Realistic Trades to Move Some of the NHL's Worst Contracts
In a salary-cap league, there is always going to be deep analysis of each team's cap situation and every contract.
Every dollar a team spends on one player or one position is a dollar they will not have for another player, position or need. Some contracts look like head-scratchers the minute pen gets put to paper, and they are viewed as unmovable or albatross deals that will forever sink a team's cap situation.
But there are always creative ways for teams to dump other undesirable contracts.
Sometimes it takes adding a sweetener to convince a team to take on that financial commitment. Other times it requires that, as well as retained salary or even a third team that can retain additional salary. Or it could be as simple as swapping two bad contracts. And sometimes it just requires another team that needs to commit dollars to reach the cap floor.
In other words, there is usually a way to make it work.
So, with that in mind, let's take a look at some of the NHL's worst contracts and see if we can come up with ways to maybe help some teams out.
It can even be a good thing for the players to get fresh starts elsewhere.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson to Buffalo
The Vancouver Canucks' decision to trade for Oliver Ekman-Larsson before the 2021-22 season was one of those deals that seemed like a bad idea at the time.
His contract was a huge investment for a team that already had salary-cap problems, and it showed once again that the Canucks were not as good or close to contention as the previous front office thought they were. Add in that Ekman-Larsson had probably already played his best hockey and had six years at $8.3 million annually remaining on his deal, and it seemed like a horrible fit.
Predictably, it has been.
Ekman-Larsson is still a fine player, but he can't carry a defense anymore, and especially not for a mediocre team such as Vancouver. His contract is brutal, and the Canucks need to dump it.
So, who might be a good fit?
How about the Buffalo Sabres?
Hear me out.
The Sabres have great players up front and can score with anybody. They are oozing with young talent at forward with Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch, Dylan Cozens, Jack Quinn and Peyton Krebs leading the way. Even a veteran such as Jeff Skinner has rediscovered his game and become an impact player again.
The problem for the Sabres is they cannot stop anybody. They give up too much, and even though they have a definite core on defense (Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, Mattias Samuelsson) they could still use some help.
While Ekman-Larsson is not a franchise-changer, he can be productive in the right situation. He could also be a solid veteran presence for a very young defense.
The idea here: Vancouver sends Ekman-Larsson but retains a portion of his cap hit through the end of his contract (2026-27) for Victor Olofsson (contract expires after next season) and Casey Mittelstadt to make the salaries work, while some smaller pieces (draft picks, mid-level prospects) also get exchanged.
The Canucks dump his contract, while the Sabres, who still have a ton of salary-cap space to play with in future seasons, get a veteran defender who can help and might be a better value at a reduced cap hit.
Josh Bailey to Arizona
The Arizona Coyotes have become the NHL's dumping ground for bad contracts, and the New York Islanders have even utilized them once already by dealing Andrew Ladd and draft picks just for the purposes of getting rid of his contract.
They should explore that again with Josh Bailey.
Bailey has been a really good Islander for 15 years and has had big moments in recent playoff runs. While his contract is not terrible, it is an issue for New York in the short term.
He is not a $5 million-per-year player any longer, and the Islanders not only still need to upgrade their roster to compete in future seasons, but they also have a cap crunch coming in the offseason with Oliver Wahlstrom set for restricted free agency and Semyon Varlamov headed for unrestricted free agency.
Bailey's cap space could probably be better utilized, and I suspect the Islanders know that considering they left him unprotected last year in the expansion draft.
Bailey could be attractive to Arizona for two reasons, especially if the Islanders send a couple of draft picks in return for future considerations.
The first is that his $5 million cap hit would help them reach the salary floor (which has seemingly been a struggle in recent years), while the amount of money he is owed is less than that. He will earn $3.5 million next season.
There is also the possibility that by getting top-line ice time and top power-play time, Bailey might be able to rebound offensively and perhaps boost his trade value. That could be beneficial for the rebuilding Coyotes, who can also acquire an asset from the Islanders for taking Bailey's contract and then another from a team that might acquire Bailey at next year's trade deadline.
That is the scenario that is playing out with Arizona and Shayne Gostisbehere. It took a couple of draft picks from the Philadelphia Flyers to absorb his remaining contract, watched him rebuild his value and now has a solid trade chip to cash in.
The Islanders get the salary-cap space they need, and the Coyotes collect more assets. Win-win.
Nashville Dumps Ryan Johansen or Matt Duchene on Chicago
The Chicago Blackhawks are going through a scorched-earth rebuild. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane set to come off the books after this season, they are going to be swimming in salary-cap space and should weaponize that by taking on bad contracts with a fee attached.
The Nashville Predators are a team that might join forces.
