of Money and Player Valuation), Mike Zsolt (The Financial Frontier: Defining characteristics of competitive salary cap management), Josh and Luke Younggren (Projecting NHL Skater Contracts for the 2019 Offseason), and Shayna Goldman (ISOLHAC: How can we better our contract analysis), amongst other distinguished leaders in the analytics community.
Data & Methodology
All contract data was sourced from the always excellent capfriendly.com. For clarity, the insights shared in upcoming sections are based on 901 active standard player contracts (SPC) and 18 35+ contracts for a total of 919 contracts. Data interpretation was conducted to adjust for various variables of interests as follows:
i) As per the CBA, entry-level contracts (ELC) can include standard signing bonuses but are not eligible for no-move clauses of any kind. As such, they have not been considered in the following analysis.
ii) No-move clause years have been defined to include every type of clause (NMC, NTC, M-NTC) which would apply starting from the upcoming 2020-21 season.
As such, active contracts long term contracts which cover RFA years, but also subsequent UFA years with no-move clauses were included in the analysis (i.e. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel both signed 8 year deals which starting in 2022-23 will include NMC x 4 years).
iii) Furthermore, a few players have recently inked contract extensions that will be kicking in next season (i.e. 2021-22). These contract extensions have been included in the analysis. For clarity, this represents 17 no-move clause years, broken down as follows:
– John Marino = 3 years x M-NTC (signed on January 3, 2021)
– Brendan Gallagher = 6 years x NMC, M-NTC (signed on October 14, 2020)
– Jeff Petry = 4 years x M-NTC (signed on September 25, 2020)
– Jonas Brodin = 4 years x NMC (signed on September 15, 2020)
Not all clauses are created equal. As such a helpful reminder of each clauses has been included below to better understand their respective rights and limitations:
iv) Signing bonuses for upcoming contract extensions (i.e. deals starting in 2021-22 season) have also been included in the analysis.
The economic reality across the league explains how General Managers have been cautious in granting extensions, let alone including signing bonuses in those contracts. Despite a handful of announced contract extensions (i.e. Brendan Gallagher, Kris Russel, Jake Allen, Jonas Brodin, Anthony Stolarz, John Marino, Marcus Foligno) the only upcoming contract extension which includes signing bonuses belongs to Montreal Canadiens defencemen, Jeff Petry:
- Petry’s current active deal (signed on June 2, 2015) includes $8M in S.B. on a total contract value of $33M
- The player signed an extension on Sept 25, 2020 which includes $8M in S.B. on a total contract extension value of $25M
- As such and for the purpose of this exercise, Petry’s total S.B. adds up to $16M.
Results & Key findings
Distribution of no-movement clauses and the impact on cap motivated trades
Managers throughout the league are reported to be increasingly sensitive towards granting no-trade clauses of any type, as this may shackle their ability to manage their cap table from season to season. The more contract years with no-move clauses are committed on the cap table, the more influence a single player has on a club’s ability to make roster changes. The key in all negotiations is to maximize the use of leverage, and having little of it can prove expensive to an organization.
Throughout the upcoming NHL seasons, 218 players share a total of 695 contract years which include some level of no-move clause (i.e. NMC, NTC, M-NTC).
As expected, teams who lead the league in no-trade clause years are the ones that have committed to a core of players. This behaviour aligns with the cup contending stage of a franchise. Tampa Bay leads the league (42 years), followed by Vegas (41), San Jose (37) and St. Louis (34).
On the other end of the spectrum, having the luxury of having few no-move clause years allows some managers to manage their hockey operations activity with notable flexibility. Organizations such as Detroit (7), New Jersey (7), Philadelphia (9) and Ottawa (11) can weaponize this particular advantage ahead of next season’s trade deadline and Seattle’s expansion draft.
