Ranking every NHL team’s salary cap situation, from best to

NHL free agency is here. Let’s do some math!

We’ve put together this list for the last several years. “We” as in The Athletic. Not me personally — I’m taking over for James Mirtle, but I’ve carried over his methodology, which is cut-and-pasted as follows:

Take a team’s signed players, project what they’ll need to pay the RFAs that will make the lineup, subtract those going on LTIR and you have a solid estimate of what they can spend in unrestricted free agency to fill out their rosters.

Now, this is not an exact science. Some teams may play hardball with their restricted players and give them all cheap one-year deals; other clubs may go long, long term and that would cost more. I tried to be as reasonable as possible in coming up with projections, but we’re talking about 120-plus contract forecasts calculated in a compressed window. They’re not all going to hit the mark.

No, they won’t — but we’re trying to come as close as possible, with invaluable assists from Cap Friendly, the Evolving Hockey contract predictions, The Athletic’s staff of beat writers and elsewhere. The cap, yet again, is $82.5 million.

To quote Mirtle once more: Keep in mind this is a ranking not of how strong these teams are or are set up to become; it simply ranks how much cap space they will likely have to improve their rosters beyond players who are already under team control.

Let’s get into it.

1. Anaheim Ducks

2022-23 salaries: $43,076,667
RFAs estimate: $2.5 million
Dead money deals: Corey Perry buyout ($2 million), John Moore buried ($1.625 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Zach Aston-Reese
Problem contract: Cam Fowler
Projected cap space: $36,929,208

Pat Verbeek might’ve pulled off the shocker of Q.O. deadline day by not offering Sonny Milano or Sam Steel. Those two, particularly Milano — who’d made a name for himself as Trevor Zegras’ running mate — are interesting UFA additions, if nothing else. Still … wow. Milano’s offer would’ve been $1.7 million. Anaheim certainly wasn’t hurting for cap space.

Either way, Verbeek is now free to focus on developing the few upside pieces he has and fill out the roster for the first full year of his rebuild. This team is going to be very, very bad.

2. Buffalo Sabres

2022-23 salaries:50,295,834
RFAs estimate: $5.58 million
Dead money deals: Cody Hodgson buyout ($791,667)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Vinnie Hinostroza, Dustin Tokarski, Colin Miller, Drake Caggiula
Problem contract: Jeff Skinner
Projected cap space: $31,538,333

If the Sabres wish, they can exceed the cap by $4.9 million after acquiring Ben Bishop’s contract from Dallas for picks. What’s more likely is that they use their existing space to figure out which — if any — UFAs they want to bring back, add some decent depth pieces that can either help win games or turn into picks at the deadline and keep letting things cook. They’re on the right track.

3. Detroit Red Wings

2022-23 salaries: $51,478,889
RFAs estimate: $2.5 million
Dead money deals: Justin Abdelkader buyout ($2.305 million), Richard Panik retained ($1.375 million), Frans Nielsen buyout ($500,000)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Sam Gagner, Thomas Greiss, Marc Staal
Problem contract: None
Projected cap space: $28,564,486

The Red Wings, for all intents and purposes, could spend their summer figuring out their approach to the futures of 2023 UFAs Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi. Of the three players they sent qualifying offers on Monday, Filip Zadina is the relevant piece — whether it’s to hold, cheaply extend or flip for another team’s change-of-scenery RFA. Only new goalie Ville Husso and Robby Fabbri are signed for more than two seasons. The team’s other two cornerstones — Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond — each just finished the first year of their entry deals.

There’s also more than enough space for Steve Yzerman to add an actually relevant player or three, if he wishes. Those could be short-term deadline-flip plays, or they could be legit pieces for the next good Red Wings team. Max Bultman went over 10 solid options, starting with Ondrej Palat.

4. Arizona Coyotes

2022-23 salaries: 54,381,709
RFAs estimate: $2.4 million
Dead money deals: Oliver Ekman-Larsson retained ($990,000), Bryan Little IR ($5.291 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: None.
Problem contract: None. 
Projected cap space: $25.494 million

Anyone still making cracks about the Coyotes still carrying Marian Hossa, Chris Pronger, et al on their roster — it’s time for an update. Arizona’s old approach of taking on cap hits of functionally retired players to add assets and reach the cap floor no longer applies. Now they’re below the limit — even when accounting for RFAs Lawson Crouse and Barrett Hayton — and out to add problem contracts for players who are still, y’know, playing. Think what they did with Zack Kassian, and they have the space to do it with plenty more. Maybe they come with actual multi-year extensions for Crouse and Hayton, maybe not; they’re still going to have well over $20 million in space to make other teams’ problems go away.

5. Seattle Kraken

2022-23 salaries: $60,439,166
RFAs estimate: $3 million
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Victor Rask, Riley Sheahan
Problem contract: Philipp Grubauer
Projected cap space: $21.29 million

Is Seattle already prepped to cut some big-time UFA checks? It seems more possible now than, say, a month ago. If they want to take a shot, they’ll have the flexibility; if their only NHL RFA is Morgan Geekie  hey’ll have 17 players on the rosters and, should they desire, a whole bunch of money to throw at whoever they want.

