Senators' Shane Pinto condundrum shows the massive value NHL teams put on cap space

The Ottawa Senators are facing the brutal reality that NHL teams need immense compensation to consider worsening their cap sheets.

After years of stagnation the NHL's salary cap is beginning to rise, but teams still seem to value financial flexibility to an extreme degree.

The situation in Ottawa is the latest piece of evidence that cash is still king in the NHL, even if it stands to become more plentiful in the years to come. The Senators are in a tough spot as the team has $120,953 in cap space, and they need to give a contract to center Shane Pinto — who is coming off a strong age-22 season.

Shane Pinto is an important top-nine forward for the Ottawa Senators. (Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images)
Shane Pinto is a valuable top-nine forward for the Ottawa Senators. (Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHL insider Pierre LeBrun is reporting that in order to fit Pinto in under the cap the team has put Mathieu Joseph's name out there. It would make sense to ship Joseph out of town as he makes $2.95 million per season, and he's coming off an unimpressive 2022-23 campaign.

The Senators signed Joseph to a four-year, $11.8-million deal following a 2021-22 season where he excelled down the stretch after joining Ottawa via a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In 11 games with the Senators he produced 12 points and stellar possession numbers (+9.0% Relative Corsi at 5v5). However, his inability to replicate that success in a bigger sample last season has his contract looking rich.

Where things get interesting is the reported asking price for teams to take on Joseph's contract. In his 32 Thoughts column, Sportnet's Elliotte Friedman indicated the ask to add Joseph is a high-level prospect or first-round pick.

Although this could be the starting point in negotiations, this provides some insight into how NHL clubs are valuing cap space at the moment. Joseph costs 3.5% of the 2023-24 salary sap, and based on CapFriendly's projections, 3.4% and 3.2% over the next two years.

For that small a sliver of the pie, a noncompetitive team — the Philadelphia Flyers are the rumoured dance partner here, but realistically this is the type of deal only rebuilders would consider — wants some serious futures.

The proceedings will be affected by the fact the Senators have no leverage. They have no choice but to move a contract to make room for an important player in Pinto.

That said, there are plenty of teams in a situation like the Flyers hungry for prospects and picks who could get in on the action if they're willing to take slightly less.

If a club like the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks or Chicago Blackhawks wanted to jump in on the action for a middle-round pick, that deal would already be done. Clearly the appetite for taking on a contract like Joseph's that spans three years is minimal.

That might seem reasonable based on his $2.95 million AAV, but the 26-year-old is not a completely useless player. He's a viable bottom-six forward with a little size and plenty of penalty-killing experience. Teams around the NHL would be willing to give him a shot on a more modest deal if he were a free agent, which means the negative value we're actually talking about probably isn't more than $1.5 million.

For teams with no ambitions of near-term contention and space to burn on a growing cap, it's surprising that such a price is being asked to take on such a minor, medium-term team-building impediment.

Clubs that might need help getting out of difficult salary-cap predicaments should be taking notes. Early indications are that the cost of doing business is high.