5 NHL Teams That Should Clear Cap Space ASAP for 2023 Free Agency

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured Columnist IVNovember 27, 2022

5 NHL Teams That Should Clear Cap Space ASAP for 2023 Free Agency

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    Montreal Canadiens center Nick Suzuki (left) and New York Islanders winger Kyle Palmieri.
    David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The 2023 NHL free-agent market officially opens at noon ET on July 1. While that date remains months away, several clubs carrying hefty payrolls for 2023-24 should consider clearing room to pursue some of the notable talent potentially available next summer.

    Stars such as the Boston Bruins' David Pastrnak, Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane and the St. Louis Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko are eligible to become unrestricted free agents. They should draw considerable interest if they hit the open market next July.

    Signing such players can be an expensive undertaking. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has hinted the cap might rise by $4 million if the players' share of escrow debt to the owners is repaid by season's end. If it isn't, the cap will only increase by $1 million to $83.5 million, making it more difficult for teams to pursue big-ticket talent.

    Some franchises could have more of a need to clear cap room for free agency than others. The Montréal Canadiens, for instance, might consider adding a free-agent star to accelerate their rebuild. Others, like the New York Islanders, could use free agency to address a need such as goal scoring.

    The following is our listing of five NHL clubs we believe should consider freeing up cap room in order to be active in next summer's free-agent market.

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Columbus Blue Jackets
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    Signing high-scoring free-agent winger Johnny Gaudreau last offseason was a significant achievement for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The move was an indication that the front office, led by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, was speeding up what had been a two-year retool of their roster.

    Gaudreau's played well for his new club, but injuries have walloped the lineup, with such notables as Zach Werenski, Jakub Voracek, Patrik Laine and Elvis Merzlikins on the sidelines. Rather than jockeying for a playoff position in the Eastern Conference, they're near the bottom of the standings at 7-12-1.

    No one could've foreseen the plethora of injuries. However, they were struggling through the season's opening month with just three wins in their first 12 games before several of those core players became sidelined.

    A porous defense was largely to blame for the Blue Jackets' woes before the injuries struck and has since become a growing concern. They've given up the second-most shots against per game (36.3) while their 4.20 goals against per game is the league's worst.

    Jackets management could chalk this up to bad luck and look toward another free-agent signing for next season. Tempting options include Minnesota's Matt Dumba or New Jersey's Ryan Graves. However, their payroll for 2023-24 sits at $73 million invested in 13 players.

    That would mean freeing some cap space if they're out of playoff contention approaching the March 3 trade deadline. Perhaps shopping someone such as Jack Roslovic ($4 million) or finding a taker for Voracek and his $8.25 million for next season could address that issue, though in Voracek's case it could mean retaining part of his cap hit.

Montréal Canadiens

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    Montreal Canadiens
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    In July 2019, the New York Rangers signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year deal worth an average annual value of $11.6 million. The general manager of the Rangers at that time was Jeff Gorton, who is now the executive vice president of hockey operations for the Montréal Canadiens.

    When the Rangers signed Panarin they were nearly 17 months into rebuilding their roster. Adding the playmaking Russian winger provided a boost to that process as he played a crucial role in the Blueshirts' march to the 2022 Eastern Conference Final.

    Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes are rebuilding the Canadiens following their disastrous 2021-22 season. They've focused on constructing the roster around rising young stars Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield and bringing in promising youngsters such as Kirby Dach and Juraj Slafkovsky.

    The 11-9-1 Canadiens have exceeded expectations this season. That might spur Gorton and Hughes to consider accelerating their rebuild via next summer's free-agent market.

    That will involve shedding salary as they have $69.5 million invested in 18 players for 2023-24. One of those is Carey Price, who carries a $10.5 million cap hit. The 35-year-old goaltender's career is in jeopardy because of a knee injury. That would allow the Habs to put him on permanent long-term injury reserve, providing them with much-needed cap flexibility.

    The Canadiens could also explore the trade market for some cost-cutting deals. That could include shopping forwards such as Mike Hoffman ($4.5 million) and Joel Armia ($3.4 million) and perhaps defenseman Joel Edmundson ($3.5 million) if those veterans no longer fit into the club's long-term plans.

New York Islanders

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    New York Islanders
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    New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello was rumored to have looked into signing Gaudreau in July before the latter joined the Blue Jackets. He was also thought to have attempted to acquire J.T. Miller from the Vancouver Canucks at the NHL draft and was reportedly interested in Nazem Kadri before he joined the Calgary Flames in August.