Otherwise, they can keep building a little more organically. If another player like Shane Wright falls into their lap, they might not need to do anything drastic.

6. Washington Capitals

2022-23 salaries: $73,521,666
RFAs estimate: None
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Justin Schultz, Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson
Problem contract: John Carlson
Projected cap space: $8.4 — $26 million, depending on LTIR decisions.

The Capitals, if they wish, could give themselves a significantly large chunk of space by putting Nicklas Backstrom ($9.2 million AAV) on LTIR to start the season — at minimum. Backstrom had hip resurfacing surgery (it’s as serious as it sounds) and plans to play again, but that’s far from a given. Tom Wilson ($5.166 cap hit) is going to be out until December after surgery on a torn ACL. It’s unclear whether Carl Hagelin ($2.75 million) will be able to return from a left eye injury. As Tarik El-Bashir wrote, that’d leave the Caps with 17 healthy skaters, no goaltenders and about $25 million in cap space. If that’s the route they take, they’d have to be considered players for Nazem Kadri and J.T. Miller. How many more bites at the apple with Alex Ovechkin are they going to get?

The issue is whether the rest of the roster is good enough to make big-ticket additions like that worth it. Backstrom, for what it’s worth, seems like the best LTIR candidate at this point, which would give Washington the ability to exceed the cap by about $16 million. There are just too many possibilities to settle on one number.

The less theoretical question for the Caps is what to do with their starting goaltender spot. Ilya Samsonov lost it last season, and Vitek Vanecek self-destructed in the playoffs. Vanecek is a Devil now, and Samsonov was not tendered a qualifying offer. Washington seems like a landing spot for UFA goalie Darcy Kuemper.

7. Ottawa Senators

2022-23 salaries: $58,630,714
RFAs estimate: $8.47 million

Dead money deals: Bobby Ryan buyout ($1.833 million), Matt Murray retained ($1,562,500), Colin White buyout ($875,000 million), Dion Phaneuf ($354,167)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Chris Tierney, Tyler Ennis
Problem contract: None
Projected cap space: $16.9 million

The single biggest concern for Ottawa is signing Josh Norris long-term. They have the cap space and the desire to get it done — so let’s say it happens. A six-year deal would put Norris in step with core teammates like Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson; a $6 million AAV would put him behind Tkachuk but ahead of Batherson. A long-term deal of any amount would give the Sens an idea of how much they can handle paying Tim Stutzle and Alex DeBrincat. The cap space is there. No sense in wasting it.

This projection also includes qualifying offers for Mathieu Joseph and Erik Brannstrom and accounts for the Matt Murray-to-Toronto trade.

Seth Jones remains a problem for the rebuilding Blackhawks. (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

8. Chicago Blackhawks

2022-23 salaries: $63.96 million
RFAs estimate: $1.7 million
Dead money deals: Duncan Keith cap recapture ($5.538 million), Brett Connolly buyout ($1.166 million), Henrik Borgstrom buyout ($83,334)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik, Calvin de Haan, Kevin Lankinen, Erik Gustafsson
Problem contract: Seth Jones
Projected cap space: $16.8 million

“What are the Blackhawks gonna do next?” is already this season’s hot offseason guessing game. On Monday, they opted not to qualify Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik, adding both to the UFA pool and mercifully allowing them to play somewhere else. Their projected space includes new deals for Caleb Jones and Philipp Kurashev; they’re going to have to fill out the roster somehow.

The projections do not account for whoever leaves town next. Without going too far into it, we’ll just say that neither Patrick Kane nor Jonathan Toews, at this moment, can be moved without Chicago falling below the lower limit.

9. Carolina Hurricanes

2022-23 salaries: $63,124,417
RFAs estimate: $4.06 million
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, Max Domi, Brendan Smith, Ian Cole, Derek Stepan
Problem contract: Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Projected cap space: $15.313 million

The Canes stashed Jake Gardiner on LTIR last season, but he — and his $4.05 million salary — are expected to be healthy for camp. For our purpose, it makes sense to assume that’ll be the case.

RFA forward Martin Necas is an interesting case. He was drafted as a center and produced as a winger but took a step back in 2021-22. His Q.O. is small, though, and he doesn’t have arbitration rights. A wait-and-see approach here makes sense, as does an eventual bridge deal, but there’s no rush — especially if trade options pop up.

Defenseman Ethan Bear received a $2.4 million Q.O. on Monday, though he’s also been given permission to speak to other teams after being a healthy scratch in the playoffs. Steven Lorentz is the other priority NHL RFA. We have him also penciled in at his qualifying offer. The end result is enough money to give them options, especially if they need to replace Trocheck and/or Niederreiter or want to get in on some top-four defensive options. There’s a lot of work to be done, and a nice chunk of cash with which to do it.

10. Colorado Avalanche

2022-23 salaries: $67,590,000
RFAs estimate: $2.3 million
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Nazem Kadri, Darcy Kuemper, Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson, Jack Johnson, Nico Sturm, Darren Helm
Problem contract: None
Projected cap space: $14.91 million

That’s the absolute maximum Colorado will have to figure out the roster for the back-to-back attempt. Locking up Valeri Nichushkin ahead of free agency was big, since Nazem Kadri is almost certainly gone from the top six. Adding a low-cap, high-upside goalie in Alexandar Georgiev made sense as a Darcy Kuemper replacement.

