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Projecting a salary cap future with Steven Stamkos

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Seeing into the future is one of the most difficult parts of being the General Manager of any sports franchise. For Steve Yzerman and staff, it's all the more important to do so before signing Steven Stamkos.

Steve Yzerman accepting the GM of the Year award. Signing Stamkos and keeping the Lightning intact may earn him a few more of these trophies.
Steve Yzerman accepting the GM of the Year award. Signing Stamkos and keeping the Lightning intact may earn him a few more of these trophies.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Remember, always in motion is the future and many possible futures there are. - Yoda

The big debate around the Tampa Bay Lightning is if the team should re-sign franchise center Steven Stamkos and if so, for how much. General Manager Steve Yzerman seems to be attempting to see into the future, weighing the impacts of re-signing Stamkos in both the short and long term. Yzerman does not want to find himself in a position where he is handicapping the club with an albatross contract. He was already fortunate to escape from one with Vincent Lecavalier's contract and doesn't want another that causes him to have to strip down the roster just to stay under the cap.

The Chicago Blackhawks have been able to remain competitive and maintain cap space somehow year after year by identifying the right players to keep, developing prospects, and selling high on NHL roster players they can replace. Yzerman is looking at being in the same situation over the next few seasons. On the other side of that is a cautionary tale of the Pittsburgh Penguins who have big contracts with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang and are currently struggling partly due to a lack of depth across the roster. It wouldn't be hard to see three such big contracts for the Lightning in just two years between Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman.

Over the past few months, I've been running back and forth across the salary and contract information for the Lightning and attempting to make educated guesses on potential restricted free agent contracts and different moves that the club might make for a Stamkos extension to work. I want to stress here that this is just one potential outcome of signing Stamkos. There are many different paths that could be taken into the future. Even one trade this season could greatly alter the path the organization takes.

All current contract and salary cap information comes from GeneralFanager.com.

[Trigger Warning: I want to put this out in front. This is a hockey business article and I will be talking about the potential of moving a number of players currently on the Lightning roster. Some of these players are fan favorites or may be your favorite player. Some fans have strong attachments to players and will have strong reactions to the suggestions of losing one of those players. If you are one such fan (and there is nothing wrong with that), then this is your warning that you may not enjoy what is to come. Continue reading at your own peril!!!]

All right. Let's go!

Besides Stamkos, the Lightning have several key players over the next three off-seasons that will become either restricted or unrestricted free agents. With restricted free agents (RFAs), it's often difficult to determine what their salary cap hit will be, especially two to three years down the road. These players often are signed to one or two year "bridge" deals at a lower value that allows the club to see them continue to grow before committing longer term and higher dollars to them.

Alternatively, if the club feels they've seen enough, they can elect to go with a longer term deal that initially will cost the club more. As long as the player continues to grow and perform as expected, this can represent a bargain in the latter years of their contract especially if the salary cap and player salaries continue to grow.

For this exercise, I'm going to assume that Stamkos is signing for $10.5 million per year for eight years. The market has been pretty well set by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and anything less than that would be gravy for the Lightning and for my projections if you think Stamkos is worth that salary. There have also been indications coming out that the salary cap for next season is looking to be around $74.5 million. This increase will benefit the Lightning and may also be part of the puzzle that Yzerman has been waiting on to make a decision. To stay conservative, we'll assume a $0.5 million increase each year in the salary cap over the following two seasons.

Restricted Free Agents

Alex KillornJ.T. BrownVladislav Namestnikov, Kucherov, Jonathan MarchessaultCedric Paquette, and Nikita Nesterov are all RFAs this coming off-season. It's likely that one or more of those players, perhaps Marchessault and Nesterov don't end up on the NHL roster next year. I previously talked about this year's restricted free agents and outlined their potential contracts for next season. Additionally, Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Andrej Sustr, and Andrei Vasilevskiy will be RFAs after 2016-17. Joining them will be potential NHLers Slater KoekkoekAnthony DeAngeloAdam WilcoxMatthew PecaJake Dotchin, and Dylan Blujus.

For now, I've penciled in the following for contracts and have a few comments to go with each one.

