Islanders: What the NHL’s flat cap could Mean going forward?

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 29: New York Islander GM Lou Lamoriello chats with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on February 29, 2020 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 29: New York Islander GM Lou Lamoriello chats with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on February 29, 2020 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The New York Islanders long-term salary cap situation looked bleak entering 2020-21, and it doesn’t look anymore positive in light of the news that the NHL’s salary cap could potentially remain flat for up to the next five years (subscription required).

Despite the league’s highly lucrative new broadcasting rights deal with ESPN and Disney, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed Wednesday that the league salary cap will remain flat in 2021-22.

The Athletic’s NHL business aficionado, Sean Shapiro, said that according to a league source the NHL’s salary cap could remain at its $81.500 million threshold for “up to five seasons if Canadian teams aren’t able to get fans in the building for the start of the 2021-22 season.”

That could be rough news for the Islanders as we move down the line, and a host of other NHL teams like them are in the same position. But why is the cap remaining flat, and what could it mean for the Islanders going forward? Let’s try to break it down.

The New York Islanders, the Flat Cap, and Uncertainty Ahead

So, what we know is that, according to Gary Bettman, the NHL’s 2021-22 salary cap will remain at $81.500 million as it has since 2019-20. We also know that according to Shapiro’s source inside the league, the cap could remain flat for up to five seasons should Canadian teams not be able to get fans back into their arenas by the start of 2021-22.

The reason why attendance at Canadian arenas is so important to the NHL is because the league’s seven Canadian teams bring in nearly 25% of all revenues, according to Forbes. We also know thanks to Forbes and, as well as various other sources, that the lion’s share of the NHL’s income is made up of ticket sales, though exact percentages vary among sources.

Now, NHL teams aren’t jumping at the opportunity to share their revenue with the public, so the Forbes numbers are strictly estimates, but they’re the closest thing we have to final revenue numbers for the 2019-20 NHL season.

With all that information, we can see why the league salary cap will not move in 2021-22 and potentially beyond.

How the stable cap will affect the Islanders should be pretty clear to anyone who’s been paying attention over the last couple of off-seasons. The team already struggled to create enough cap room just to re-sign key free agents during the 2020 offseason, and that was with players like Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock taking bridge deals.

Had Johnny Boychuk not been forced into retirement by his unfortunate eye injury, thus creating an extra $6 million in salary cap relief, Lou Lamoriello would’ve been facing a steep task just to keep his core together this last offseason.

With another crop of important RFA’s to re-sign in 2021, the cap crunch is only going to get tighter. Plus, Casey Cizikas, a UFA, is also due a new contract this offseason. While the Islanders 4C may actually take a pay decrease in the offseason, things are still going to be tight.

Then there’s the Islanders performance bonus situation, which could potentially cut down further on the team’s cap space in 2021-22.

Andy Greene, who must play a certain number of games in 2020-21 to trigger his bonus, is likely going to reach that threshold as the Islanders have rolled the same six defensemen all season to this point. The likelihood that Sebastian Aho or Thomas Hickey take some of Greene’s minutes on the Islanders bottom D pairing seems increasingly unlikely. If Barry Trotz wanted to play either of them over Greene, for cap purposes or otherwise, he already would have, right?

The Seattle Kraken expansion draft this summer could serve as a bit of relief. But it isn’t likely that Kraken GM Ron Francis is going to take someone like Leo Komarov or Andrew Ladd, pieces who are on restrictive contracts with years remaining who have consistently underperformed those deals, at least not without compensation going back to Seattle, a la the Grabovski deal with Vegas a few years ago.

Josh Bailey seems a likelier option to be plucked by Seattle, but then the Islanders are losing a cemented member of their top-six, and subtracting from the talent on this Islanders team’s wings is not ideal either.

Further down the line, and this is a worst-case scenario, the Islanders have to deal with contract renewals to Mat Barzal, Ryan Pulock, Noah Dobson, and Oliver Wahlstrom with a still stagnant salary cap. If that is the case, the job of keeping this core together becomes even less enviable.

All of this is guesswork, of course, and guesswork with a lot of unknowable factors at play.

This is an extremely hopeful, probably unlikely scenario, but maybe by the start of the 2021-22 NHL season the COVID pandemic is under control north of the border, and Canadian provincial governments see fit to allow fans re-entry to Canadian NHL arenas. Then we may not have to worry about the flat cap beyond 2021-22.

I know this is a very negative situation to be looking at while the 2020-21 Islanders are currently riding a seven-game win streak and hopes are high headed into Thursday’s matchup with the New Jersey Devils, and I’m not trying to rain on any parades. But, this is the reality of the Islanders situation looking beyond this season. They’re going to have to deal with this at some point.

In conclusion, I don’t think this changes anything about 2020-21 for the Islanders. If anything, it only reinforces the need for this team to win now. Just look at Chicago GM Stan Bowman. He’s been compounding that organization’s problems for years with bad contracts and personnel decisions, and he just got a promotion.

Win the Stanley Cup, and suddenly cap management and tough personnel decisions become a problem that can be figured out later.