Now they can wait and see what happens with Burakovsky; figure out how much more than the $2.3 million qualifying offer they can do with Artturi Lehkonen; decide how best to replace Kadri down the middle; and add a right defenseman. Maybe it’s Josh Manson. That’s a lot to deal with, but they probably have more money to work with than you’d guessed. They’ve got something else, too. It’s silver and pretty big.

11. New Jersey Devils

2022-23 salaries: $57,165,833
RFAs estimate: $12.9 million
Dead money deals: Cory Schneider buyout ($2 million), Ilya Kovalchuk cap recapture ($250,000)
Notable unsigned UFAs: P.K. Subban, Jimmy Vesey
Problem contract: None
Projected cap space: $12.446 million

New Jersey has one of the cleanest cap situations in the league, with real money tied up only in core players and plenty of other deals set to expire after the 2022-23 season. That gives them all sorts of flexibility to negotiate a long-term deal with Jesper Bratt this summer, and the thought here is that it’ll be a pretty big one. Evolving Hockey has his most likely deal at four years and $5.6 million. That sounds good enough for us.

For their other high-profile RFAs — forwards Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood and goalie Vitek Vanecek — the simplest route might be the best: qualifying offers for everyone. Zacha remains a trade candidate. Wood missed most of last season. Vanecek is almost certain to get an extension. However none of them are no-brainer big-money targets like Bratt, who is coming off one of the biggest breakout seasons in the league.

More generally, if their overall RFA bill is in that neighborhood, it’d give them space to chase a big fish, should they desire.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets

2022-23 salaries: $65.6 million
RFAs estimate: $8.34 million
Dead money deals: Alexander Wennberg buyout (441,667)
Notable unsigned UFAs: None
Problem contract: Elvis Merzlikins
Projected cap space: $10.096 million

The draft seemed like an ideal time for Columbus to add some legit pieces via trade and clear space in their forward group for actual prospects, but neither came to pass. The big question — what Patrik Laine’s next contract looks like — remains.

Evolving Hockey has his most likely deal at five years and a hair under $7 million annually. He could also play next season under another $7.5 million qualifying offer or head to arbitration, which has never happened in Columbus under Jarmo Kekalainen. Both signs say they want to find common ground, but as it stands, we’re working with the $7.5 million Q.O. number. That’d at least give the sides time and space to negotiate in-season, despite the risk that’s involved. We’re also assuming the team retains forward Emil Bemstrom from its RFA pool and rosters him in the NHL.

What’s left is enough money to give Kekalainen flexibility, should he want it. The Blue Jackets don’t typically spend in free agency, and there aren’t a ton of reasons (for them) to deviate from that course of action. They could use another right D and a backup goalie, but really, who couldn’t? Developing the players they have is the priority.

13. Pittsburgh Penguins

2022-23 salaries: $72.2 million
RFAs estimate: $3.0 million
Dead money deals: Jack Johnson buyout ($1.9 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Evgeni Malkin, Danton Heinen, Evan Rodrigues, Brian Boyle
Problem contract: Jason Zucker
Projected cap space: $9.1 million

The Penguins are one of those teams who seem to have more wiggle room than they actually do. The assumption here, of course, is that they’re actually trying to bring back Evgeni Malkin after agreeing on a six-year, $61 million AAV deal with Kris Letang and signing Rickard Rakell for six years and $30 million. At this point, that might require some suspension of disbelief, but whatever. We’ll get to that in a minute.

First off, their RFA situation is tricky. Kasperi Kapanen hasn’t made anyone in Pittsburgh particularly happy and is coming off a $3.2 million-AAV deal he signed with Toronto a few years back. His qualifying offer is just $840,000, so the Penguins could offer him that to maintain negotiation rights, then try to hammer out something a bit more equitable later in the offseason. The problem, if you’re Pittsburgh, would be Kapanen going to arbitration and getting a salary that’s a) too high for their taste and b) below the “walk-away number” of about $4.5 million. Then they’d be stuck. The smart move for both sides might be signing a base deal for, say, $2 million plus some performance-based incentives. The team opted to let winger Danton Heinen become a UFA rather than pay him $3 million or so after a decent, streaky season on a cheap deal.

A decent chunk of the offseason plan seems to rest on whether the Penguins think left-shot defenseman prospect (and RFA) Pierre-Olivier Joseph is ready for the regular lineup. If he were, that’d potentially allow Ron Hextall to move Marcus Pettersson and his $4.025 cap hit. Such a move isn’t accounted for here, but Pettersson has enough value (to a team with a different salary structure) to make it realistic.

The route Pittsburgh takes with players like that — not to mention Rodrigues (a Swiss Army knife coming off the best season of his career) and Jason Zucker (a player snake-bitten by injuries in the final year of a $5.5 million AAV deal) — may hinge on whether they find a way to bring back Malkin or adequately replace him when the market opens. Pittsburgh’s best-case scenario involves one of those, then a Pettersson trade to free up money for the rest of the top nine. But hoo boy, those are some moving parts.

