It’s now late August, and as such, the calendar dictates that we are in the middle of the slowest part of the year for hockey news and discussion. The dog days of summer are something we’ve learned to deal with on an annual basis, but that never seems to make it any easier the next time it rolls around.
One discussion-driving topic that has fueled some hockey talk and debate recently is that of assembling the best possible hockey team that comes in under the league’s mandated salary cap of $71.4 million.
Ryan Fancey over at Today’s Slapshot, inspired by ESPN’s recent post of the same concept for the NFL, started off the conversation by submitting his attempt. It was a well received post, and it inspired his TSS colleague Sean Tierney (Hockey Twitter’s best content curator, you should follow him immediately) to put together his own roster:
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) August 22, 2015
Inspired by these two, I’ve decided to submit my own bid at putting together the best possible NHL roster under the salary cap. The rules laid out by Fancey in his original post are as follows:
First off, I had to establish a couple guidelines — nothing serious, but there had to be rules. Initially I was going to play it loose with the forwards and just plug in centers as wingers and whatnot if it meant a better team, but eventually decided to go with four right wings, four lefts and four centers, as they were listed per the official NHL website.
Next was roster size. Teams can (and obviously do) carry up to a maximum of 23 players on their roster, but you can get away with 20. So in the interest of making my team as strong as possible, I kept it thin. Hopefully we don’t run into a string of injuries.
Lastly, I went with a player’s cap hit as listed on HockeysCap.com. It doesn’t include potential performance bonuses for players on entry-level contracts, just the base. If we Claude Loiselle this thing and go into overage after the fact, so be it. Also, in ESPN’s piece they didn’t use rookies, but I’m going to use one.
I’m going to follow the same rules, but with two exceptions. I’ll be using General Fanager‘s information for salary cap numbers. Additionally, not only will I not include any rookies in my roster, but I’ll also refrain from using any entry-level contracts at all. The reason for that being that it seems to be a little bit of an easy way out to include players like Connor McDavid, Filip Forsberg and Hampus Lindholm to fill out the bottom of the roster. That’s no slight on the other two rosters, they played by their rules and that’s perfectly fine, but I want this to be as challenging as can be.
So without further ado, here’s my submission for the best possible cap-compliant NHL team:
Jamie Benn ($5.25m) – Sidney Crosby ($8.7m) – Tyler Toffoli ($3.25m)
Tomas Tatar ($2.75m) – John Tavares ($5.5m) – Kyle Okposo ($2.8m)
Ondrej Palat ($3.333m) – Tyler Johnson ($3.333m) – Alex Semin ($1.1m)
Jason Zucker ($0.90025m) – Cody Eakin ($1.9m) – Justin Fontaine ($1m)
Total Forward Cap Hit: $38,816,916
Any roster of this nature without Crosby on it is bound to fall short. When the consensus best player in the world isn’t even all that close to being the league’s highest paid, you’ve got to take advantage of that. Similarly, Tavares is somehow 31st among NHL centers in cap hit. Depending upon your opinion of Tavares, these are two of the seven best centers in the world for way below market value. That’s $14.2 million well spent to carry the team offensively.
Building a solid group to surround these guys without the luxury of being able to use ELCs is where it gets very hairy. Rolling three scoring lines is crucial, and Johnson’s sub-$3.5m cap hit is great value for a 70-plus point center. Eakin comes in under $2 million and seems like a great fit for this kind of team’s fourth line. He can kill penalties, play an agitating role if need be, and provide all-around stability while the scoring lines are resting up. The four centers come in at a combined cap hit of $19,433,333 million, which seems reasonable for the most important position on the ice.
The wingers were a challenging group to assemble. Benn’s contract is a huge steal, so the reigning Art Ross winner is a must on the first line. They’re flanked by Toffoli and his brand new two-year bridge deal. Proven chemistry was the driving force behind the decisions to include Palat and Okposo on their respective lines alongside their regular centers. Semin and his new show-me contract with Montreal get to fill in with Johnson and Palat for Nikita Kucherov and his entry-level deal.
Duncan Keith ($5.538m) – Erik Karlsson ($6.5m)
Victor Hedman ($4m) – Justin Faulk ($4.833m)
Karl Alzner ($2.8m) – Tyson Barrie ($2.6m)
Total Defense Cap Hit: $26,271,694
I like this defensive unit a whole lot. Keith, Karlsson, and Hedman are all surefire top-10 defensemen in the league. Each of them are compensated at a rate far below market value. All three are dominant at even strength and on the power play, and can certainly hold their own in the defensive zone.
While those first three are already established as top-10 defensemen, Faulk is rapidly making progress toward becoming a member of that elite group, as well. Carolina’s unheralded 23-year-old defender put up a 49-point campaign on a miserable offensive team last year, and was also excellent with regards to both possession and the defensive aspects of the game. He’s an excellent choice to round out the top four here.
Not to be overlooked is the bottom pairing duo of Alzner and Barrie. Both are very different players, but they would seem to be almost ideal complements if they were hypothetically to be paired together. Alzner is a solid, steadying presence who is good at suppressing shots and denying zone entries, while Barrie is a puck-carrying fiend who can put up points in a hurry. With the four thoroughbreds above them, they may not see much ice time at even strength, but both would be sure to be massive contributors in their respective special teams situations.
Craig Anderson ($4.2m)
Eddie Lack ($1.15m)
Total Goalie Cap Hit: $5,350,000
Total Team Cap Hit: $70,438,610
Because of my refusal to cheap out on the bottom defensive pairing, I was forced to take a pass on each goalie in the elite tier of their position. However, I think given the amount of cap space I had remaining, this tandem is perfectly capable of getting the job done for this team.
Anderson has consistently posted outstanding save-percentage numbers throughout the last several years, and the available data on Lack from his time in Vancouver suggests that he has a high likelihood of developing into a starting goaltender in the very near future.
They may not be Carey Price, but they’ll do just fine. And after all, you really can’t have it all in the salary cap world, can you?
* * * * * *
This was an extremely fun, yet wildly challenging, exercise. It really goes to show just how difficult the job of an NHL general manager truly is. Avoiding burdensome contracts while always being on the lookout for potential bargain-bin contributors is a sharp skill that is necessary to building a championship team in today’s NHL.
I challenge you to post your own efforts in the comments below, and see if you can put a team together capable of beating mine! Thanks for reading.