As The 2022-23 NHL Season Opens, Teams Set New Standards For Salary-Cap Precision

Following a pair of games in Prague as part of the NHL Global Series last weekend, the 2022-23 NHL season properly kicks into gear with a pair of games on Tuesday.

Monday afternoon, the league’s 32 clubs were required to submit their season-opening rosters.

Those rosters can be 23 players or fewer. Most importantly, they must fit within this year’s salary-cap limits — no higher than $82.5 million and no lower than $61 million.

The league’s official roster lists for all 32 teams can be found here. And with an increase of just $1 million in the cap ceiling since the 2019-20 season, clubs are now at the point where they’re literally analyzing every dollar they commit.

It’s a hard-cap system in the NHL: the only way to wiggle past the ceiling is through the use of the very complicated long-term injured reserve (LTIR) device.

Independent salary-cap monitoring website CapFriendly has a FAQ that breaks down the details of the LTIR system. Hart Levine of PuckPedia has also published a very good primer.

In short, the judicious use of LTIR can allow a team to exceed the salary-cap ceiling, bumping their maximum to what’s called the Accruable Cap Space Limit (ACSL).

You might remember the 2020-21 season, when the Tampa Bay Lightning were able to build an LTIR pool of more than $17 million. That allowed them to operate with an ACSL of nearly $99 million when the actual cap ceiling was $81.5 million.

To accomplish this, they put star forward Nikita Kucherov and his $9.5 million cap hit on LTIR for the entire 56-game regular season after he underwent hip surgery. They also traded for the contracts of Marian Gaborik ($4.875 million cap hit) and Anders Nilsson ($2.6 million cap hit), two veterans with long-term injuries whose NHL careers were effectively over.

It was a risky play. But Kucherov’s recovery did coincide with the begining of the playoffs, when the salary cap no longer applies. Fresh as a daisy, he went on to lead the postseason with 32 points as the Lightning captured their second-straight championship — and embraced his role as a fiscal villain during the Lightning’s celebratory boat parade.

LTIR space is applied in different ways at different points in the season. Put simply, it’s advantageous for teams to set their opening-night rosters without using it, because it will allow for greater roster flexibility as the season goes on — particularly when it comes to accruing unused cap space that can be filled near the trade deadline.

When clubs know that they need to dip into LTIR in order to be cap-compliant on opening day, the trick is to set their rosters to be as close as possible to their boosted ACSL. That maximizes the amount of cap space that they’ll have available over the course of the season. Any space that isn’t used on opening day is lost forever.

Last season, the cap-savvy Lightning were applauded for getting within $712 of using all the LTIR relief that was available to them after putting Brent Seabrook on LTIR at a cap hit of $6.875 million and adding Gemel Smith to season-opening injured reserve (SOIR) at a reduced cap hit of $25,862 — a number that’s calculated from the number of days that he was on the Lightning’s NHL roster the previous season.

This year, 13 of the league’s 32 teams are starting the season in LTIR. And five of those teams — including the Lightning — got within less than $200 of achieving the maximum cap relief available in their situations.

Three of these five teams held off as long as they could on signing their last significant player contract, wanting a cap picture that was as clear as possible so they could pay as much as possible while staying compliant.

For the Vegas Golden Knights, that meant waiting until Monday to ink restricted free agent defenseman Nicolas Hague to a new three-year deal with a cap hit of $2,294,150. The Toronto Maple Leafs used all but $4 of their available space when they signed professional tryout candidate Zach Aston-Reese to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $840,630 on Sunday. And Edmonton Oilers restricted free agent Ryan McLeod accepted a one-year deal at the comparatively round number of $798,000 on Sept. 22, knowing that was nearly all the cap space that his general manager could make available.

The Lightning also made a late signing on Sunday, inking 36-year-old minor-leaguer Pierre-Cedric Labrie to a two-way contract that helped them maximize their potential cap benefits.

The Vancouver Canucks’ road to a perfect fit was somewhat more complex. In order to maximize the $3.5 million in LTIR relief that they’ll get from the last year of Micheal Ferland’s contract this season — and with a banged-up blue line —the Canucks swung a trade last Friday that saw them save $1.3 million in cap space when they dealt forward Jason Dickinson ($2.65 million) to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for defenseman Riley Stillman ($1.35 million).

Then, after foward Phillip Di Giuseppe was injured in preseason, he was placed on SOIR at a cap hit of $146,250 based on 39 days as a call-up on the NHL roster last season — despite no games played.

Finally, the Canucks brought up waiver-exempt forward Danila Klimovich ($855,833) from their AHL farm team on Monday. They swapped him for another waiver-exempt rookie, Linus Karlsson ($883, 750) for a differential of $27,917. Exactly what they needed.

With a number of waiver-exempt young players, the Canucks could have maneuvered their opening-day roster slightly differently, if necessary. But considering Di Giuseppe wasn’t a factor until he was injured barely a week ago and that Vancouver addressed a roster need with Friday’s trade, it’s truly incredible that the Dickinson-for-Stillman swap brought them exactly to the number they needed in order to maximize their ACSL.

Clubs like the Lightning and the Maple Leafs have long been known for their shrewd cap management, and the management team in Vegas has deftly maneuvered through some complex situations over the club’s five-year history.

Led by general manager Patrik Allvin, with assistant GM Emilie Castonguay in charge of the day-to-day roster and cap compliance, Vancouver’s new management team has taken a step toward building a similarly astute reputation.

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