I've written in this space about how cap hits of top players have come down in recent years. Ilya Kovalchuk and Brad Richards, two of the most marquee free agents in the cap era, signed deals with LOWER cap hits than their expiring contracts. Kovalchuk's deal with Atlanta was signed in the summer of 2005 - had he signed the same deal today, relative to the cap, it would be a 5 year, $60.1M contract. Brad Richards famously signed a maximum contract with the Lightning - a max contract now would be $14M per season. No one is signing a deal even close to that - I'll be surprised if Crosby or Malkin breaks the $10M barrier, even after the NHL forbids front-loading contracts in the way that teams have done for Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo, Kovalchuk, etc.
The current salary cap of $70.3M is supported by a disproportionate amount of revenue from large-market teams. Therefore, these large-market teams can afford to spend up to the cap every year, but middle-market teams whose revenues are not steadily climbing will stop spending to the cap. They will begin setting an internal salary cap that is well below the actual figure. So it's not entirely correct to judge every deal relative to the salary cap alone, as fewer and fewer teams will spend up to it. Still, has anyone noticed that we almost never talk about a team with intractable cap issues? Every big-market team's fanbase thinks they have a shot to land Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, something that's been unthinkable in the salary cap era. The teams with limited cap maneuverability right now can certainly make room - they have decent contracts that can be fobbed off on other teams. There is currently no team sitting in salary cap jail, not even the Philadelphia Flyers, who had previously built a jail in their arena for Paul Holmgren to reside in during the summer.
I don't expect the salary cap to remain at $70M after the NHL and NHLPA agree to a new CBA this coming autumn or winter. Perhaps it will remain there - the NBA is reducing the players' share of revenue over the course of multiple seasons, likely keeping the salary cap around where it is, and this would be a good compromise for the NHL. Still, I feel that fans' and even experts' perceptions of what a fair deal is lags behind the market's understanding that cap room tends to burn a hole in even the best GM's pocket. Erik Karlsson signed a 7 year, 6.5M per deal yesterday, but would any of us really batted an eye had he signed that deal in 2008? I find it unlikely that the Senators will ultimately regret this deal - they could've maybe gotten more value, but there's also some value in keeping a potential franchise player happy. And if the salary cap continues to rise and Karlsson's play doesn't regress, it figures to be a great value 5 or 6 years down the road.