As the current Coronavirus crisis wears on, it seems more and more likely that the NHL will not be able to complete the full remaining regular season schedule and talk of an expanded playoff field might indicate that there will be no return to the regular season at all. That lost revenue is expected to impact the 2020-21 salary cap, likely keeping the current $81.5MM upper limit in place. Given that teams expected an increase, initially projected to be between $84-88.2MM, this stagnation could have a harsh impact on a number of clubs’ cap situations. As such, many expect that compliance buyouts will return in some form or fashion to ease that pain. These buyouts, which do not count against the salary cap, would allow for teams to open up space that they otherwise expected from a cap increase.
Ottawa Senators: Bobby Ryan
While the oncoming cap crunch caused by COVID-19 will not impact the Senators, who have sat at or near the bottom of the league’s salary ranks in recent years, owner Eugene Melnyk is not one to miss out on an opportunity to save money. In the case of Ryan, that would mean casting off a player who has overcome the adversity of addiction to resume his career, but don’t expect that to stop the Senators from moving on. Ryan’s remaining two years and $15MM in actual salary represents a large chunk of what Ottawa owes its current roster. Ryan has not played at a level becoming of a $7.25MM player at any point over the course of his time with the Senators, but especially over the past four years in which he has failed to crack 50 points in any season. At 33 years old, Ryan’s best days are behind him and Ottawa won’t hesitate to but him out and face the potential public relations backlash.
Philadelphia Flyers: Shayne Gostisbehere
The Flyers are right up against the salary cap and will have to create some space if the upper limit does not move this off-season as had been expected. The team has been trying to trade Gostisbehere in the midst of a down year, but to no avail. It may seem counter-intuitive for a contender to give away a 27-year-old regular defenseman for free via buyout, but Gostisbehere is trending in the wrong direction and has three years at $4.5MM AAV remaining on his deal. If Philly cannot find a trade, which obviously would be the more ideal solution, they may not have a better alternative to clear space without buying out a more impactful player. Some may point to last summer’s Kevin Hayes mega-contract as a worse deal to consider moving, but it seems highly unlikely that the team would move on from Hayes this soon after signing him, especially since his production this season has been on par with his career numbers.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Jack Johnson
It was pretty obvious right from the start that Johnson was not going to be a value player for the Penguins. Many were skeptical of his 2018 signing right from the start and he has done little to prove those critics wrong. A minus player whose offensive ceiling now sits in the mid-teens, Johnson is 33 and his best days are well behind him. The Penguins are another team that needs as much cap space as they can create to keep their roster together. Can they really afford to pay Johnson $9.75MM against the cap over the next three years to be a bottom pair defenseman who is more often a liability than an asset? Pittsburgh has the depth on defense to make up for the loss and could desperately use the cap flexibility elsewhere.
San Jose Sharks: Martin Jones
Entering an off-season with a deep goalie market, which could grow even deeper with compliance buyouts, few teams would be happier to have a get-out-of-jail-free card than the Sharks. Goaltending, and their starter Jones in particular, has been at the heart of San Jose’s struggles over the past two years. Once seen as a safe bet to be a solid long-term starter, Jones has been unable to produce even passable numbers in the past couple of seasons. However, with four years and $23MM remaining on Jones’ deal – a $5.75MM AAV, it seemed hopeless for the team improve in net without either an expensive buyout, a painful trade, or a very overpriced backup. This scenario would be exactly what the team needed and there is little doubt that they would move on swiftly from Jones, re-focusing his cap space on improving the roster, most important of which would be finding his replacement(s).
