By: Colin Noonan
The Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning were of the same mind at the start of free agency. LA locked down their perpetual Norris finalist in Drew Doughty with an 8 year/$88 million contract extension while Tampa signed former New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh to a 7 year/$47.25 million deal. Both defensemen are fantastic in their own right, but simply put, one team can afford their deal while remaining competitive and the other can’t.
Let’s start with Tampa because Steve Yzerman must have sold his soul to the devil in order to have this much elite talent on below market value contracts. It’s almost unfair having a team run this well in the state of Florida because they can offer less than most teams while still offering more net money on account of Florida not having a state income tax. What that gets you is deals like Stamkos for $8.5 million a year, Nikita Kucherov for $4.76 million, and Anton Stralman for $4.5 million.
Players are already inclined to take a pay cut to go to a contender like the Lightning. Pay cuts are also a lot easier to take when you could actually end up with more cash. As much as anything else, this savvy cap navigation is what makes Tampa one of the best teams year-in and year-out.
The Los Angeles Kings, on the other hand, find themselves in a very different position. A fringe playoff team a year ago, they needed a significant influx of talent if they were to get back to the levels they reached in the early 2010’s where they were consistent Cup contenders. The only problem is, it’s very hard to do that when you have over $43 million tied up into 7 guys who, with the exception of Doughty at 28, are all at least 30. They’re paying Ilya Kovalchuk $6.25 million and he hasn’t played an NHL game since 2013.
If you think they’re anywhere near getting out of this, you’re wrong. Dustin Brown, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Dion Phaneuf all have some variation of no-trade clause in their contracts so the earliest the Kings could get rid of all these deals is the summer of 2021 for Kovalchuk and Phaneuf and summer of 2022 for Brown. As bitter of a pill as it would be to swallow, LA probably would be better off long term if they traded Doughty for a boatload of prospects and picks, rather than clinging to the treadmill of mediocrity they’re on now.
The case of Drew Doughty and Ryan McDonagh highlights a larger point on how critical cap management is to remaining competitive in today’s NHL. Savvy deals like McDonagh and Stralman can ensure your club remains a contender for the foreseeable future while saddling yourself with contracts like Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown can kill and Cup ambitions your team has.
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