  • Killorn (2016-17) - $4 million on a two year contract through 2017-18 which would then allow him to become an unrestricted free agent at 28 years old. The team could also choose to trade him this off-season for a prospect or a draft pick instead of paying up now.
  • Brown (2016-17) - $1.25 million on a three year contract through 2018-19. This could just as easily be a one or two year deal and the team could allow him to walk as an unrestricted free agent or trade him. At this cap hit though, the salary cap savings of moving him is minimal as you're likely replacing him with a player in the $600,000 to $900,000 range. You would more move him because you need the roster spot for a younger player.
  • Namestnikov (2016-17) - $2.5 million on a one year contract. I think he's still in a bit of a "show me" year. He started off hot this year, but has been a little bit streaky and had cooled off before picking it back up again recently on the top line. I do have him at $3.5 million though for 2017-18 and 2018-19 as I think he'll eventually take over as the third center.
  • Kucherov (2016-17) - This is the hardest one for me to project. I think he could be on a three year $3.5 million bridge deal, but he could also go for a 6 year $6.5 million deal as well. For now, I'm going with the long term deal as the team should have the room and the ability to make enough room to handle that contract. After a bridge deal, he could also be closer to asking for Stamkos money on his next deal.
  • Marchessault (2016-17) - He's still a tweener, but I think he'd be in for a little bit of a raise on a two-way deal next season. I've bumped him to $850,000 in the NHL on a one year deal. Ultimately, in my projections, Marchessault can serve as a placeholder for a number of prospects that could take his place at some point in the next couple seasons with similar cap hits either on entry level contracts or early RFA deals.
  • Paquette (2016-17) - $950,000 on a two year deal. With the injuries he's had to start the season, it's hard to really project out what he could get. He's still young though and just coming off of his entry level contract. I don't think you have to look very far away for a comparable contract as the one Brown is currently on. I've followed it up with a $1.25 million contract for 2018-19.
  • Nesterov (2016-17) - Another player that's still in a "show me" position. $900,000 might be a little generous, but he would also represent a placeholder for another defenseman like Koekkoek in the same spot who has a $894,166 cap hit next season.
  • Johnson (2017-18) - Another tough one to really gauge where he could be and he is also a potential player to be traded. I'm writing him in at $6 million for the time being. If he tears it up before the end of next season and does something crazy like winning an Art Ross trophy or an MVP award, then his contract would be bigger.
  • Palat (2017-18) - The less heralded of the three Triplets, Palat stirs the drink. I think with his lower point production, he won't get quite as big of a contract, but I've still put him in at $5.5 million because he does the little things right and is a potential to wear an "A" long term for this club.
  • Drouin (2017-18) - Another one that is a tough one to gauge. He's started off decently this season and he could go on a big run next year, but has been on and off with injuries. I'm betting however that he'll end up on a Triplet style bridge deal as he'll still just be 22 at the start of the next contract. Three years at $3.5 million per year.
  • Sustr (2017-18) - He's likely gone by this point, but still penciling him in at another $1.45 million to represent a possible free agent signing. At worst, he'll be here again at that number or a prospect will be in his spot at a lower cap hit. You can't over emphasize the need for depth though, especially on defense.
  • Vasilevskiy (2017-18) - Going into his fourth year in the league, Vasilevskiy likely will be looking at himself being the number one goalie for the team. The real question is will that be the first time he is, or will he become number one in 2016-17? Starting Vasy off with a one year $2.5 million deal and following up with a $3.5 million cap hit for 2018-19 as he could get more dollars on a second, longer RFA deal. There is the potential though that he wins a Vezina and a deep playoff run pushes him up closer to $6 million like Bishop's deal and some other elite goalie contracts.
  • Koekkoek (2017-18) - Koekkoek's also one that will depend on when the Lightning bring him to Tampa and how quickly he develops into a top four defenseman in the NHL. I've got him at $1.5 million for 2017-18 and $2.5 million for 2018-19. This is a pretty shaky guess though.
  • Wilcox (2017-18) - By this point, he'll likely be Vasilevskiy's back up and likely only getting paid $1 million or so if not less. If it's not him, it could also be Kristers Gudlevskis at a similar number or a veteran free agent back-up with a similar or slightly higher cap hit.
  • Peca (2017-18) - Peca will be coming off of his entry level contract. If he's in the NHL by this time, he'll likely be a third line player. I have him set at $1 million as he should still be working to establish himself in the NHL.
  • Blujus/Dotchin (2017-18) - I'm using these players interchangeably because they're almost interchangeable in the Lightning's future with similar ceilings and likelihood of making the NHL. They should be sub $1 million players, so I'll put both of them at $1 million to keep our guesses conservative.
  • Erne (2018-19) - So much of his contract will depend on what the team does with him over the next couple years. He could easily end up sliding into Killorn's spot in the lineup and be playing well by that time. I'm sticking him at $2.5 million similar to Killorn's first restricted free agent deal even though Erne is a little younger than Killorn was.
  • DeAngelo (2018-19) - Like with Koekkoek a year ahead of him, it will depend on how quickly he comes to the NHL and establishes himself. I'm pegging him at $2.5 million for his first RFA deal though as I think he'll be establishing himself by then.

