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Analysis: Baseline Salary Cap issues for the 2021-2022 Dallas Stars

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Over the next month, we’ll be evaluating numerous trades and signings. Understanding the Stars’ current cap situation will help us keep grounded in reality.

NHL: NHL Draft Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

$81,500,000

That’s the NHL salary cap number that the Dallas Stars need to deal with for the 2021-2022 season. The team loses some larger contracts, but they also have some important deals to make. At this point, per CapFriendly, the Stars have just under $16 million to invest on a roster that currently has ten forwards, four defensemen, and three goaltenders under contract.

That means that Dallas needs to bring in four forwards, three defensemen, and to lose one goaltender, while also dealing with performance bonus overages from last season.

Let’s start with last year and how the Stars dealt with the cap.

Basically the team spent up to the maximum, and was able to use the money allocated to Ben Bishop and Stephen Johns as long-term injured reserve to get relief from overages. The Stars were able to keep most of their Stanley Cup Final roster together, while eating performance bonuses, a number that could have been split over two seasons as part of the deal that brought about the flat cap (we’ll come back to this later).

Old and New Contracts

With the Stars spending to the cap last season, what goes away this offseason? A handful of contracts end, the performance bonuses are paid for, and the Valeri Nichushkin buyout are all in the rear view mirror. Here is the breakdown of contracts coming off the books:

Andrew Cogliano - $3,250,000
Justin Dowling - $750,000

Stephen Johns - $2,350,000
Jamie Oleksiak - $2,137,500
Sami Vatanen - $2,000,000
Mark Pysyk - $750,000

Vatanen was only around for about 20% of the season, but in total that is about $9.6 million that comes off of the books. Performance bonuses were just over $3 million and the Nichushkin buyout was $450,000 for last season. In total, that’s about $13 million from last season that the Stars can use for the coming season.

There are a few updates to contracts for players who are currently on the Stars roster:

Blake Comeau - ($1,400,000)
Tanner Kero - ($12,500)

Joel Hanley - $50,000

Minor savings of just under $1.4 million. It may not be realistic, but the Stars save $925,000 in the unlikely case that Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin stay in Dallas with Jake Oettinger getting sent back to the AHL.

Performance Bonuses

Here is where things get interesting. Dallas may be an older team, but they did play several players on their entry-level contracts with potential performance bonuses (see primer here). It should be noted that qualifications and payouts for Schedule “A” bonuses have all been modified by just over 30%, reflecting the truncated 56 game schedule instead of the full 82 game regular season.

Jason Robertson and Oettinger are both up for Schedule “A” bonuses. Robertson is due $82,500 for one Schedule “A” level achievement. He’ll also be due a league level bonus for a top three finish in the Calder voting - but that doesn’t effect the Stars’ cap situation. Oettinger will likely be due $425,000 for hitting two Schedule “A” achievements - minutes played and goals against average above the median for goaltenders who played 25 or more games within the league.

Miro Heiskanen’s bonuses are potentially more devastating. As expected, Heiskanen will hit at least four Schedule “A” items (goals, assists, points and ice time). That’s a total of $850,000, and was fully expected.

The Schedule “B” bonus is the concern. This has usually been waived off as highly unlikely - win the Norris Trophy - but buried in the details for defensemen is top ten in ice time. Per NaturalStatTrick, Heiskanen was sixth in the league for defensemen in ice time, which opens up an additional $1.65 million Schedule “B” bonus.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve looked and there isn’t anything out there that comes close to refuting the claim - so if you have anything, I’d love to see it. Either way, Dallas is on the hook for either $1,357,500 or $3,007,500 in performance bonuses. Admittedly, that will be adjusted down - but that will still leave $927,000 or $2,054,000 to be dealt with. This will come out of the $16 million of cap space available to the Stars once the bonuses are finalized in July.

Restricted Free Agents

RFA’s remain under team control if they are given a Qualifying Offer. It is expected that every player who played in the NHL this season for the Stars will receive an offer, but only a handful of those will effect the Stars cap calculations. The primary concern is Heiskanen, but this group also includes Jason Dickinson and Joe Kiviranta.

Offers are also likely for Rhett Gardner and Nick Camaano, and current AHL players Adam Mascherin, Ben Gleason, Jerad Rosberg and Joe Cecconi. None of these offers should be outside the general parameters of the league minimum salary, so if they do spend time with the NHL club, the impact on the cap will be negligible.

For NHL players, I’m using the contract projection tool supplied by Evolving Wild. Although not absolutely predictive, it has proven reliable in getting contract numbers somewhat in the ballpark of what has been signed historically.

Miro Heiskanen. The model predicts a full eight year deal for Heiskanen with a cap hit of just over $8.5 million per year. That is certainly a possibility, and by doing that deal, the Stars would be buying several years of unrestricted free agency.

Several things argue against a full eight year contract. For Heiskanen, signing a deal for that long with the flat cap in place could easily depress his career earnings by having several years in his first full deal based on the flat cap. Also, negotiating his next deal as a UFA would be at 30 years of age, a bit past the generally-agreed-upon prime years for a defenseman.

The best case for both Heiskanen and the Stars would be a four year deal at just over $6.2 million. For Jim Nill, this has Heiskanen hitting full free agency in the same year that Jamie Benn’s $9.5 million contract comes off the books, and for Heiskanen, it has him negotiating as a 26 year old just hitting his prime.

Jason Dickinson. The big question mark for Dickinson is whether he is exposed in the expansion draft and whether the Seattle Kraken will view him as the best option available from a limited Stars exposed lineup. In either case, this is likely either a two or three year deal in the $2.5 to $2.8 million range.

Joel Kiviranta. Kiviranta only has 37 NHL games played, but he has found his way into a more or less permanent roster spot. This is likely a one or two year deal in the $1 million range.

Conclusions

So where does that leave the Stars headed into July? If you assume a minimum contract for all unfilled spots, the team has limited cap space to play with.

Within the forward group, there are ten players under contract for $44 million, two RFAs for $3.5 million, plus $1.5 million for two players at replacement player cost for a total of $49 million.

For defenders, there are four players under contract for $12 million, $6.2 to $8.5 million for Heiskanen, and $1.5 million for two players in replacement player cost. Jamie Oleksiak is in line for a $4 million/5 year deal, so your additional three players should fall into a $11 million to $13 million range. Total cost would then be $23 to $26 million.

In net, there are three players under contract, and this needs to be cut to two. Bishop and Khudobin together cost a bit over $8 million, which kills the rest of the cap. For this reason alone, the Stars can’t let this happen. The more likely scenario is Bishop and Oettinger, which costs $6 million.

The Kraken are likely to take Dickinson or a prospect. There is an outside chance they could take Khudobin (or be incentivized by the Stars to do so). If a roster player is selected, that leaves $2.5 to $3.3 million to use to fill that spot. If it’s a prospect, no additional cap space is accrued.

Throw in $1 to $2 million of performance bonuses and the selection of Adam Mascherin, and Jim Nill is left with limited options. Losing Dickinson or Khudobin (or even Faksa), and there is at least a little wiggle room. What there certainly isn’t room for is a wish list of Oleksiak and Blake Coleman or some other deus ex machina that fixes the team’s core identity.