I'd argue most of the league is in cap trouble because of the unexpected flat cap from covid which has given those with cap a very valuable commodity.
We had to dump Johnsson for no value (that's ****ty asset management no matter how you put it) and frankly there was talk of weegar but we can't acquire him now for cap reasons.
Our cap situation isn't terrible but it isn't good. And Marner just makes too much. That and the stupid Kessel retention that's still on the books
Marner got too much for an RFA contract, but it's about $1.5M more than he should have gotten for that term. As a UFA he easily gets that deal, and given that the years purchased, he likely delivers strong value on that deal versus a similar UFA (as they would have been signed from 27-33 instead of 22-28). So overall, it still doesn't make his contract "bad" as in they would still get value in a trade for it, and having it is better than not having it. Obviously you would rather have Rantanen at his price, but Marner's contract doesn't do near the damage to Toronto's cap situation that people seem to think.
Going back to the Johnsson trade, while that trade is definitely trading at a loss, that wasn't just because of cap alone, they were trading a depressed asset, as he was coming off a down year. But the fact remains, they got positive value, if a team just had the space but didn't have the player to trade to get even some value back, that is actually a weaker position from an asset management standpoint.
I think what you are seeing is the landscape shifting. Before, teams just circumvented the cap, management didn't really have as strong a grasp on it, so they didnt' like to be too "tight" to it, so instead they just came up with ways to get around it. They basically created an RFA market where it was expected that an RFA would get paid well below market value, then stars would get massive length deals that would likely see the player retire, or become another GMs problem, all of which created this middle teir UFA pool for 28-32 year olds had to get paid to make up for the lesser amounts they got as RFAs, and we saw decent players get paid massive contracts with big term. Teams were able to have overpaid 30+ year olds in the middle of their roster by having superstars on front loaded cam circumventing deals and RFAs on massively underpaid deals, and agencies were fine going along with this as long as that mushy middle part of the market was rolling in.
A few years back UFAs started getting squeezed more as more and more teams started avoiding these massive UFA mistakes, which slowly dried up that market, but RFAs and agents started taking note, and RFAs started demanding closer and closer to fair market contracts. Throw in an 8 year cap on contracts, recapture rules, and more front offices having a deeper knowledge of the cap, and the market shifts dramatically. Teams are less afraid of running with less than a 23 man roster, they are more comfortable using waiver rules (also the removal of re-entry waivers had a bigger impact than people realize) to create and accrue cap space over the course of a season.
The landscape today has shifted dramatically. Just this offseason some of the biggest contracts we have seen were for RFAs. Anderson got more money committed to him than any UFA forward, and Matt Murray got the highest AAV of any goalie signed. Neither one of those players is even close in terms of being the most skilled at their position, Anderson has only 22 more points in his career than Hall had in his best season. Pietrangelo got a big contract, but even that isn't far above what recent RFA defensemen have signed (Trouba and Chabot, who aren't close to as good as Pietrangelo).
My point is, that while teams are spending closer to the cap, it doesn't mean they are in trouble. Bad contracts cause trouble, good contracts don't. Just because things are different, if it's happening right accross the market, it doesn't create a competitive disadvantage, in fact, trying to manage the cap the way it used to be would likely cause more of a disadvantage.
We may even be seeing the start of that type of shift. Vancouver and NYI are two teams that seem set on doing it the way it used to be done, overpaying UFAs to add veteran experience in the middle/bottom of the line up, and expecting to squeeze RFAs in order to make it work. So far, both teams have lost a young top 4 D because of not leaving sufficient cap space for their best players. Both teams have taken a step back this off season explicitly because of cap concerns. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out in the coming months.