Johnny Gaudreau is holding up the Flames’ offseason plans. (Sergei Belski / USA Today)

14. Calgary Flames

2022-23 salaries:$ 56,487,500
RFAs estimate: $17 million
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Johnny Gaudreau, Calle Jarnkrok, Nikita Zadorov, Erik Gudbranson, Trevor Lewis, Michael Stone
Problem contract: Sean Monahan
Projected cap space: $9,012,500

No team has more consequential work ahead of itself than Calgary. What Johnny Gaudreau does as a UFA will shape the team’s approach to key RFAs Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington … and vice versa, especially in Tkachuk’s case. Hailey Salvian broke that down last month.

Without going too far down the line here, Tkachuk’s $9 million qualifying offer and reasonable projected extensions for Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington would leave Calgary with just over $9 million in space and 17 players on the NHL roster (if you include Sean Monahan). In other words, they’d need to move out contracts — Monahan? Milan Lucic? Mikael Backlund? — if they want to re-sign Gaudreau and fill out the roster, whether with their own UFAs or someone else’s. Not a great situation.

15. Edmonton Oilers

2022-23 salaries: $75,369,795
RFAs estimate: $4 million
Dead money deals: Milan Lucic retained ($750,000), James Neal buyout ($1.91 million), Andrej Sekera ($1.5 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Evander Kane, Brett Kulak, Kris Russell, Josh Archibald, Derick Brassard, Kyle Turris, Colton Sceviour
Problem contract: Darnell Nurse
Projected cap space: $8.67 million

Edmonton, it should be said, might have more to work with than you’d think. If Oscar Klefbom indeed doesn’t play next season — and his career is likely over, as Ken Holland said recently — Edmonton could add more than $4 million in LTIR space. That’s not incorporated here, but keep it in mind. Edmonton’s larger issue, regardless of Klefbom, is what to do with RFAs Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi. Evolving Hockey has both projected in the $4-$5 million range. That seems steep for both.

It’s easy to turn the situation into one player vs. the other. Holland himself said that he needs to figure out whether Puljujarvi will be part of the solution moving forward. His underlying statistical profile is great, and the production (14 goals last season, with a huge chunk of time alongside Connor McDavid) less so. The ideal outcome for the Oilers here is probably a one-year “prove it” deal in the $2.5 million range with the hope that he doesn’t exercise his arbitration rights, then a Valeri Nichushkin-style breakout. It’s easier to imagine them selling low and having it blow up in their face. And here, I’m assuming that they move him out. Yamamoto and Ryan McLeod are sticking around instead.

The biggest reason to believe that Edmonton will cut its RFA cost? That they’ll want to save space to bring back Evander Kane, even though they gave him permission to speak with other teams. If he comes in around $4 million a year or so — and that’s conservative, all things considered — the theoretical Klefbom LTIR money will be necessary to fill out the rest of the roster.

Oh, and they’re probably going to have to find themselves a starting goaltender. More signs are starting to pop up that Mike Smith, indeed, is finished. If he retires, his $2.2 cap hit won’t count against the Oilers – even though he’s 40 – because of how the deal is structured. If Edmonton takes the LTIR route, they’ll clear space. That’s fine, but a cap-strapped quasi-contender finding a $2.2-million starting goaltender is difficult enough to negate the gain. Clearing Duncan Keith’s $5.5 million AAV will help, even though they’ll have to replace him.

16. Nashville Predators

2022-23 salaries: $72,888,642
RFAs estimate: $2 million
Dead money deals: Kyle Turris buyout ($2 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Nick Cousins
Problem contract: Ryan Johansen
Projected cap space: $7.6 million

David Poile did most of his important work — for good or ill — over draft weekend. Filip Forsberg, the best forward in franchise history, is sticking around. He’ll carry an $8.5 million AAV for the next eight seasons; Nashville alone had the ability to offer Forsberg the eighth year, and it was more than enough to keep him from hitting the market. Bad news for teams looking for a top-line winger.

Poile’s other move was taking Ryan McDonagh’s $6.75 million AAV off Tampa’s hands. Good as McDonagh remains, the Lightning simply couldn’t afford to keep him on the cap at that number. As far as cap dumps go, both teams could’ve done a lot worse.

Poile has a key RFA left to sign in Yakov Trenin and some work to do on the rest of his roster, but all told, the Preds are in better shape than we’d have guessed. They’re still a forward away from being an actual contender, and McDonagh’s contract might not age well, but you should at least be able to see why Poile is going to keep the band together.

17. Winnipeg Jets

2022-23 salaries: $66,303,690
RFAs estimate: $8.85 million
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Paul Stastny, Zach Sanford, Evgeny Svechnikov
Problem contract: Blake Wheeler
Projected cap space: $7.35 million

Most of Winnipeg’s offseason revolves around what they do with RFA center Pierre-Luc Dubois. They extended him a $6.65 million qualifying offer on July 11 after a 60-point season. Evolving Hockey projects his deal to be worth $5.965 million over four years. Winnipeg would certainly rather sign him long-term than not, but there are too many hurdles to assume that’s what happens. So, Q.O. it is … for now.