St. Louis Blues: Alex Steen
Steen may be a respected veteran coming off of a championship season, but he is also one of the Blues’ few reasonable candidates for a buyout. St. Louis does not have many long-term contracts and has arguably no bad long-term contracts. Steen, 36, is also one of only three players over 31 signed through this season. Without many bad deals or regressing veterans to compete with, Steen’s final year at $5.75MM looks ugly, especially since his production has dropped off immensely in each of the past two seasons to just 17 points this year. Perhaps the only other buyout option for St. Louis would be backup goaltender Jake Allen if the determine that Steen’s experience and versatility is of greater value. However, Allen is younger and cheaper and coming off a bounce-back season in which he was one of the best backups in the NHL. Steen seems like the more reasonable selection.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Tyler Johnson
Tampa Bay was always going to have to blow up its core to accommodate its young players. However, a flat cap not only ensures that this time has come this off-season, it also makes the situation much worse. In order to sign a number of key restricted free agents, the Bolts must move out a considerable amount of salary this summer. Normally, players like Johnson, Yanni Gourde, and Ondrej Palat would have enough value to garner a nice trade return rather than needing a buyout. However, in an off-season where most teams could be up against the cap, acquiring a $5MM+ player will be easier said than done. Making it even harder is that all three hold No-Trade clauses and may not be willing to accept a deal to the types of team that can afford to acquire them. Of this trio, the Lightning are most likely to keep Palat; although he is the most expensive, he is also the most valuable. Gourde is slightly more expensive than Johnson’s $5MM AAV, but is also slightly younger and has largely outplayed Johnson over the past few years. Gourde is a more valuable asset than Johnson, which could mean he is easier to trade or it could mean that Tampa tries to find a way to keep him. Johnson seems like the odd man out. An undersized forward whose numbers fell off considerably this season to just 31 points and who is signed for four more years, Johnson is a trade risk, especially in a cap-strapped market. The odds are that some team would find a way to take him via trade – if he agrees – but if the Lightning get desperate they may have to buy him out. He’s their most reasonable candidate if it comes to that.
Toronto Maple Leafs: None
The Toronto Maple Leafs really don’t have any need for a compliance buyout at this point in time. The team is very young, many players have been extended recently, and arguably none have fallen so short of expectations that they warrant a buyout. Unless the Leafs trade for a bad contract simply to use their compliance buyout, it would be a surprise to see the club get in on the action this off-season.
Vancouver Canucks: Loui Eriksson
The Canucks have wanted to get rid of Eriksson for some time and with a compliance buyout they would be free to do so. The veteran forward has been one of Vancouver’s highest paid players since he joined the club in 2016, yet he has never recorded more than 30 points in a year through four seasons with the Canucks. At odds with coaches and severely underperforming relative to his $6MM AAV, Eriksson has worn out his welcome in Vancouver. However, he still has two years remaining on his contract. The team would be quick to erase that from the books. This buyout is a no-brainer; what is more interesting is whether Eriksson can return to his status as a valuable two-way forward with another team.
Vegas Golden Knights: None
Like the Maple Leafs, the Golden Knights simply don’t have any obvious candidate for a buyout. They have done well with their long-term contracts and have a roster constructed of players who they want in the lineup, including several who they have recently re-signed. That includes Nick Holden, who may be the only player who could have been considered an odd man out but recently took a pay cut to re-sign for two more years with Vegas. No one else jumps out as a player that the club would entertain giving up for free.
Washington Capitals: Nick Jensen
As good as the Capitals are and have been, this one is a toss-up because there are a number of players who could go. T.J. Oshie was brought in to win a Stanley Cup and has accomplished that task. He is still producing at a high level, but could the team cut ties with the 33-year-old while they have the chance rather than face the remaining five years and $28.75MM left on his contract? Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin, both on the wrong side of 30 and both signed for three more years, are in a similar boat. Their scoring is fine relative to their cap hit, but will it continue to be through the length of their contracts? Depending on how much room the Capitals may need to clear, any of these three could be a candidate for a buyout. However, Washington can impact their performance and their locker room far less by opting for Jensen instead. In his first full season with the team, Jensen has not been bad, but he has drawn his fair share of criticism. Jensen’s offense, though not typically a hallmark of his game, has been non-existent and he has been prone to turnovers and blown assignments. If the Capitals need to use a compliance buyout, they can likely find a better use for $7.5MM over the next three years.
Winnipeg Jets: Mathieu Perreault
The Jets have great depth at forward an nearly everyone carries the weight of their contracts. Perreault is an exception. The 32-year-old’s point totals have fallen in each of the past three seasons to just 15 points in 49 games this year. At a cap hit of $4.125, Perreault is not doing enough. He’s not the answer at second-line center and he’s overpaid to play in the bottom-six. There’s no place for Perreault and the team would likely be willing to move on a year early. While Bryan Little has also shown signs of slowing down and his signed for far longer and for more than Perreault, his lack of impact in 2019-20 is tied to injury. Even if injury issues persist, Little’s cap hit does not cause a problem when he is not active, so Perreault still makes more sense a buyout candidate.