Money Saving Deals

Matt Carle

I know this is the popular one. He's not living up to his contract. He makes a lot of mistakes and his good plays don't tend to be remembered by fans. He has become the scapegoat for the team's fans at times and has become a popular player to razz on. I get it. Unfortunately, trading him is a difficult task. He still has two years remaining on his contract after 2015-16 with a $5.5 million cap hit. He also has a modified No Trade Clause. Modified means there is some exceptions, but it is unknown publicly what they are.

If the team could move him, while retaining half of his salary, I would consider that a success. The other, more likely, option is for the team to buy him out. A buyout would change his cap hit from $5.5 million over two years, to $1,833,333 over four years. If the team waited another year, then that would be only two years; 2017-18, and 2018-19. With Koekkoek and DeAngelo on the way, I think that next summer will be the time to buy him out and take the cap hit for the next four seasons. The team can't carry him for another year with his current performance.

Valtteri Filppula

Filppula has been on a decline since he finished the first year of his five-year contract that has a cap hit of $5 million through 2017-18. He has a No Movement Clause and a modified No Trade Clause. The No Movement Clause means he cannot be placed on waivers, but that does not preclude a buyout. With Namestnikov, Peca, and Point coming along on the depth chart, Filppula is becoming expendable and could be trade bait as soon as this season.

Like Carle though, if he does not want to be traded, then it's possible that a buyout is the only option. A buyout would cost $1,666,666. I have him staying with the team for 2016-17 at $5 million and then being bought out after that season with the $1,666,666 cap hit staying for two seasons. This is the worst case scenario though and being able to deal him would only help the projections. If the team does trade him this season or this summer, it would greatly impact these projections and require less drastic changes for the next two seasons.

Alex Killorn

Killorn has been a good winger for the team that can play up and down the lineup. However, his contract is going to get bigger. Justin Abdelkader is a similar player that just received a pretty big pay day (7 years at $4.25 million per year). However, I think Erne will ultimately replace him and that could happen as soon as 2016-17. Killorn's also a good enough asset that he could be used in a trade for a roster player like a right handed defenseman if needed or for a first round pick.

A Triplet

It's possible that the Triplets could price themselves out of town and any one of them would bring at the minimum a first rounder or two and/or a really good prospect in return. Kucherov is showing borderline elite skill as a possession driver that passes as well as he shoots that would be difficult to replace without a high draft pick or spending just as much on the free agent market for an older player. Palat would be a Selke finalist every year if he was a center and he does a lot of the little things very well. His lower point production also makes him a touch more affordable. Johnson could suffer from the same fate as Filppula with some talented centers in the pipeline beyond just Namestnikov in Peca and Point. I think Johnson is the most likely of the group to be traded.

Jason Garrison

Garrison will be a free agent after the 2017-18 season. He's still solid as a top four defenseman, but there's always the potential with blueliners on the wrong side of 30 suffering injuries and slowing down. His $4.6 million cap hit is manageable, but a trade before 2017-18 could be a possible move if the team needed to free up some salary room if another player has an unexpected explosion. This might be one of the least likely possibilities as Yzerman has shown an unwillingness to leave the team without depth. Even if Garrison was playing third pairing minutes behind DeAngelo and Koekkoek, their cap hits would still be low enough that it should be doable to hang on to Garrison for his final season.

2016-17 Projection

Forwards (13, $47,310,832)

  • Steven Stamkos - $10,500,000
  • Nikita Kucherov - $6,500,000
  • Ryan Callahan - $5,800,000
  • Valtteri Filppula - $5,000,000
  • Alex Killorn - $4,000,000
  • Tyler Johnson - $3,333,333
  • Ondrej Palat - $3,333,333
  • Vladislav Namestnikov - $2,500,000
  • Brian Boyle - $2,000,000
  • Erik Condra - $1,250,000
  • J.T. Brown - $1,250,000
  • Cedric Paquette - $950,000
  • Jonathan Drouin - $894,166

Defense (7, $17,188,332)

  • Jason Garrison - $4,600,000
  • Anton Stralman - $4,500,000
  • Victor Hedman - $4,000,000
  • Andrej Sustr - $1,450,000
  • Anthony DeAngelo - $894,166
  • Slater Koekkoek - $894,166
  • Nikita Nesterov - $850,000

Goalies (2, $6,875,000)

  • Ben Bishop - $5,950,000
  • Andrei Vasilevskiy - $925,000

Buyouts (1, $1,833,333)

  • Matt Carle - $1,833,333

(Note: Brayden Coburn becomes a UFA after the 2015-16 season and the contract for Mattias Ohlund will come to an end as well.)