The Jets’ other priority RFA, winger Mason Appleton, projects at $2.2 million AAV for three years. We’ll pencil him there, too, though that seems a tick high.

The end result is a roster still short on top-nine options at forward, a logjam at left defense and without a backup goaltender. We made it through the draft weekend without seeing Blake Wheeler moved to clear cap (the thought at the time was that Winnipeg would retain some of his $8.25 million hit), and Murat Ates has Brenden Dillon pegged as the logical LD candidate to move, should the Jets want to clear space that way.

18. St. Louis Blues

2022-23 salaries: $73,487,500
RFAs estimate: $1.8 million
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: David Perron, Tyler Bozak, Nick Leddy
Problem contract: Jordan Binnington
Projected cap space: $7,212,500

St. Louis has a couple RFA defensemen — Niko Mikkola and Scott Perunovich — to deal with, which should be easy enough. The Blues’ bigger issue is replacing Ville Husso alongside Jordan Binnington (who, it should be noted, had a bounce-back postseason). AHL prospect Joel Hofer would fit the bill. They also need to figure out whether a long-term deal for deadline acquisition Nick Leddy is the best way to address their defensive group, especially for the $4-5 million AAV he’s seeking, as reported by Jeremy Rutherford.

A somewhat surprising cap casualty could be David Perron. Perron, who’s 34 but coming off another 27-goal season, is reportedly set to hit the open market on Wednesday because St. Louis does not have the cap space to offer him a “proper offer.” Perron has never signed a contract with an NHL team other than the Blues, so we’ll see how this ends.

19. Dallas Stars

2022-23 salaries: 63,939,166
RFAs estimate: $11.5 million
Dead money deals: Anton Khudobin buried ($2.2 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: John Klingberg, Vladislav Namestnikov, Alexander Radulov, Michael Raffl
Problem contract: Jamie Benn
Projected cap space: $7.06 million

Not many teams have a more interesting RFA situation than Dallas. Straightaway, we’re going to assume that star winger Jason Robertson ($7 million) and star-in-the-making goalie Jake Oettinger ($4.5 million) sign real extensions. If that happens, their RFA number clock in at $11-12 million or thereabouts and leave them with $7-ish million to figure out their situations at depth forward and right defense.

That’d all be easier for Jim Nill if he didn’t have nearly $20 million dedicated to Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but still, they’re in an OK space even when Robertson and Oettinger get their raises.

Kaapo Kakko could be an offer-sheet candidate. (Stan Szeto / USA Today)

20. New York Rangers

2022-23 salaries:  $72,291,469
RFAs estimate: $3.3 million
Dead money deals: Kevin Shattenkirk buyout ($1.43 million), Dan Girardi ($1.1 million), Tony Deangelo ($883,334)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte, Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, Justin Braun
Problem contract: Barclay Goodrow
Projected cap space: $6.9 million

The Rangers, as always, are in an interesting spot. Kaapo Kakko finished the playoffs as a healthy scratch after finding legitimate chemistry with Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil. He’s still their highest-profile RFA and, more relevantly, should be a Jesperi Kotkaniemi-style offer-sheet candidate. The Rangers have Adam Fox’s $9.5 million AAV megadeal kicking in next season, and they have extensions with Lafrenière and K’Andre Miller to worry about down the line (in addition to this coming season’s cap concerns). If some team wants to throw Kotkaniemi money at Kakko — $4.825 million a season — the Rangers almost certainly couldn’t match. A $2.5 AAV bridge deal for Kakko, who doesn’t have arbitration rights, is more likely — it always is — but this is one to watch once July 13 rolls around.

Trading backup goalie/top RFA Alexander Georgiev at the draft leaves the Rangers with a decent chunk of money to try to retain some of their key deadline additions (Copp, Motte, Vatrano); bring back Strome, though that seems less likely by the day; or add another top-six center. Again, though, there are down-the-line concerns to keep in mind.

21. Tampa Bay Lightning

2022-23 salaries: $76.55 million
RFAs estimate: None
Dead money deals: Brent Seabrook ($6.85 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Ondrej Palat, Jan Rutta
Problem contract: Alex Killorn
Projected cap space: $5.94 million

Somehow, this qualifies as playing the offseason on “easy mode” for Julien BriseBois. He’s already got 20 players on the roster, zero major RFAs to worry about and a decent chunk of projected cap space (thanks to Brent Seabrook) to play with.

The items remaining on the to-do list? Finding a way to bring back do-everything winger Ondrej Palat, who just had himself a 21-point postseason and is headed to market; and Jan Rutta, a right-shot defenseman who has acquitted himself well as Victor Hedman’s partner. BriseBois has already locked in Nick Paul, a deadline addition who provided quality down-the-middle depth, to a seven-year deal worth $3.15 million annually.