The Predators have amassed quite a collection of undesirable contracts with Ryan Johansen's and Matt Duchene's at the top of the list.
Both players have had their ups and downs, and despite bounce-back seasons a year ago, neither is what the Predators hoped they were getting for $8 million salary-cap hits. Most of their resurgence was driven by massive shooting percentage spikes, and that is just not sustainable for players on the wrong side of 30.
Duchene's shooting percentage is already regressing back to the mean, and while Johansen's is still up around 20 percent, he is not a difference-maker.
It might be worth it for the Predators to offer a top-10-protected first-round pick, and maybe another smaller asset, to see if the Blackhawks would be willing to take on one of those deals.
Chicago still needs to fill out its roster, and it will need to take on money to reach the cap floor. Neither Johansen nor Duchene have trade protections in their contracts this season, so it would be a rather easy transaction.
Nashville does not seem ready or willing to engage in a rebuild, so an extra $8 million in salary-cap space might come in handy to help it add someone it needs in the short term.
Erik Karlsson to Florida or Seattle
Erik Karlsson is a fascinating player because his contract looked like an absolute disaster coming into this season and one of the bad deals on a roster overflowing with bad deals.
At $11.5 million for the next four-and-a-half years, he has one of the league's largest cap hits and was starting to look like a player whose career had fallen off the proverbial cliff.
But he suddenly looks like the Karlsson of old and is putting up massive numbers for a San Jose Sharks team that is going nowhere.
Karlsson, 32, is one of the most decorated defenders in the history of the league and has accomplished nearly everything a player at his position can except win the Stanley Cup.
The Sharks are one of the worst teams in the NHL, have a new front office, a new coaching staff and look like a team that should be on the verge of tearing everything down. They could not only use Karlsson's early surge as a chance to get out from his contract but also perhaps add something of value for a rebuild.
Two potential contenders could be a fit for Karlsson: the Florida Panthers and Seattle Kraken. Both have big-contract goalies they would probably love to dump.
For the Panthers, the swap would start with Sergei Bobrovsky. His contract carries a cap hit of $10 million per year, but it is one year shorter than Karlsson's deal. The Panthers could use an upgrade on their blue line, and they already have a superior goalie on the roster in Spencer Knight.
Bobrovsky's deal at least makes the financials work, but San Jose would need more back and probably want some retained salary from the Panthers. Florida has depleted its allotment of future first-round picks, but it does have some intriguing young players who would be of interest to a rebuilding team, including Anton Lundell, 2018 first-round pick Grigori Denisenko and Eetu Luostarinen.
I also love the idea of Karlsson in Seattle and already proposed that possibility while looking at trades to push contenders over the top. So how do the Kraken make that work?
Well, they also have a bad goalie contract they could use to balance out some of the money. Philipp Grubauer (.882 save percentage this season) has simply not worked out. Would Seattle be willing to part with somebody like Shane Wright so soon after drafting him at No. 4 overall in 2022? Matty Beniers already looks like he is going to be the No. 1 center and long-term franchise building block, and the Sharks would definitely need a high-end prospect to make the deal work.
Seattle has three second-round picks in the 2023 draft, which could make its first-round pick expendable as well.
Josh Anderson for Darnell Nurse
OK, let's get wild here.
This would fall under the "swapping contracts we might regret" category of trades.
Darnell Nurse is in the first year of a whopper of an eight-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers that pays him over $9 million per season. Edmonton signed him to that deal with the hopes that he would be their long-term solution as a No. 1 defender after a breakout performance during the 2020-21 season.
The problem: He has not lived up to expectations, so the Oilers still need a top defender as his contract clogs up their salary-cap situation as they try to build a winner around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Montreal, meanwhile, took a gamble on Josh Anderson a couple of years ago, signing him to a long-term deal worth more than $5 million when he was coming off a major shoulder injury and had scored just a single goal for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The early returns have not been promising.
Each player is fine in a vacuum but is probably not great value for what each team needs.
I am not suggesting a one-for-one swap here, but this can at least be the foundation of a deal, especially if Edmonton throws in a sweetener in the form of a pick or player to get Montreal to take on more of Nurse's deal.
Why might it work? Nurse's contract has more years remaining and is worth about $4 million more per season. That could allow Edmonton to shed some much-needed cap space that it could then use to pursue another someone like, say, Arizona's Jakob Chychrun to round out the top of the defense while also getting some additional forward depth in Anderson, who brings size (6'3" 226 lbs), physicality, and some goal-scoring touch.
The Canadiens already have some promising young forwards (Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, Juraj Slafkovsky) and will get some scoring punch for their blue line, even if it is costly.
Both players have trade limitations in their contracts that would need to be cleared, but there is something sensible to had here.
All salary data via CapFriendly.