In this scenario, the team has a full roster that is capable of competing for the Stanley Cup in the NHL. It requires a youngster in DeAngelo to step into a second pairing role on the blue line, but he is showing that he has that potential to be capable of accomplishing that. The team could also protect him and Koekkoek more by splitting up Hedman and Stralman at times to pair with the youngsters. On the forwards and goalies, it pretty much remains unchanged from the current lineup. Granted, with how this lineup has been playing, maybe there will be some shake-ups if the team doesn't turn things around. The only major financial move is buying out Matt Carle and reducing his cap hit from $5.5 million to $1,833,333.

With a $74.5 million salary cap for 2016-17, this would leave the team with $1,292,503 in cap space to begin the year. This is a little bit on the tight side for dealing with injuries and may mean that another move would have to be made just to make sure the team had salary cap space to handle multiple injuries. We're seeing what can happen with the cap space when the injury bug hits hard as the Bolts are currently. With so many injuries, the available cap space quickly shrinks and can affect decisions of which player to call up because of their salary. Also, if we have traded Carle and retained half of his salary, we would be over the cap and would be forced to make another move like trading Alex Killorn or Valteri Filppula.

Projected Lines

Drouin

Stamkos

Namestnikov

Palat

Johnson

Kucherov

Killorn

Filppula

Callahan

Boyle

Paquette

Brown

Condra

Hedman

Stralman

Garrison

DeAngelo

Koekkoek

Sustr

Nesterov

Bishop

Vasilevskiy

2017-18 Projected Lineup

Forwards (13, $46,916,666)

  • Steven Stamkos - $10,500,000
  • Nikita Kucherov - $6,500,000
  • Ryan Callahan - $5,800,000
  • Tyler Johnson - $6,000,000
  • Ondrej Palat - $5,500,000
  • Vladislav Namestnikov - $3,500,000
  • Jonathan Drouin - $3,500,000
  • Erik Condra - $1,250,000
  • J.T. Brown - $1,250,000
  • Cedric Paquette - $950,000
  • Adam Erne - $874,166
  • Brayden Point - $692,500
  • Matt Peca - $600,000

Defense (7, $20,683,332)

  • Victor Hedman - $7,500,000
  • Jason Garrison - $4,600,000
  • Anton Stralman - $4,500,000
  • Slater Koekkoek - $1,500,000
  • Anthony DeAngelo - $894,166
  • Jake Dotchin - $850,000
  • Dominik Masin - $839,166

Goalies (2, $3,500,000)

  • Andrei Vasilevskiy - $2,500,000
  • Adam Wilcox - $1,000,000

Buyouts (1, $1,833,333)

  • Matt Carle - $1,833,333

At our projected $75 million salary cap, this leaves the team $2,066,669 under the cap. This cap hit has been achieved by successfully trading Valtteri Filppula instead of buying him out. However, if the team was forced to buy him out then the team would be just $400,000 under the cap and would have to make another move to replace a higher priced veteran with a player on a cheaper deal. Filppula still has enough value though that I think as long as he allows a trade he can be moved with just one year left on his contract.

Brian Boyle will be an unrestricted free agent as well as Ben Bishop clearing almost $7 million in cap space. On the other side of the equation though is that new restricted free agent deals start for Johnson, Palat, Drouin, and Vasilevskiy. In addition, you have Hedman's raise going into effect as well which I have penciled in as $7.5 million. Right now, that would put Hedman in the top five of defensemen salaries in the league. If he wins a Norris before signing his next contract, his contract could get bigger and would create even more questions of potentially moving out players to make room.

On the front end, you have Erne taking Killorn's spot as by this time he should have developed far enough to make Killorn expendable allowing the team to trade him for more assets to continue the train of development in the pipeline. Brayden Point will be in his second pro year and Matt Peca in his third pro year. Obviously this is banking on some hope that they'll develop quickly and be able to contribute as third line players.

On the blue line, Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov have been let go in favor of two of Jake Dotchin, Dylan Blujus and Dominik Masin to fill out the bottom pair and the 7th defenseman. Dotchin and Blujus will be waiver eligible starting in 2017-18 while Masin will be a second year pro. All three very well could be ready for NHL duty by that point and most likely we'll have seen Dotchin and/or Blujus filling in for injuries during 2016-17 on the third pair. For now, I put in Dotchin and Masin because I believe they'll end up being slightly better than Blujus.