Player leverage when it comes to influencing the management of an organization is not a new phenomenon. For instance, Rick Nash was granted a full NMC when he signed a $64.2M deal over 8 years (July 3, 2009) and then requested a trade out of Columbus which landed him with the Rangers in 2012-13.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a very recent example of similar tactic. It was widely reported that his agent Kevin Epp (Titan Sports Management) informed newly minted GM Bill Armstrong that his client was willing to lift his NMC and would accept a trade only to Vancouver or Boston. The Arizona captain has seven years remaining at a hefty cap hit of $8.25M, and held a NMC for the remainder of the contract. Arizona has 22 no-move clause years on their cap table and the aging captain holds 31% of those. Attempting to move an expensive cap hit with term and only be able to negotiate with two out of 31 teams is a difficult ask for a manager looking for the best return.
Now more than ever, affordable organizational depth is a true luxury and can make the difference between heading to the playoffs or being on the outside looking in.
Given every dollar counts, especially with a flat salary cap, some clubs are likely more willing to eat cap hit for players who aren’t performing up to their price tag as long as the ‘seller’ makes it worth their while. The opportunity to add quality draft picks is a compelling value proposition, especially given the cost certainty nature of ELC contracts. Adding depth at the trade deadline can be critical in overcoming injuries to make a deep playoff run. Creating cap space can help improve a team’s financial flexibility ahead of upcoming extensions (as well as be an offer sheet deterrent) and increase leverage to better target upcoming UFAs.
Given the financial realities of the upcoming season, and with some teams already in the position of having to shed salary to be compliant before the start of the season, rival managers may take advantage of the marketplace and require a ‘sweetener’ to be added to any salary dump transaction. An analysis of the trade market helps identify this trend:
- Dec 27, 2020
Tampa Bay acquired contracts of LTIR Marian Gaborik ($4.875M) and LTIR Anders Nilsson ($2.6M) from Ottawa, in exchange for veteran Brayden Coburn, versatile depth forward Cedrique Paquette and a 2022 2nd round draft pick. Total, Tampa Bay acquired $7.475M in LTIR contracts while shedding $3.35M in active contracts. This transaction granted Tampa Bay the ability to spend $4.125M more through LTIR contracts and ensures that the Lightning are cap compliant and have valuable cap flexibility ahead of the 2020-21 season. It is worth noting that Coburn has a NMC which may have prevented the transaction from being concluded, and yet GM BriseBois was able to secure approval of his veteran defenseman prior to the trade.
- Oct 9 and Oct 12, 2020
Vegas trades veteran center Paul Stastny to Winnipeg in exchange for depth player Carl Dahlstrom (64 NHL games played) and a 2022 4th round pick. Three days later, top-4 defenseman Nate Schmidt was flipped to Vancouver in exchange for a 2022 3rd round draft pick. Already in a tight cap situation at the time following the signing of coveted UFA star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (seven years x $8.8M), GM Kelly McCrimmon was able to free up $11.6M in cap space towards ensuring his club’s cap compliancy ahead of opening night. The timing of the trades and Vegas’ public cap situation clearly had an impact on the quality of return.
- Oct 8, 2020
Columbus traded former 2nd overall pick Ryan Murray to New Jersey in exchange for a 2021 5th round pick. Defensemen Markus Nutivaara is also traded to FLA, in exchange for ELC forward Cliff Pu (0 NHL games played, 63 AHL games played). GM Jarmo Kekelainen frees up $7.3M with these transactions, while offering a public deterrent for rival clubs looking to snag their #1 center with a predatory offer sheet. He used that valuable cap space to re-sign RFA Pierre-Luc Dubois to a two-year deal carrying a $5M AAV. Plus, now the club has additional funds to take advantage of opportunities in the coming months.
- Oct 8, 2020
Anaheim traded Erik Gudbranson to Ottawa for a 2021 5th round pick. GM Bob Murray frees up $4M in cap space. Weaponizing the cap has been a profitable strategy for Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion, and there have certainly been opportunities for win-win transactions with teams in dire need of cap relief.
- Oct 5, 2020
Minnesota successfully navigates former Vezina nominee Devan Dubnyk’s M-NTC and strikes a trade with San Jose by adding a 2022 7th round pick and retaining 50% of Dubnyk’s salary. The Wild acquired a 2022 5th round pick and $2.166M in cap savings.