BriseBois said after the Stanley Cup Final that he wanted to find a way to return all three. That wasn’t going to happen without clearing space elsewhere. Palat alone should be a $5 million player; Rutta, even if you think he’s partially a Hedman creation, represents one of the most valuable player profiles in the NHL. Was sending Ryan McDonagh — a gigantic piece of Tampa’s still-going run, but too expensive to keep around — enough to create enough room? We’ll see.

If BriseBois is indeed serious about signing Palat and Rutta and needs space, he may still have to send out Alex Killorn (one year left at $4.5 million AAV). It’s tough to draw any other conclusions, given that Tampa’s roster is otherwise made up of 100-percent essential pieces or bargain-bin contributors that don’t make enough money to move the needle. That said, if there’s any way to bring in … anyone, really, BriseBois will find it.

22. Florida Panthers

2022-23 salaries: $79,425,834
RFAs estimate: $900,000
Dead money deals: Keith Yandle buyout ($5.391 million), Scott Darling buyout ($1.18 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Claude Giroux, Ben Chiarot, Mason Marchment, Joe Thornton, Robert Hagg, Noel Acciari
Problem contract: Sergei Bobrovsky
Projected cap space: $5.07 million

In an ideal world for the Panthers, Anthony Duclair would be healthy and prepping to improve on his 31-goal season. Instead, he’s on track for surgery on an Achilles tendon injury that will certainly cost him significant time. If there’s a bright side for the Panthers, it’s that they’ll likely be able to stash Duclair on LTIR and use his $3 million salary slot to exceed the salary cap beyond the $2ish million in space they were projected to have.

The problem for Florida is that their two big pending UFAs — Giroux and Chiarot — are more than capable of eating that space on their own. Florida’s interest in bringing them back is understandable; the deadline cost for both was high, and Giroux was good down the stretch. But the bill, Duclair’s injury notwithstanding, is going to be significant — and that’s before considering Mason Marchment, a 6-foot-4 27-year-old forward coming off an 18-goal season. The lightning bolt solution for Bill Zito would be finding a team to take Sergei Bobrovsky’s $10 million cap hit off his hands, but Florida is running seriously short on the draft-pick sweeteners that’d be necessary to complete such a move.

23. Toronto Maple Leafs

2022-23 salaries: $76,139,783
RFAs estimate: $3.1 million
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Jack Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev
Problem contract: John Tavares
Projected cap space: $3.26 million

Does anybody else want to skip this one? No? Just me? Alrighty. That RFA estimate includes deals for Pierre Engvall ($1.9 million) and Rasmus Sandin ($1.2 million). Toronto already handled business with RFA defenseman Timothy Liljegren and opted to let Ondrej Kase hit the market.

That leaves them with, we’ll say, $5-6 million to figure out their goaltending issues — specifically “not having any.” And that figure, in a vacuum, isn’t bad; it was also best-case scenario. The issue is whether Matt Murray at a $4.68 cap hit (after Ottawa’s retention) is good enough to work as the no-doubt starter. That’s certainly how they’re paying him, and based on his track record (and the Petr Mrazek disaster) having questions is reasonable.

24. Boston Bruins

2022-23 salaries: $80,116,667
RFAs estimate: $770,000
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Patrice Bergeron, Curtis Lazar
Problem contract: Charlie Coyle
Projected cap space: $1.6 million 

Earlier this month, the Bruins needed a head coach and a decision from Patrice Bergeron. They took care of the first one by bringing in Jim Montgomery, with the belief being that Montgomery’s work with young players will make him a better fit for the roster than Bruce Cassidy had been. As for Bergeron, all signs point to him returning to a group that is simultaneously decimated by injuries (Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Mike Reilly will all miss the start of the season) and largely in place (assuming RFA Jack Studnicka — one of the young players that Cassidy failed to shepherd — re-signs, they could ice a 23-man NHL roster).

The outstanding issues? How much Bergeron gets (his last contract paid him $6.875 million for eight seasons) and who gets moved out to accommodate both him and the looming return of David Krejci on a one-year deal. The easiest move would be to move out one of their left-side defensemen. Grzelcyk ($3,687,500 AAV through 2023-24) is a better player than Reilly ($3 million through 2023-24). Both, obviously, could start the season on LTIR. If the Bruins want to kick the proverbial can down the road, they could. Still, they’d need to get cap-compliant eventually. If they’d rather do that now, Craig Smith (one year left at $3.1 million) would seem a trade candidate.

25. Minnesota Wild

2022-23 salaries: $81,066,088
RFAs estimate: Zero
Dead money deals: Zach Parise buyout ($6,371,794), Ryan Suter buyout ($6,371,794)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Nick Bjugstad, Nicolas Deslauriers, Jordie Benn
Problem contract: Parise and Suter are bad enough to count here, too
Projected cap space: $1.4 million

Give Bill Guerin credit — he ripped off the bandage. With the bill coming due on the Parise/Suter buyouts, Guerin was never going to be able to sign Kevin Fiala long-term. Fiala is an 85-point winger in his mid-20s. Those guys get $7-8 million a season. Lo and behold, Fiala — after Guerin traded him to the Kings — immediately signed an extension worth $7.9 million annually. The Wild, painful as it might have been, can put the Fiala portion of their cap problems in the rearview.

