Short contracts and bonus money prove to be popular in NHL free agency this year

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) after defeating the New Jersey Devils in an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Newark, N.J. The Lightning won 4-1.
(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Max Pacioretty was in a unique, if not uncomfortable spot going into NHL free agency coming off tearing his right Achilles tendon twice in the past year.

Turns out it was just the right time to hit the market.

The post-pandemic hockey landscape meant another year with just a $1 million increase to the salary cap, but everyone in the league knows it’s set for a big leap next summer. That made short contracts — many with performance bonuses like Pacioretty’s with the Washington Capitals — a popular route for players and teams willing to take moderate risks and kick money down the road.

“We had limited cap space, and we were trying to add certain elements to the team,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said Sunday. “That opportunity within the CBA to have a lower cap hit and carry over if those bonuses are achieved was appealing to us because we got him at a $2 million cap hit instead of a higher cap hit, which we might not have been able to afford.”

They weren’t alone. Of the 166 NHL unrestricted free agent contracts signed Saturday, 68 were one- or two-year deals. The Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Edmonton Oilers were also among the teams to hand out contracts with bonus incentives.

New York signed veteran winger Blake Wheeler, fresh off his buyout in Winnipeg, to an $800,000 contract with $300,000 more in bonuses and two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Jonathan Quick, fresh off backing up for Vegas on its title run, to an $825,000 contract with $100,000 more in bonuses.

That was certainly a plan going into the offseason for Rangers GM Chris Drury, who knew he’d be losing wingers Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko in free agency because of his team’s cap picture.

“You create your lists and get guys in order and start doing your homework,” Drury said Saturday. “I think everyone in this business — agents and players alike — are aware of the limited cap space we do have and did have.”

That’s a big club that includes everyone from the 2020 and ‘21 champion Tampa Bay Lightning to the Boston Bruins, coming off setting NHL records for wins and points in a regular season and losing in the first round of the playoffs.

“The flat cap is difficult for all 32 GMs,” Lightning GM Julien BriseBois said. “It’s not tougher for me than it is for them.”

BriseBois was sad to see big winger Alex Killorn leave for a lucrative deal in Anaheim and Ian Cole sign in Vancouver, but he added versatile winger Conor Sheary for three years, defensive center Luke Glendening for two and depth forward Josh Archibald and defenseman Calvin de Haan for next season.

The Lightning also traded three-time Cup winner Patrick Maroon and fellow forward Max Cajkovic to Minnesota for a 2024 seventh-round pick. Tampa Bay retained 20% of Maroon’s $1 million salary, which clears enough space to sign a player at the league minimum of $775,000 — perhaps with bonuses.

The Bruins similarly said goodbye to winger Tyler Bertuzzi and Garnet Hathaway and defenseman Dmitry Orlov: their three trade deadline acquisitions who helped them break the records. Boston, among several bargain contracts, brought back 2011 Cup winner Milan Lucic — on a bonus-heavy deal paying him $1 million with $500,000 in incentives.

Bertuzzi joined the one-year-contract trend, signing for $5.5 million with Toronto for next season.

With seasoned GM Ken Holland heading into likely his final season on the job and aiming to win right now, Edmonton was even more creative in signing winger Connor Brown, who’s coming off tearing the ACL in his right knee. Brown’s one-year contract is for $775,000 with $3.225 million in potential bonuses.

That’s how contenders need to operate in navigating a flat cap world. So many short-term deals could set up an interesting season of motivated players in contract years and potentially set up a bigger free agent frenzy next summer.

“We’re in a very fluid situation, especially with a flat cap essentially for three years, and all of a sudden getting some money back hopefully next year and continuing forward,” Cole said. “I think we’re kind of in some uncharted territories and I think it’s going to be an interesting landscape moving forward.”

Among the moves made Sunday:

— Evan Rodrigues cashed in on his 30-point season with then-defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado by signing a $12 million, four-year contract with now-reigning Eastern Conference champion Florida.

— The Avalanche re-signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a one-year contract worth $775,000.

— The Detroit Red Wings signed intriguing 26-year-old forward Christian Fischer to a $1.125 million contract for next season. Fischer was not tendered a qualifying offer by Arizona.

AP freelance reporter Denis Gorman contributed.

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