- Sept 26, 2020
The New York Rangers agreed to receive future considerations from Detroit in exchange for Marc Staal’s last contract year ($5.7M) and a 2021 2nd round draft pick. GM Jeff Gordon had to demonstrate creative cap management in order to mitigate the impact of the Rangers’ buyout history, which accounts for nearly $13M for the 2020-21 season (Ryan Spooner = 300k, Dan Girardi = $1.1M, Kevin Shattenkirk = $6.083M, Henrik Lundqvist = $5.5M). Staal was consequently persuaded to lift his NMC prior to the trade, and the early round draft pick is clear compensation to Detroit for the ensuring New York’s cap relief. In this particular situation, GM Steve Yzerman successfully weaponized his cap space to take advantage of a situation where he can add veteran presence to a young, rebuilding Red Wings team without being tied to an expensive cap hit for more than one season.
- Feb 24, 2020
Brady Skjei ($5.25M) traded by the Rangers to Carolina in exchange for a 1st round pick. This transaction was motivated by injuries as key defenseman Dougie Hamilton (75 days on IR+LTIR), Brett Pesce (37 days on IR+LTIR) and Sami Vatanen (41 days on IR) all missed time and Carolina needed reinforcements in the backend to secure a 2020 playoff spot. New York traded away Skjei well before his M-NTC kicked in (2021-22), which allowed them to maximize the return for this particular asset.
- June 22 and June 30, 2019
Tampa Bay sends J.T. Miller and his $5.25M AAV to Vancouver in exchange of signing rights to AHL goaltender Marek Mazanec, a 2019 3rd round draft pick and a 2020 1st round draft pick. GM BriseBois traded Miller prior to his M-NTC kicking in, speaking to the fact that clubs are aware of the impact on the quality of the return a no-movement clause can have. A few days later, an injured Ryan Callahan agreed to lift his NMC so Tampa Bay could trade his $5.8M cap hit to Ottawa alongside a 2020 5th round pick for Mike Condon and a 2020 6th round draft pick. The trade with Ottawa allowed the Lightning to save $3.4M on the cap.
- June 22, 2019
Patrick Marleau ($6.25M) agreed to lift his NMC to allow Toronto to trade his rights to Carolina in exchange for a 1st round pick (2019). This transaction allowed Toronto to free up valuable cap space ($6.25M) in order to lock young RFAs Andreas Johnsson (4 yrs x $3.4M) and Kasperi Kapanen (3 yrs x 3.2M) to multi-year contracts. Carolina proceeded to buy out Marleau’s last contract year, and because the player was over 35years old, the club had to pay the player $3M signing bonus on the buyout date (June 27) and divided his $833k salary over the last subsequent seasons. Marleau signed consecutive two-year deals with San Jose, thus further maximizing his career earnings despite the buyout.
Using Signing Bonuses in contract negotiations and the impact on cap tables
Increasingly, signing bonuses are part of standard player contracts. High-end talent, core players, and free agents naturally have the most leverage to make these types of demands, yet compelling trends can be seen when breaking down the aggregate amount of signing bonuses granted on active contracts. Out of the $12.415B in total contract values committed in 919 active contracts for 2020-21 and $150.6M in extensions kicking in 2021-22, signing bonuses represent a total of $2.472B. NHL owners as a whole seem to be paying one of every five cap-hit dollars in signing bonus (19.67%).
Big market clubs and states that are income-tax free lead the league in total signing bonuses allocations: Toronto ($250.66M), Tampa Bay ($174.75M) and Montreal ($171.52M).
On the other end of the spectrum, Columbus, Winnipeg, Colorado and Ottawa notoriously do not offer signing bonuses. This could point to a differing investment philosophy and salary cap management culture.
– Columbus: Gerry Johannson leveraged Mikko Koivu’s status as a UFA veteran leader to include $250k in signing bonuses
– Winnipeg: GM Cheveldayoff grants $4M in signing bonuses to Jets captain Blake Wheeler which were paid out last season. The Jets now have no players owed a signing bonus throughout their entire roster (not including ELCs)
– Colorado: GM Joe Sakic inherited the signing bonus commitment tied to Nazem Kadri’s contract, which was signed with Toronto.
