Why are there So Few Trades in the NHL Today? That is an excellent question. Obviously trades do occur but the impactful one’s are few and far between. This past NHL trade deadline day was proof positive of that. But why is this happening? The answer is multi-dimensional.
The Salary Cap
First and foremost the lack of trades in the NHL is partially due to the salary cap. At least half the teams in the league are right at the salary cap ceiling. Those teams not against the cap ceiling only have a little bit of wiggle room. There are very few teams in the league that have a lot of flexibility when it comes to their cap. Most teams that have a lot of flexibility with their cap are budget teams and their payroll will not finish near the cap ceiling.
The second issue with the salary cap is how little the cap ceiling as well as the cap floor has been raised on an annual basis. Most teams felt after the signing of the latest CBA (collective bargaining agreement) that the NHL cap ceiling would increase a healthy percentage every year. That has not been the case so far. The cap ceiling saw a modest increase last year by a little more than $2 million dollars.
The cap ceiling for next season is only expected to once again have a modest increase at best. There has been some talk that the salary cap for the 2016-17 season could decrease by as much as $4 million, though this is doubtful due to the NHLPA escalator clause. By the 2016-17 season most analysts expected the cap to be at least in the low $80 million dollar range. The major reason for the cap’s drag is because of the falling rate of the Canadian dollar. Because of this the cap is only increasing incrementally on an annual basis. Imagine if goes down for next season? As the cap currently stands and with a modest increase, most NHL general managers have a lack of flexibility.
NHL salary cap is coming down via Canadian dollar. With a $71 million cap likely, so much of it tied up in those 3 is untenable
— BobSchaller (@BobSchaller) March 2, 2016
While the cap is only rising slightly on a yearly basis, player salaries are skyrocketing. The benchmark salary for a franchise player is now $10 million annually. This was affirmed with the recent signing by the Kings with Anze Kopitar. The next tier of NHL players are now getting salaries in the $7 million dollar plus range. Dustin Byfuglien’s recent contract extension will pay him $7.6 million a year for the next five seasons. This summer’s unrestricted free agents who fall in this group, such as the Islanders Kyle Okposo and Boston’s Loui Eriksson can expect offers that will pay them at least $7 million a year. Good players who become UFA’s command salaries in the $5 million dollar range, while support players snag contracts worth $4 million annually.
Another ripple effect of this rise in players salaries is it’s becoming harder and harder for teams to lock up players on a long term cap friendly deal. In recent years we saw these kind of deals with Travis Hamonic of the Islanders ($3.86 million annual cap hit) and John Klingberg of the Stars ($4.25 million annual) on long term contracts. These kind of contracts moving forward will be the exception and not the rule. A prime example of this will be the Jacob Trouba negotiations this summer with the Winnipeg Jets. The rise of the player salaries in a nutshell has made roster flexibility very difficult to achieve.
Falling in Love with Prospects & 1st Round Picks
In the last number of years NHL GM’s have fallen in love with their stable of blue chip prospects and their future 1st round picks. Do not get me wrong these prospects and picks are extremely valuable. However, in recent years blue chip prospects and first round draft picks have been valued in the same vain of a team’s franchise player(s). Keep in mind when a prospect make the NHL his first three years that player is on his entry level deal, which is a very low cap number (under $1 million). This is yet another reason why these players are so valued. But making so many prospects and first round picks nearly untouchable has not helped in terms of impactful trades occurring in the NHL.
NHL trade deadline day is like Christmas, if your mean parents made you talk about your presents all morning without ever opening anything.
— Down Goes Brown (@DownGoesBrown) February 29, 2016
Lack of Flexibility by the GM’s
This is not something conclusively I can prove but there are far too many situations when teams have the assets to make a necessary trade and it does not happen. When a team has an immediate need to help them to take the next step and have identified a player who can help them get there, that GM must use creativity and flexibility for that trade to occur. That seems to be a skill many GM’s are lacking today.
Also many times so many teams are so worried about losing on a trade and how it will look if that happens. The net result of this thinking is these teams will only make a trade if they are deemed the clear winner on the day of the trade. This thinking is more subconscious than conscious but it does occur.
When you add up all these factors the result is there are only a handful of meaningful trades on a yearly basis in the NHL. I do not see this changing anytime soon. In fact it will only get worse!