When general managers say they want to make trades that will work out for both sides, they’re not always telling the truth.
What general manager wouldn’t want to fleece a counterpart now and then?
But in the leadup to the 2021 NHL trade deadline Monday, altruism between general managers was the order of the day. That allowed general managers from buyers and sellers, and teams that are in between, to get exactly what they wanted.
With contending teams already at or over the salary-cap ceiling, an enormous amount of salary-cap-space retention took place, even among teams that weren’t part of the primary trade. More than $22 million in salary-cap space was retained in trades made on or a few days before deadline day.
Most notably the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to acquire Nick Foligno from Columbus while having the Blue Jackets retain 50 percent, and the San Jose Sharks retain half of what remained. Toronto also got goalie David Rittich from Calgary with the Flames retaining 50 percent.
Columbus benefited from its ability to retain salary-cap space because it was able to get a first-round pick out of the Maple Leafs and also the Tampa Bay Lightning, who got the Detroit Red Wings involved and wound up getting defenseman David Savard from Columbus for a first-round pick but adding just a quarter of his cap hit to their ledger.
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The Boston Bruins even got the Buffalo Sabres to retain half of former league MVP Taylor Hall’s cap charge in a trade that sent the 2010 No. 1 overall pick to Boston.
Such is the NHL when not only are the best teams maxing out their cap space, but the cap ceiling is scheduled to remain flat as we continue to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and teams are still operating far from full capacity. In Canada, North Division teams haven’t even been allowed to have any fans.
“You just have to look at the trade we made. They were possible if we retained money, and they found another team to retain half of the half that we retained,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said during a video conference Monday. “So there you go. It’s been challenging, and they had to do those three-team trades to be able to fit them under their cap.
“It was a challenge at the deadline and it will continue to be a challenge next offseason too, because the way the business side works, obviously some guys have the arbitration rights and that pretty much determines where their salaries are going to go. And sometimes there’s no way around it and with the success of the players, the salaries keep growing.”
If you’re wondering why teams like the Sharks and Red Wings would get involved to help the likes of Toronto and defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay, you need look no further than the NHL Draft. San Jose is reloading, Detroit is rebuilding. For the cost of a couple million the Sharks were able to buy an extra fourth- and fifth-round pick. The Red Wings got a pair of fourth-round picks, including one from Colorado after they agreed to retain half of defenseman Patrik Nemeth’s cap hit.
While weaponizing cap space to take on bad contracts and accumulate picks as sweeteners has been a strategy for years, grabbing picks as reward for retaining salary became the in thing this year.
“When you’re in this phase where you’re trying to replenish and reset your team, [cap space is] something that [if] you have you should use,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson told The Athletic. “We tried to share that with a bunch of teams out there.”
Although some pundits are complaining that teams benefitting from the cap-hit retention craze are legally circumventing the cap and violating the sanctity of the system, the alternative would be teams being handcuffed and not making trades. Cap-strapped teams would have to trade players for players and would be running in place rather than improving. Teams that are out of contention would be stuck letting their unrestricted free agents walk without receiving competition.
In fact, all the space retention is in the spirt of the Collective Bargaining Agreement because it promotes parity and teams helping each other out regardless of what stage they’re at in their individual team-building processes.
So those that don’t like it should get used to it. This will be the only way to have movement at the trade deadline or in the offseason, even when the cap eventually increases. And it’s an approach that benefits everyone that’s willing to get involved.