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As training camp and the NHL preseason creep around the corner, the offseason is almost wrapped up, aside from some league minimum deals handed out to veterans and a few big name restricted free agents in tight negotiations with their teams.

With that, so begins our NHL team salary cap rankings at Daily Faceoff, in which we take a deep dive into the many facets that make up a team’s salary cap structure and rank them accordingly. I generate the rankings using a somewhat complex process and system, enough to warrant its own post to explain it, which you can check out here for a refresher before we begin.

This week, we’re looking at the worst of the worst, the teams that many would consider to be in cap hell or on the tipping point of reaching it. Some of them are rebuilding teams that are riding out albatross contracts, and some are competitive playoff teams whose success overshadows the incoming storm. Regardless, these are teams that you won’t want to envy.

32. Chicago Blackhawks

Good Contract Percentage: 28th
Quality Cheap Deals: 22nd
Contracts with No-Trade/No-Move Clauses: 14th
Dead Cap Space: 31st
Quality of Core: 32nd
Cap Space to Skill Differential: 21st

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As if Blackhawk fans needed a bigger reason to not look forward to this season, they find themselves at the bottom of this list, and it doesn’t take an expert to figure out why. They rank last and second last in two categories and only find themselves in the top 20 in just one category. It’s no wonder new general manager Kyle Davidson is going scorched Earth with this team, because it is desperately needed.

Right now, the team has just four contracts on the books that are considered worth their money, but nine that fall into the bad category. It doesn’t help that they have three players paid to be elite in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Seth Jones, and none of them are at that level anymore. Kane scores like a star, but his inability to drive play and defend drops him down. The term on Jones’ contract doesn’t help, either, as him being replacement level hurts the quality of the team’s core as well. Combine that with very few options for NHL-caliber players on cheap deals and the recapture penalty of Duncan Keith at $5,538,462 this season, and it keeps weighing down the team’s ranking into the last spot.

If I can provide any good news for Blackhawks fans, it’s this: of the four contracts above $1 million that Davidson brought in, three of them in Max Domi, Andreas Athanasiou, and Colin Blackwell are considered good, and the lone bad one in Petr Mrazek was part of a cap dump deal that moved the team up in the 2022 Draft, so the new GM is at least being prudent with his signings so far. Also, Chicago’s lone category that’s in the top 20 is no-move and no-trade clauses, which means the team doesn’t have as many in its way when it offloads pieces at the deadline (although the two for Kane and Toews might be a problem considering they probably bring the largest return).

31. Edmonton Oilers

Good Contract Percentage: 20th
Quality Cheap Deals: 30th
Contracts with No-Trade/No-Move Clauses: 21st
Dead Cap Space: 26th
Quality of Core: 18th
Cap Space to Skill Differential: 24th

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There are three inevitable things in life: death, taxes, and Ken Holland struggling in the salary cap era. This may be a surprise considering that the Oilers are coming off a trip to the Western Conference Final, but while they’re still a good playoff team that can go far with Connor McDavid, they aren’t quite an elite-tier team, especially with the players Holland invested money and term into.

That doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have good contracts, as players like McDavid, Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi, Derek Ryan, and Brett Kulak are on some sweet deals, and those aren’t bad players to have on your team. But when you have players like Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, and Jack Campbell all signed for at least three years and, according to my contract rating system, to too much money does not help their case. Oh, and Ceci is the only player out of that bunch not on a no-move/no-trade clause.

Beyond that, the Oilers have just two players (Brad Malone and Slater Koekkoek) signed to cheap deals that are considered above replacement level, so their economical options are few and far between, and they have a fair amount of dead cap space from the Milan Lucic salary retention and buyouts of James Neal and Andrej Sekera. All of that leads to a team that is good, but not good enough for it to be worth going over the cap, which they still are at the moment, even with Mike Smith and Oskar Klefbom on the shelf all year. They can still make a deep run regardless because McDavid is just that good, but it’s going to get harder and harder to build a better team around him with Edmonton’s current cap situation.

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30. New York Rangers

Good Contract Percentage: 30th
Quality Cheap Deals: 22nd
Contracts with No-Trade/No-Move Clauses: 14th
Dead Cap Space: 24th
Quality of Core: 14th
Cap Space to Skill Differential: 27th

Speaking of teams coming off a surprise conference final run, the New York Rangers find themselves in a similar situation over in the East. But while the Oilers were a decent team that had too much money invested in them, the Rangers are a team that drastically overperformed on the back of the best goalie in the league.

