All the Carolina Hurricanes had to give up to acquire Teuvo Teravainen was a couple draft picks. The Chicago Blackhawks needed to get out of their salary cap crunch entering the summer and decided packaging Teravainen, a 21-year-old potential star, with the albatross contract of Bryan Bickell was the only way to make it happen. For the Hawks, it was another example of how difficult team-building has become in the salary cap age. For just about everyone else, it should’ve been a sign of how to wield salary cap space in trade talks.
With the salary cap only going up to $73 million next season, many NHL teams entered this summer right up against the upper limit. This has been a pattern over the past few years as the cap failed to meet estimates, and one of the consequences has been teams with lavish contracts using assets to get them off the books. The Teravainen/Bickell trade is arguably the greatest instance of that.
While a deal like that doesn’t necessarily come along often, it’s precisely the kind of move that every GM in the league should be trying to make. Bickell’s contract only has one year at a $4 million cap hit remaining, and in exchange for eating that, Carolina received years of team control on someone who might be a top-six forward next season. This is the kind of player that would’ve commanded far more than two picks (neither higher than No. 50 overall) if he wasn’t being attached to a bad contract.
The Hawks needed to pay raises this summer, though, and saw Teravainen’s restricted free agency looming in a year. “It’s hard these days when you have young guys that are entering the final year of his first contract and then things get tricky when players get raises and you’re always looking to have that next wave of young guys coming in,” Chicago GM Stan Bowman said.
It’s hard to see how the Hurricanes could’ve possibly done better with that money on the open market. Just after the trade, the team signed veteran goaltender Cam Ward to a two-year deal with a $3.1 million average annual value. For a team without short-term Cup aspirations, which of those moves puts the team in a better position to compete in the future? It’s remarkable that less than $5 million over one year got them Teravainen, then not too long after they decided $6.2 million over two years was worth a below-average goalie in Ward.
Those two moves help illustrate the real opportunity that teams with salary cap have in the NHL right now. On the free agent market, you can spend your money to land a veteran, usually one who’s already past or in his prime and unlikely to get much better. That’s good and fine, especially for teams trying to win right now, but if you’re trying to rebuild, all that effort in order to grind out an extra few wins doesn’t really move the needle much.
What you really need is players like Teravainen — young, cost-controlled assets that can potentially be locked up at below-market prices before they reach their primes. In general, pretty much the only way to acquire a player like that was through the draft, trading a superstar or simply getting lucky. Those players don’t hit the free agent market because they’re not supposed to, and that pay structure is a big part of what makes young players so crucial to building a team under a salary cap.
But there’s potentially another way to get them now, and that’s by taking on the albatross contracts of big-market teams. There are certainly some mitigating factors here, including the actual salary on the bad contract and ownership’s willingness to effectively eat that money, but the benefit of landing a player like Teravainen is significant. Teams pay millions every offseason to veteran players who end up crushing flexibility on the back end of their contracts. Opportunities like this seem a far better bet when short-term wins aren’t the No. 1 consideration anyway.
The Stars took advantage of the Hawks last summer to acquire Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns for pennies. The Coyotes took on Pavel Datsyuk’s $7.5 million cap hit for a year in order to move up in the 2016 draft to select top defenseman Jakob Chychrun. Last summer, they managed to dump Sam Gagner’s contract and add Chris Pronger’s cap hit, effectively saving ownership millions in salary, which in theory could help them swing more deals like this further down the line. This is simply a reality for smaller teams, just like the upper limit is a reality for big-budget ones.
Not every deal will be like Teravainen and Bickell because you need another team to be desperate. The Canucks might not actually want Alexandre Burrows’ $4.5 million cap hit on the books for next season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll give up one of their best young players to make it happen. You need the perfect storm of circumstance in terms of a bad contract, a cap-strapped team and a great young player they’re willing to give up.
But that’s a situation you have to imagine every GM in the league is on the lookout for going forward. Small-market teams don’t have the financial resources of their big brothers, but they have cap space to fill all the same. Rebuilding teams’ eyes should widen any time someone is trying to dump a contract.
Satchel Price is a fan of the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and Bears. He’s a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. Satchel is also managing editor for Second City Hockey and his work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.