It’s all far from being over in general, though. Parise and Suter’s buyout numbers increase to nearly $7.4 million in 2023-24 and 2024-25, then dip to $833,333 for the final three seasons. So it’s not going to get easier for Guerin per se — but he does have Kirill Kaprizov and Joel Eriksson-Ek locked in until the Parise/Suter numbers drop. Mats Zuccarello, Matt Dumba and Ryan Hartman all hit UFA in the next couple seasons, and someday there will be a Matt Boldy extension to consider, but those are future problems. Defenseman Jake Middleton was a pending RFA who extended for $2.45 million AAV ahead of the draft.

26. New York Islanders

2022-23 salaries: $71,314,963
RFAs estimate: $10 million
Dead money deals: Richard Panik buried ($250,000)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Andy Greene, Zdeno Chara
Problem contract: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Projected cap space: $1.18 million

The main offseason goals for Lou Lamoriello (and all we can do is assume) are locking up RFA defensemen Noah Dobson and, to a lesser extent, Alexander Romanov to extensions. Evolving Hockey projects their combined hit to exceed $10 million (about $6.5 million AAV for Dobson, about $3.7 for Romanov), which would suck up most of their projected space. It’s Lamoriello, and he has leverage, so it’s fair to assume the number to come in a bit lower.

We’re going to guess here that those extensions get done; Dobson is a core piece, and Romanov just cost the Islanders a first-round pick. Throw in the cost of retaining Kiefer Bellows, and Lamoriello would be up against it, in terms of attempting to improve via the UFA market. Semyon Varlamov, Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey — to varying degrees — could be moved out to clear space, should Lamoriello have the desire to chase a big-ticket winger. It’s also worth considering that star center Mathew Barzal will be eligible to negotiate an extension. He’s making $7 million annually and is scheduled for RFA after 2022-23.

27. Vancouver Canucks

2022-23 salaries: $80,351,667
RFAs estimate: $1.9 million
Dead money deals: Micheal Ferland LTIR ($3.5 million), Braden Holtby buyout ($1.9 million), Jake Virtanen buyout ($500,000)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Jaroslav Halak, Brad Hunt, Alex Chiasson
Problem contract: Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Projected cap space: $300,000

That RFA estimate includes Matthew Highmore and Juho Lammikko. Initially, it accounted for Brock Boeser’s $7.5 million qualifying offer. We know now that Boeser signed a long-term deal that came in a little under that AAV ($6.65 million). Not bad.

The Canucks have goals headed into free agency — adding quality depth at forward and a (likely right-shot) defenseman, at minimum. Just how much they can accomplish there depends on what they decide to do with J.T. Miller, who is coming off a career season and will be eligible to sign an extension on July 13. His name has been atop trade lists since the deadline. Moving Miller would clear $5.25 million from the books, bring back assets and cost Vancouver its most productive forward. Bit of a mixed bag. If Miller stays put, improving via free agency will be tough.

28. Montreal Canadiens

2022-23 salaries: $81.327 million
RFAs estimate: $874,000
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: None
Problem contract: Carey Price
Projected cap space: $299,000

Montreal started its offseason by swapping one of its long-term issues for a short-term one. Shea Weber’s gigantic, seemingly immovable contract is in Las Vegas. The cost for the Canadiens: Finding cap space for one season’s worth of Evgenii Dadonov. Dadonov is a decent player who makes too much money ($5 million) — there are worse issues to have. It’s not impossible imagining Dadonov turning into some sort of trade asset himself, either. No matter what, Kent Hughes is free to move forward after this season in a way that would’ve been impossible had Weber still been on the books. If nothing else, Hughes can now — if he must — focus his LTIR gymnastics on Carey Price, who has four years left at $10.5 million AAV along with chronic knee issues. Not a great combination, but if Weber was still a Canadien, Hughes’ job could’ve been exponentially more difficult.

We can only wait to see how that plays out. Montreal’s summer is now about deciding which other RFAs are worth penciling into the NHL lineup; one of those decisions was made at the draft, in a trade that moved out RFA defenseman Alexander Romanov and brought in center Kirby Dach, who at the moment is the only RFA we’re projecting in the NHL lineup. If they want to create space, some team will be able to use Jeff Petry, and Montreal would love to move Josh Anderson, who has five years left at $5.5 AAV. Hughes said after the season that Brendan Gallagher would be returning, though.

29. San Jose Sharks

2022-23 salaries: $76,832,500
RFAs estimate: $6 million
Dead money deals: Martin Jones buyout ($2.4 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Ryan Dzingle
Problem contract: Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Projected cap space: -$332,500

Let’s state from the top that there’s no real way to know how the Evander Kane situation will settle out. Some cap penalty on Kane — his grievance against San Jose regarding his release is headed for arbitration — seems inevitable, but we’re not going to try to guess. At least the Sharks have GM Mike Grier in place after a seemingly endless search.