    Lamoriello's interest in those players was based on his club's anemic offense. Over the previous four seasons, the Islanders' goals-per-game average (2.75) ranked 24th. They've shown improvement this season, sitting 13th with a 3.27 goals-per-game mark.

    However, there's no certainty they can sustain that. The biggest issue is the lack of a true first-line goal scorer to skate alongside playmaking center Mathew Barzal. His current linemates are rookie winger Simon Holmström and Oliver Wahlstrom.

    The Islanders have $73 million committed to 19 players for 2023-24. All their core players are under contract, but they could use additional cap room in case Lamoriello resumes his pursuit of a big-ticket free-agent scorer next summer.

    Lamoriello could attempt to move aging winger Josh Bailey, who has a year remaining on his contract after this one with an average annual value of $5 million. Given the decline in the 33-year-old Bailey's performance, however, it could prove difficult to find a suitor unless Lamoriello retains some salary.

    Anthony Beauvillier and his $4.15 million cap hit through 2023-24 could be a better trade option. He's struggled to regain his once-promising form as a second-line winger. However, the 25-year-old would have more upside than Bailey and might benefit from a change of scenery.

San Jose Sharks

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    San Jose Sharks
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    When Mike Grier was introduced in July as the new general manager of the San Jose Sharks, he toed the company line by saying he didn't believe the club needed a complete rebuild. Fast-forward to Nov. 18, however, and Grier was acknowledging his willingness to entertain trade offers for star defenseman Erik Karlsson.

    Grier indicated that a decision on a trade would depend on Karlsson, who has complete control thanks to his no-movement clause. The Sharks GM also went out of his way to praise the 32-year-old blueliner's performance and professionalism, pointing out that Karlsson and his family love living and working in San Jose.

    Karlsson also carries a hefty $11.5 million average cap hit through 2026-27. It takes up a big chunk of the projected $67.2 million the Sharks have invested in 15 players for next season.

    Approaching the end of November, the Sharks are just three points out of a wild-card berth. However, they could become sellers if they fall further in the standings as the March 3 trade deadline approaches.

    If the Sharks front office remains against a full roster rebuild, it seems they'd consider a partial one by attempting to move Karlsson. Even if they have to retain a portion of his cap hit, it would free up considerable space to put toward pursuing more affordable depth via free agency.

    Karlsson wouldn't be the only player potentially on the move. On Oct. 27, TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported Grier was willing to listen to offers on almost everyone on his roster aside from Tomas Hertl. That would include team captain Logan Couture ($8 million annually) and winger Timo Meier, a restricted free agent next summer who will cost $10 million simply to qualify his rights.

Washington Capitals

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    Washington Capitals
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    Since 2007-08, the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs only once (2013-14) and won the Stanley Cup in 2018. However, they have an aging roster that's been decimated by injuries through the early going of this season, with such notables as Nicklas Bäckström, Tom Wilson and Dmitry Orlov sidelined.

    The Capitals are four points out of a wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference. Even if all their sidelined players return, they could find themselves in a hole too deep to climb out of in the playoff race.

    Looking ahead to 2023-24, the Capitals have $61.1 million tied up in 10 players, with John Carlson being the only regular defenseman under contract. Management will have to find a way to shed salary to bolster that blue line if they hope to make one more push for the Stanley Cup with their aging core.

    The Caps could consider re-signing Orlov. The shutdown blueliner has spent his entire 11-year NHL career in Washington and could be amenable to staying put. They could also look into adding one or two seasoned rearguards to bring more experience and skill into their defense corps.

    The Minnesota Wild's Matt Dumba and the Anaheim Ducks' John Klingberg are impending unrestricted free agents who could be available at the trade deadline. Other options could include the New Jersey Devils' Damon Severson and Ryan Graves or the Columbus Blue Jackets' Vladislav Gavrikov.

    Shoring up the defense could mean trading a forward in a cost-cutting deal, especially if Backstrom ($9.2 million average annual value) resumes his career following offseason hip surgery. It could take shopping T.J. Oshie ($5.8 million) and/or Anthony Mantha ($5.7 million) before the trade deadline or the start of free agency in July to free up sufficient cap room.

    Stats and standings (as of Friday) via NHL.com with additional info via Hockey Reference. Injury information via TSN.ca and salary-cap info via CapFriendly.