– Ottawa: GM Pierre Dorion inherited the signing bonus commitment tied to Nikita Zaitsev’s contract, which was signed with Toronto.
There are 215 players across the league who benefit from signing bonuses in their contracts. It is worthwhile to note that Crosby and Ovechkin are the only players in the top 20 earners of the league whose contracts do not include a single dollar paid out in signing bonuses.
And yet, reviewing the contracts that contain the most signing bonuses allows the expected identification of players considered ‘core pieces’, respected veteran leaders (Edler) and sweetened offer sheets (Aho). It can be noted that rival clubs may submit a hostile offer sheet to an RFA and deliberately structure the deal to leverage a very high signing bonus as to put pressure on a rival owner’s finances.
IR & LTIR cap optimization opportunities
The demand for cap flexibility has never been as high, yet its supply is quite low across the league. When surveying the cap tables across the league, there are a few opportunities which stand out for managers looking to leverage IR and LTIR contracts. Finding a creative way to take advantage of acquiring these types of contracts can allow managers to make trades, sign UFAs or ensure they submit a cap compliant roster before season puck drop.
Across the league, we can find over $112.3M in contracts that are currently assigned to LTIR across 25 players and 15 Clubs. As such, there are 16 organizations who currently have no player contracts on IR+LTIR. With the recent announcements of Jonathan Toews’ injury, the Blackhawks lead the league with $21.275M placed on IR+LTIR. In second place, we find the cash-strapped Lightning ($16.975M) thanks to the recent acquisition of Anders Nilsson and Marian Gaborik’s contracts. Wrapping up the top 5 in the league are the Boston Bruins ($14.04M), St. Louis Blues ($13.25M) and Anaheim Ducks ($7.675M).
Diving in some of these clubs’ cap tables, we can identify trends as to how LTIR contracts can prove useful. For example, St. Louis has leveraged the news of Alex Steen retiring due to injury to sign coveted UFA Mike Hoffman to a PTO. The expectation at the time was for Hoffman to sign a deal with St. Louis (which he did on Jan 11, 2021) and start the season with the Blues, yet adding Hoffman’s cap hit ($4M) would have been challenging without that LTIR relief. The timing of this decision shows that patient teams can take advantage of unexpected opportunities, despite the bad luck of long-term injuries.
Boston Bruins would much prefer to be able to count on superstars David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand on opening night, but with offensive defenceman Torey Krug and captain Zdeno Chara signing with St. Louis and Washington respectively, placing the forwards on LTIR grants GM Don Sweeney further flexibility in exploring options to add to his group. Indeed, it was reported that Sweeney and Arizona’s GM Bill Armstrong tried to strike a trade involving Ekman-Larsson and his multi-year $8.25M cap hit. Now, Sweeney has the option to revisit that trade, or pursue UFA options on defence such as Calvin De Haan or Sami Vatanen. In the event that Bruins don’t spend the money at this time, cap space will accrue and would allow Boston to become buyers ahead of the 2021 trade deadline.
Even with the Mark Staal move already made, Detroit GM Steve Yzerman still has the opportunity to entice a cap strapped team to consider Henrik Zetterberg’s LTIR contract. His deal is especially attractive, as the final year has cap hit ($6.083M) that is significantly higher than the amount of payable salary ($1M) for the 2020-21 season.
Conclusion, Sincere Thanks and Contact
Given the economical landscape of a continued flat salary cap, continued availability of quality free agents, and the imminent expansion draft, it’s likely the league will see a rise in transactions involving cash-strapped teams doing their best to entice those with cap flexibility to take on unwieldy contracts.
With the salary cap of the upcoming season directly tied to hockey-related revenue and the fragility of many business sectors, we can also expect to see NHL owners adopt a less generous approach to granting signing bonuses. Clubs who go against the current may find themselves in a position to win the commitment of free agents, or be able to secure extensions for their high-end RFAs at favorable terms.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Asmae Toumi and Matt Cane for their mentorship across the years. As well, I appreciate Josh Pohlkamp-Hartt’s help, guidance and feedback on this analysis.