The goalie position also gets a little make over with Vasilevskiy assuming the number one position and Ben Bishop leaving in free agency. Adam Wilcox moves up from the AHL to be his backup though this could also be a veteran free agent or potentially Kristers Gudlevskis.

Projected lines

Drouin

Stamkos

Namestnikov

Palat

Johnson

Kucherov

Erne

Point

Callahan

Peca

Paquette

Brown

Condra

Hedman

Stralman

Koekkoek

DeAngelo

Garrison

Dotchin

Masin

Vasilevskiy

Wilcox

2018-19 Projection

Forwards (13, $48,867,500)

  • Steven Stamkos - $10,500,000
  • Nikita Kucherov - $6,500,000
  • Tyler Johnson - $6,000,000
  • Ryan Callahan - $5,800,000
  • Ondrej Palat - $5,500,000
  • Vladislav Namestnikov - $3,500,000
  • Jonathan Drouin - $3,500,000
  • Adam Erne - $2,500,000
  • J.T. Brown - $1,250,000
  • Cedric Paquette - $1,250,000
  • Matt Peca - $1,000,000
  • Mitchell Stephens - $875,000
  • Brayden Point - $692,500

Defense (7, $19,539,166)

  • Victor Hedman - $7,500,000
  • Anton Stralman - $4,500,000
  • Slater Koekkoek - $2,500,000
  • Anthony DeAngelo - $2,500,000
  • Jake Dotchin - $850,000
  • Dylan Blujus - $850,000
  • Dominik Masin - $839,166

Goalies (2, $4,500,000)

  • Andrei Vasilevskiy - $3,500,000
  • Adam Wilcox - $1,000,000

Buyouts (1, $1,833,333)

  • Matt Carle - $1,833,333

The cap situation again gets a little hairy with the team sitting just $760,001 below the $75.5 million salary cap and could be in a position where the team is forced to make a trade of at least a mid-level player to make enough room for dealing with injuries like the year before. This could be a bigger contract like Johnson's $6 million cap hit or something more in the middle like Namestnikov's $3.5 million especially if he regresses or gets bumped out of the top six by someone like Erne and made expendable on the third line by Point or Peca.

The defense continues to add young guys. I've added in Dylan Blujus this year, but again he and Dotchin could be place holders for other prospects that may come along in the next couple years or cheap veteran free agents. DeAngelo and Koekkoek will need to have firmly moved up into the top four defensemen and their development into such players could ease making a move like trading Stralman to make that salary cap move.

I am also concerned about Callahan's aging as he gets later into his contract. He is going to become more and more of a bottom six forward as he gets older and he's going to be making a lot of money for a guy in such a position. Unfortunately, he's going to be hard to move at that point with his salary. The best thing that could happen for the Lightning in this scenario though is an expansion team taking Callahan off our hands. Then the Lightning will have gotten the best years of his contract with an expansion team getting a veteran that can be their Captain during their formative years.

Projected Lines

Drouin

Stamkos

Erne

Palat

Johnson

Kucherov

Namestnikov

Point

Peca

Brown

Paquette

Callahan

Stephens

Hedman

DeAngelo

Koekkoek

Stralman

Masin

Dotchin

Blujus

Vasilevskiy

Wilcox

Conclusions

The further we go out, the fuzzier the view becomes. It can be hard to project restricted free agent deals and in 2018-19 it will be interesting to look back on this article to see how close I was. It's clear though that keeping Stamkos will have its cost to the club as the organization will be forced into moving some very good players to make room under the cap. Drafting and developing well can help the team absorb some of those losses. However, the development pipeline has dried up a little bit in terms of high skill players over the past few years with a bit more of a focus on two-way gritty players.

With the tight cap situation, this would force the team to make even more moves if there was a need to bring in a free agent or make a trade to fill a gap somewhere in the lineup. There is a risk that some players aren't going to work out. Long term and career ending injuries can create a gap in the lineup that is unexpected. There's also a risk that a player will explode and have an incredible season (Namestnikov? Drouin? Erne? DeAngelo? Vasilevskiy?) and be able to demand a much higher salary than what I've projected out forcing the team into making another big move to keep that player or be resigned to moving that player because the team can no longer afford them. Then that player must be replaced either with a free agent that's not as good or a prospect if there is someone ready to step into that spot.

The most important calculation for Steve Yzerman to make though will be this; is the Tampa Bay Lightning better with Stamkos and without the players he'd have to give up... or is this team better with the players he keeps, plus a potential free agent? And that is the $10.5 million question that may take years to find out the answer to.