The engine of The Kid Line in Filip Chytil, the top pair of Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren on the blueline, and the reigning Vezina trophy winner Igor Shesterkin are the team’s lone good contracts, with the remaining 10 all considered a bit too much. This might be a bit of a surprise when they also have Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Chris Kreider on the team, as well as recent signing Vincent Trocheck, but none of them have the play-driving or defensive skills to make it worth it, even if they can score at a high level.

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They also lack the all-important quality cheap deals as they get closer to the salary cap, and are still dealing with the aftermath of buying out Kevin Shattenkirk, Dan Girardi, and Tony DeAngelo, although those are in the final year of their penalties. They rank favorably in no-move/no-trade deals and the quality of their core, but it’s not enough to drag the rest of the categories that rank in the bottom third of the league. If they don’t rely on Shesterkin and drive play significantly better in 2022-23, that will do a huge favor to their ranking next season, but if this group can’t do that, it’s probably not the best to invest in for long term success.

29. Columbus Blue Jackets

Good Contract Percentage: 27th
Quality Cheap Deals: 7th
Contracts with No-Trade/No-Move Clauses: 8th
Dead Cap Space: 15th
Quality of Core: 30th
Cap Space to Skill Differential: 32nd

The Blue Jackets are a roller coaster with this system, finding themselves among the worst in the league in a few categories but in the top half in the other few. This probably wouldn’t seem as bad for a team that was middle of the pack in 2021-22 if not for the fact that they just brought in the biggest name of the offseason and also spent a lot of money on Patrik Laine.

First, the bad. They only have five contracts on the books that are considered good, and aside from Johnny Gaudreau’s, none of them are big money deals or long term, which means the expensive and lengthy deals are on the bad side. Defenseman Zach Werenski is starting to look better without Seth Jones, so that improves the outlook on one pricy contract, but with Laine’s overall impact grading out as replacement level, that undoes any progress and then some. Boone Jenner’s, Erik Gudbranson’s, and Elvis Merzlikins’ long term deals don’t help that either. All in all, it makes Columbus a team right up against the cap when it doesn’t have the pieces worth putting them there.

The Jackets do have some bright spots, but it doesn’t quite save them from a low ranking on here. They only have Alex Wennberg’s $441,667 buyout penalty to worry about for dead cap space, although that jumps to $891,667 for the next three seasons after this one. They also only have five no-move/no-trade clauses on the books at the moment, although three of those belong to the bad contracts of Jenner, Gudbranson, and Merzlikins, and a decent group of cheap depth options to at least make it easier on their cap. But, that long-term investment in a lot of weak pieces just kills any momentum the team thought it was starting to build.

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28. Boston Bruins

Good Contract Percentage: 8th
Quality Cheap Deals: 29th
Contracts with No-Trade/No-Move Clauses: 27th
Dead Cap Space: 2nd
Quality of Core: 23rd
Cap Space to Skill Differential: 28th

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This might be the biggest surprise on the list overall, even for me. The Bruins are a team that have been praised for years about having its main core of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak locked in at that $6 million range, and the only thing that’s changed is that Bergeron is even cheaper. To be fair, that component of the Bruins is still a plus, as they sit eighth in the league in good contract percentage.

The problem is that those cheap deals are slowly running out. Marchand still has a few years left, but Bergeron only returned on a one-year contract, and Pastrnak is on the final year of his his. Combine that with the fact Taylor Hall’s deal is now out of that four-year minimum to qualify as a core deal, per my system, and that leaves Charlie McAvoy as the lone strong option in the core. The recent Hampus Lindholm extension looks messy if the change of scenery doesn’t improve him, and Charlie Coyle failing to replace David Krejci in 2021-22 makes that group even worse.

The Bruins’ other big problems are that they hand out no-move/no-trade clauses like candy and that they have very few cheap deals of quality. The latter might come from the one downside of having your main core locked up for cheaper than they should be: it gives the illusion that you can afford to pay that average player just a little bit more than you probably need to. Combine that with a weak prospect pool, and that doesn’t leave Boston with many options. This season has been labelled ‘The Last Dance’ for Boston, and it’s prophetic about a cap situation that looks like it’s on the verge of imploding as well.

27. San Jose Sharks

Good Contract Percentage: 13th
Quality Cheap Deals: 7th
Contracts with No-Trade/No-Move Clauses: 14th
Dead Cap Space: 29th
Quality of Core: 21st
Cap Space to Skill Differential: 31st

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The only surprise with the Sharks spot is that they’re as high as they are. Their situation is ugly, especially with plenty of expensive contracts locked in for a long time. They’re in a better spot than last summer, thanks to Evander Kane being enough of a chaotic human being for the Sharks to erase his deal with no penalties and new general manager Mike Grier jumping on the opportunity to move on from Brent Burns’ deal, but it still isn’t pretty, especially with Timo Meier’s new deal on the horizon, complete with a $10 million qualifying offer.

