Thursday, January 13, 2022

I tried to build the best possible cap-compliant roster of 2021-22… three years ago. How’d I do?

I like to make predictions. Most sportswriters do. We’re not good at it, mind you, but it’s an important part of our job description. And every once in a while, when the blind squirrel finds a nut, you never hear the end of it.

But what if you don’t knock the whole prediction thing out of the park? Its tempting to let the near-misses and outright whiffs fade into the hazy past, and just hope nobody remembers how wrong you were. I’ve never gone for that approach. If I’m right, I get to brag about it. But if I’m wrong, you get to point and laugh at me. Fair’s fair, and sometimes the pointing and laughing is half the fun.

So I like to occasionally revisit my old calls and see how I did. Recently, reader Ryan reminded me of a piece I’d written during the 2018-19 season, in which I tried to build the best possible roster for the 2021-22 season, using contracts that were already signed and staying under the projected cap.

Wait, 2021-22? That’s this season. The future has arrived. Which means we should probably check back and see how I did.

You can find the old post here. The idea was the build my best possible cap-compliant 2021-22 team, using only guys who were signed to deals that went at least that far. Why three years? Because that meant that I couldn’t get cute with entry-level contracts, or guys who were on cheaper short-term deals. Anyone can make a cap-compliant all-star team out of ELCs, cheap bridge contracts, and veterans on short-term prove-it deals. Only a true lunatic would try it with long-term commitments. Huh, I guess that would be me.

So how did I do? As I wrote at the time, “it will be fun to look back on this in three years and laugh at some of the players we thought would be good who saw their production nosedive”. Three years later, how many of my picks (and non-picks) still hold up well? And how many are going to look silly?

Let’s find out. And we’ll start with a call that definitely didn’t age well…

So yeah, about that whole “cap-compliant” thing.

Back in 2018-19, the NHL was operating under a salary cap of $79.5 million. That total had gone up from $75 million the year before, and seemed set to keep increasing at a similar rate. If I was going to build a 2021-22 roster, it was only fair that I be able to do it under a realistic 2021-22 cap. I just had to figure out what that would be.

You can probably see where this is heading.

Here’s what I wrote back then, in what would stand in the piece’s first big projection: “Let’s go with $90 million, which would represent an increase of just over $10 million from where we are right now. The cap went up $8.1 million over the last three years, so mix in a little inflation and $90 million seems about right for 2021-22.”

Oops. Yeah, as you may have heard, the salary cap is not currently $90 million. It’s barely gone up at all, thanks to the pandemic, sitting at just $81.5 million. I don’t think I can be blamed for not seeing a global catastrophe coming a full year in advance, but I’ll admit that I’m having some momentary sympathy pangs for all those GMs who gave out long-term contracts assuming the cap would keep climbing. I get it now, guys.

So no, my team won’t end up being cap-compliant after all. In that sense, this whole thing crashed and burned before it even got off the ground. But if you can forgive my cap optimism, let’s find out how well the rest of my picks did.


I ran into a tough call right out of the gate, realizing that back in 2018-19, there were only nine goalies in the entire league who were signed through 2021-22 or longer. None of them were especially cheap either, and a few were the kind of contracts I wanted nothing to do with. I said no thanks to Carey Price at $10.5 million, and even with last year’s playoff magic I think that holds up well. So did wanting no part of Cory Schneider or Jonathan Quick. I also passed on Martin Jones, although I wrote that that one was “at least worth considering”, which it was absolutely not. And I thought about Marc-Andre Fleury, but was worried that he’d be 37. Three years later, he’s the reigning Vezina winner but also the victim of a pure salary-dump trade, so I think I look OK.

So who did I end up with? For my starter, I narrowed it down to John Gibson at $6.4 million and Connor Hellebuyck at $6.1 million, which ends up feeling bang on as the only two guys who are worth considering. I went with Gibson, though, where Hellebuyck would have been the better choice.

For my backup I just took the cheapest guy available in Ben Bishop at $4.9 million, but wrote that I was worried that “we just wasted a big chunk of our cap on a guy who’ll be on LTIR”. In hindsight, we did indeed, although I’m honestly not sure that’s a worse outcome than taking some of these other guys would have been. Goaltending was tough.

In the end, I think the right call here would have been to take Gibson and Hellebuyck at a combined $12.5 million and squeeze the space somewhere else. But as you’ll see, I didn’t really have much space to squeeze…

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