The projected number here includes contracts for RFA goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, winger Jonathan Dahlen and defenseman Mario Ferraro. Kahkonen would seem a lock to return, and one of the two goalies currently under contract (James Reimer and Adin Hill) would exit, at least leaving the Sharks under the cap pending the Kane resolution. If San Jose indeed takes a cap hit by the end of this disaster, one potential space-clearing move (if necessary) would be to trade Nick Bonino, and Grier has said he’s open to trading Brent Burns. That’s down the road, though, when you consider all the other stuff that has to resolve itself over the next several weeks. Regardless of what happens, the Sharks are going to be an aging team with tons of bad contracts that wasn’t in playoff contention last season. So … yeah.

30. Los Angeles Kings

2022-23 salaries: $78,061,667
RFAs estimate: $6.582 (not including Adrian Kempe’s extension)
Dead money deals: Dion Phaneuf buyout ($1,062,500), Mike Richards ($900,00), Austin Wagner ($8,333)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Alex Edler, Olli Maatta, Troy Stecher
Problem contract: Drew Doughty
Projected cap space: -$1,435,792

I’m not sure any team has a more interesting RFA group than the Kings. Adrian Kempe broke out for a 35-goal last season, and he’s still only 25. Evolving Hockey’s cap hit prediction was $6 million for five years. His actual deal ($5.5 million AAV) was close. Like Kempe, defenseman Sean Durzi is coming off the best season of his career and has arbitration rights. If Kings GM Rob Blake can get Durzi and fellow defenseman Mikey Anderson each signed to two-year bridge deals worth a total of $5 million or so, it’ll be a tidy bit of work.

Those three should be Blake’s priorities, but other young Kings (Gabe Vilardi) are up for new RFA deals. It’s easy to see the vast majority of LA’s remaining cap space getting split among them all. Consider the lineup turned over; their projected cap issues will be alleviated whenever they decide who is on the NHL roster.

31. Philadelphia Flyers

2022-23 salaries: $82,381,440
RFAs estimate: $3.8 million
Dead money deals: None
Notable unsigned UFAs: Martin Jones, Keith Yandle, Nate Thompson
Problem contract: Kevin Hayes
Projected cap space: -$3.7 million

Chuck Fletcher got himself a win-now coach (John Tortorella) for what he feels is a win-now roster — but it is, as ever, tough to see just how the Flyers are going to pull off that whole “aggressive retool” bit. Forget about whether or not the current group is a couple high-profile players away from contention; finding a way to fit those players — <cough> Johnny Gaudreau <cough> — is a problem unto itself. The level of desperation they showed in adding Tony DeAngelo, then extending him for $5 million AAV, is Example A. Now, they’re projected to exceed the cap if any combination of RFAs Owen Tippett, Morgan Frost and Zack McEwan return.

So how are they supposed to have space to sign anyone else? James van Riemsdyk, entering the last year of a deal that pays him $7 million annually, is the logical “send ’em to Arizona” candidate, and there are other players on the roster — Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny — who’d theoretically be attractive to other teams. The bright side for Philly is that, should they be able to land Gaudreau, or Nazem Kadri, or whoever else they’re eyeing, the returns of Sean Couturier and Ryan Ellis (assuming he does, indeed, return) will make them a better team. A contender, though? That’s a tougher sell.

32. Vegas Golden Knights

2022-23 salaries: $82.3 million
RFAs estimate: $6.675 million
Dead money deals: Shea Weber LTIR ($7.86 million)
Notable unsigned UFAs: Reilly Smith (reportedly has agreed to $5 million AAV extension), Mattias Janmark
Problem contract: Alex Pietrangelo
Projected cap space: -6.475 million 

The Golden Knights’ projected cap figure incorporates Smith’s verbal agreement as reported by The Daily Faceoff on June 23. You’ve got to give them credit; they’re dedicated to putting off the reckoning for as long as possible. Letting Smith walk, instead of signing him with the space created by adding Shea Weber’s LTIR-earmarked deal, would’ve been too simple. So what now?

Beyond that, Vegas has four priority RFAs. Just one, defenseman Nicolas Hague, does not have arbitration rights. As Jesse Granger pointed out, Hague accepting his $874,125 qualifying offer is their best-case scenario. Under different circumstances, he’d be a candidate for a longer-term extension, but so it goes. Nicolas Roy, after a 15-goal season, is headed for the $3 million range. Brett Howden and Keegan Kolesar are bottom-sixers who I slotted in around $1 million. Overall, the RFA estimate is on the high end; the best-case scenario across the board is closer to $6 million, but I’d rather account for a player getting a bit more … somewhere.

Either way, though, because of the Smith deal, Vegas is going to have to cut ties with a legitimate contributor or two (even when accounting for the $1.6 million they’d save by dumping backup goalie Laurent Brossoit in favor of Logan Thompson). If they’re sold on Hague, trading Alec Martinez ($5.25 million AAV) would be an option. William Karlsson ($5.9 million) has taken over for Smith as the obvious cap-cutting candidate from the forward group — note Eric Duhatschek’s big board — but moving him would leave Roy, Howden and Nolan Patrick as the in-house center options behind Jack Eichel and Chandler Stephenson. Not ideal for a Cup contender.

(Top photo of Trevor Zegras and Alex Pietrangelo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

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