What helps their good contract percentage a bit is Erik Karlsson still driving play better than he gets credit for. His issue has always been health over quality of play. Either way, the Marc-Edouard Vlasic contract that still has four years makes sure that the back end has plenty of cap punishment, and Logan Couture’s contract gives them just as many problems up front. It makes for a core that is not the worst but far from great, especially when the best case scenarios in Karlsson and Tomas Hertl are on deals that probably won’t fare well in a few years.

Combine that with a lot of dead cap space from Burns’ retained salary and the Martin Jones buyout, and you have a roster that is one of the worst in the league yet doesn’t even have $300,000 in cap space. At the very least, the Sharks do a good job of navigating it with some cheap deals, especially since Grier took over, but it’s still going to be a long time before they leave the bottom quarter of the list.

26. St. Louis Blues

Good Contract Percentage: 23rd
Quality Cheap Deals: 23rd
Contracts with No-Trade/No-Move Clauses: 27th
Dead Cap Space: 2nd
Quality of Core: 23rd
Cap Space to Skill Differential: 17th

The Blues are similar to the New York Rangers in that a big reason why the team is this low is because the overall quality of the roster is brought down by the fact that the team struggled with play-driving. However, the Blues weren’t nearly as bad as the Rangers in that regard last season, and there is a bit more hope for St. Louis in that it excels at passing and waiting for that perfect opportunity as opposed to relying on hot shooting or goaltending. We’ll have to see if that is sustainable for more than one season, though, and that’s why for now, the Blues sit this low.

As far as the good and bad contracts go, their forward group is almost entirely good deals aside from Tarasenko not being quite worth the $7.5 million cap hit with one year left and the Brayden Schenn albatross. But it’s St. Louis’ blueline that really tanks its cap score, with every contract falling into the bad category. Apparently, giving $6.5 million (which is my cut-off for elite player salaries for defensemen) to second-pair defensemen and $3-4 million to replacement-level defensemen isn’t a good strategy. Add in Jordan Binnington’s long-term deal also not looking pretty, and you have a lot of bad deals making up a majority of your core.

The Blues’ saving grace is that they at least have some cap space, which works for a team that’s not elite but still a playoff contender, and the fact that they have no dead cap space. It’s not enough to completely save them, but it’s enough to keep them from dead last.

25. New York Islanders

Good Contract Percentage: 25th
Quality Cheap Deals: 30th
Contracts with No-Trade/No-Move Clauses: 15th
Dead Cap Space: 2nd
Quality of Core: 25th
Cap Space to Skill Differential: 17th

We’ve gone through quite a few teams already with bleak futures, but for my money, the Islanders might have the bleakest, and that’s because the hard times are just starting. Lou Lamoriello’s back-to-back GM of the Year awards in 2020 and 2021 came with plenty of criticism considering his cap management skills, something he’s struggled with since the cap came into place. The New Jersey Devils are only just starting to become competitive in his wake, he cost the Toronto Maple Leafs plenty of assets to get out of the cap problems he created there, and now the Islanders find themselves with a lot of mediocre pieces locked up for too much money and too much term, with the head coach who somehow made those pieces work booted out the door because Lamoriello needed a scapegoat.

The biggest issue on Long Island is that Lou seems to exclusively give players overpayments. Not only is tied for the second worst in the league at bringing in quality cheap deals with just Zach Parise, Sebastian Aho, and Paul LaDue considered above replacement, they also have the most bad contracts in the league. Up front, their lone good contract is Richard Panik, who’s salary is retained and is only on the team as part of a cap dump. Otherwise, they have 12 contracts rated by my system as bad amongst their forwards, from the big guns like Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee, to the replaceable players that make more than league minimum and surprisingly have term in Matt Martin and Ross Johnston. It’s a significant improvement both in net and on defense that saves them from having the worst good contract percentage, with Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Noah Dobson, Semyon Varlamov, and Ilya Sorokin proving to be good investments.

Pulock and Pelech are also the only reason the quality of core isn’t one of the worst as well, as Lee, Johnston, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Casey Cizikas are the names that make up the rest of that list. Their saving grace for the overall ranking is that Lamoriello doesn’t give out no-trade/no-move clauses as much as he does bad contracts, as well as no dead cap space aside from Rick DiPietro’s compliance buyout penalty of $0. That said, it’s going to be an ugly stretch of hockey for the Islanders if they have a repeat of last season, and with Barry Trotz gone, it’s hard to see any significant improvement from a team whose lone NHL addition was trading its first-round pick for Alexander Romanov.

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