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Long-anticipated salary cap boom to follow after this season


Welcome to what folks around the NHL hope is the last season of the flat cap era.

Since the pandemic depleted the hockey business like so many others and after the playoffs were bubble wrapped to award the Stanley Cup, the league has been digging out of a hole deeper than any on-ice deficit. As a result, the salary cap has gone up a total of just $2 million since 2019, from $81.5 million to the current $83.5 million.

With players' debt to owners set to be paid off and record revenue thanks to U.S. media rights deals, jersey and helmet advertisements and digital dasher boards, among other elements, the cap is set to get its first big increase next summer — roughly $4 million or so per team, and that influx of money has everyone excited about the summer of 2024 and beyond.

“It just seems that teams are obviously waiting for some of that relief and that opportunity to be more flexible,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “It seems like deals have been very hard to make and things like that. Obviously, it’s going to create an interesting scenario where a lot of teams are going to be in positions to be aggressive, so it’ll be interesting how all that stuff plays out.”

It's already playing out, with general managers signing star players like Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews and Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin to extensions knowing the cap is going up. As recently as Monday, the Sabres inked franchise defenseman Rasmus Dahlin to an eight-year, $88 million contract that runs from 2024 through 2032.

With Commissioner Gary Bettman forecasting the cap is projected to be between $87-88 million next season, there are surely more deals like that on the way.

“It’s definitely good to see,” said 2022-23 rookie of the year Matty Beniers, who's due for a new contract with the Seattle Kraken that would start next season. “You want the hockey and the money coming in to be going in the right direction, and if the players are getting paid more, then more money’s coming in, so that’s always good."

NHL revenue is expected to top $6 billion, another high water mark now that buildings are full again and ESPN and TNT are airing hockey across the U.S. Still, players are still concerned about escrow. The labor deal sets aside some part of a player’s salary in a bank account throughout the year; after the season, total revenue is calculated and if the league is not at its 50% share, it gets escrow money to make up the difference.

“I am looking forward the cap going up, but if you still if you’re still paying 10% escrow, what’s the point?” Chicago defenseman Seth Jones said. “You’re just putting yourself in a big circle. We should go up with revenue, in my opinion."

Players say the solution is growing the pie for everyone.

“We need to grow the game,” Washington winger Tom Wilson said. “Market players, market the game, show why hockey is one of the best sports in the world. ... The other sports are growing and they’re growing fast, and the NHL needs to to keep up with them.”

Matthews at $16.7 million and Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon at $16.5 million are currently set to be the highest-paid players in hockey next season. Edmonton's Connor McDavid, widely recognized as the best player in the world, will make $10 million — less than what 177 players in the NFL, 140 in the NBA and 106 in Major League Baseball are set to earn in 2024-25.

“You try to bring yourself up to the other leagues in sports,” Dallas forward Jason Robertson said. “I know it’s a tall task, but if we’re going in the right direction and escrow’s going to get lower and (teams) are having more cap space to do more things, it’s great for the league, great for the fans and everyone really benefits from it.”

Robertson wants to make it clear: NHL stars are grateful to be making this kind of money and consider it a privilege. Still, they know more money is good for everyone and want the next generation to be compensated even better.

That starts now with more revenue, including a World Cup of Hockey in 2025, and further innovations to popularize hockey.

“We want the league to be strong, healthy, doing well,” Wilson said. “Players want that, Gary — everybody wants that. I think at times it can be a battle, side versus side. But I think if you get everybody collectively moving in the right direction, growing the game, everything will kind of fall into place.”