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Ross Johnston’s Role Reduction; Understanding the Effects of His Contract

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Ross Johnston, New York Islanders
TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 29: New York Islanders left wing Ross Johnston (32) skates during the warm-up before a game between the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario Canada. (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire)

With Kieffer Bellows now on the Philadelphia Flyers and Nikita Soshnikov buried in Bridgeport, Ross Johnston slowly but surely became the New York Islanders lone extra forward for a few weeks. But even with the injuries piling up, Johnston’s playing time hasn’t increased.

Over the last three games, with Cal Clutterbuck out, New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert elected to go first with Cole Bardreau before using Hudson Fasching in the previous two contests.

Ross Johnston has played just twice over the Islanders’ last 10 games. In five games this season, the 28-year-old has an assist in an average of 8:44 minutes of ice time per game.

At the start of the 2021-22 season, Johnston and the Islanders agreed on a four-year extension worth $4.4 million, which kicked in this season.

Although the price tag seemed a bit high at the time, given the role Johnston had played up to that point, veteran forward Matt Martin had just come off off-season ankle surgery, and there were questions about his ability to play regularly in 2021-22. It seemed the Islanders signed Johnston to the multi-year deal as a safety net and someone who could eventually take Martin’s role on the fourth line.

But this season, with Martin healthy, Johnston’s playing time has been limited, and what’s more concerning for the Islanders, financially speaking, is that he’s carrying an annual cap hit of $1.2 million.

In 2021-22, before the extension kicked in, Johnston carried a cap hit of $1 million, a $250,000 difference between him and a player making the NHL league minimum ($750K).

It may not seem like a lot, but due to defensemen Noah Dobson, Zdeno Chara, and Andy Greene, along with forward Zach Parise hitting their performance bonus last season, the Islanders went over the cap by $245K. If the Islanders had used a player at league minimum, they would not have run into that problem.

With his extension kicking in, Johnston is making $650,000 more than league-minimum players like Fasching and Holmstrom, who, as stated, have passed Johnston on the depth chart.

Because salaries accrue during the season, and the NHL Trade Deadline is roughly 80 percent into an NHL season, that means that accrued cap space is a tad over four times as much as the annual cap hit.

PuckPedia’s Definition: At the deadline, there are usually about 41 days left out of a 186-day season. That means that at the deadline, a player’s cap hit will only count 41/186 of their annual cap hit on the new team. Therefore, a team’s projected cap space for the year can fit 186/41 (4.53) Annual Cap Hit at the deadline. For example, if a team has $1M projected cap space for the year and that accrues at the deadline, they can add $1M * (186/41) = $4.54M in Annual Cap Hit.

In laments terms, to make this a bit easier to understand, let’s say a dollar is a dollar at the start of the season. At the trade deadline, that dollar is worth $4, and 5 dollars come season’s end.

So a $750K contract will accrue to $3 million at the trade deadline, while a contract like Johnston’s would accrue to $4.4 million. That means Johnston is costing the Islanders $1.4 million in available cap space.

The New York Islanders were a team cap-strapped this summer which disallowed them from being active players in high-level free agents. Unlike over the summer, general manager Lou Lamoriello will have $10.895 million in available space at the deadline.

The Islanders have the space to bring in a bonafide scorer, an undeniable need right now. They may even be able to upgrade their defense as well, depending on how much the scorer costs.

Johnston’s contract doesn’t limit what the Islanders can do, but his contract does not match his current role, and in today’s NHL, cap space is a critical asset.

If Johnston truly is at the bottom of the pecking order on the island, the Islanders could try to trade him for a pick.

On Nov. 25, the New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a fifth-round pick in 2025. Johnston may not hold as much value as Reaves, and there may not be any suitors for his talent, especially at his current cap hit.

The Islanders could place Johnston on waivers, and because he makes less than $1.125 million, his contract would no longer count against the Islanders’ cap.

It’s evident, based on the fact that he is still here and the fact that he was extended, that Lamoriello sees value in Johnston’s role.

He’s beloved in the room and plays a role that still holds value. But with younger, cheaper players coming up and making an impact, is it time for the Islanders to move on?

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