The NHL and NHLPA have announced that the upper limit for the salary cap for the 2015-16 season will be $71.4 million. This is lower than the $73-$75 million upper limit that was being projected at the beginning of the just-completed 14-15 season, but we've been hearing around $71 million for a few months now. There will be some challenges for Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman to deal with as he prepares the roster for next season.
Without counting Mattias Ohlund who will be put on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) at the beginning of the season, the Lightning have 11 forwards, 6 defensemen and 2 goalies that are NHL caliber and under contract for 2015-16. The only unrestricted free agent (UFA) from last season is Brenden Morrow.
Looking ahead and projecting the Lightning’s roster for next season, there are five key restricted free agents (RFAs); forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Jonathan Marchessault, and defensemen Andrej Sustr, Mark Barberio, and Luke Witkowski. Barberio is the only one of the five that seems unlikely to be retained. Unable to draw into much playoff action, the writing is on the wall for Barberio. The outside shot would be to re-sign him and then try to pass him through waivers to play in the AHL.It's more likely he'll be moved either by trade or declining to tender him a qualifying-offer. Taking Barberio's roster spot would likely be a product of the Bolts development pipeline: Slater Koekkoek, Nikita Nesterov or Witkowski.
(All cap information comes from GeneralFanager.com.)
The good news is, Alex Killorn, Brian Boyle, J.T. Brown, Cedric Paquette, Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov are all still on fairly cheap deals. Killorn and Boyle come in at $2.55 million and $2 million respectively. Given where Killorn plays, he’s a bargain and Boyle is well worth the money for his versatility. The other four are all under $1 million while playing vital roles throughout the lineup. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat form the middle with $3.333 million hits. Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, and Steven Stamkos round out the top at $5, $5.8, and $7.5 million cap hits each.
The two RFAs, Namestnikov and Marchessault, are not in a position in their NHL careers to command large, long term deals. They almost certainly will be smaller one-year contracts similar to the ones that Richard Panik and Brett Connolly received last off season as waiver-eligible players that hadn’t shown much yet. Expect them to come in around the $750k to $1 million range. Additionally, at some point in the year and maybe even right out of training camp, you could see Adam Erne on the team with his $894k cap hit on his ELC.
This defense is starting to look a bit expensive. Matt Carle leads the way with a $5.5 million cap hit, followed up with Jason Garrison, Brenydon Coburn and Anton Stralman at $4.6, $4.5, and $4.5 million each. Victor Hedman is still on a ridiculously cheap deal with a $4 million cap hit. Nesterov will be finishing the last year of his Entry Level Contract (ELC) at a $925k cap hit. And of course Ohlund is still on the roster with his $3.607 million cap hit.
As noted above, Barberio's return is doubtful so he wasn't included in the equation. Witkowski is in much the same boat as Namestnikov and Marchessault. He should get a short, one year deal in the $750k to $1 million range and probably get a raise going into 2016-17 if he's made the NHL squad full-time or be let go. He could also take a deal like former Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas did that was several years around $950k that means potentially giving up a little bit more later, but guaranteeing him money over those years.
Sustr is a little harder to project. He has shown great potential and ability at times and at others has shown that he can look like a baby giraffe trying to stand up for the first time. He is not quite halfway to the magical 300 NHL games number for defensemen. Further, being a right-hander with size, that adds to his value. He is just coming off of a $874k one-year deal. He could be in a position to look for a $1 to $1.5 million deal. Anthony DeAngelo and Slater Koekkoek sport $1.294 million and $1.444 million cap hits due to bonuses built into their ELCs as first round picks. One or both are likely to make an appearance on the roster at some point in the season when there is an injury.
The Lightning are pretty set in net. Ben Bishop’s $5.95 million cap hit is certainly in the top end of goalie salaries, but it was tempered by Yzerman by being only a two year deal. Behind him is Andrei Vasilevskiy on a $1.475 million ELC contract. In the event Kristers Gudlevskis is needed at any point, he has a very low $608k cap hit for next season as he enters the last season of his ELC.
The Lightning will finally be past the impact from Vinny Prospal’s buyout. However, they still have $1.6 million left over for Sam Gagner. That salary obligation came in the deal that sent Teddy Purcell to Edmonton for Gagner and then Gagner out to Arizona with the Lightning retaining $1.6 million over the last two years of his contract while getting out from under Purcell’s contract. Yzerman also moved pugilist B.J. Crombeen at the same time and looking back it still looks like a great deal.
Before signing their four necessary RFAs, the team would only have $3.112 million in cap space. That includes Ohlund's cap hit. Calculating Ohlund isn't as easy as just subtracting his cap hit from the total. The team will be able to put him on LTIR and gain salary cap relief. His salary will still count against the cap, but the cap will effectively be raised. The way it works is that at the time Ohlund is put on LTIR, take the amount of cap space left and subtract that from Ohlund's cap hit. Then add that number to the salary cap to get your new available max cap number.
For example, if the salary cap total for the team at the beginning of the season is $70.9 million and Ohlund is put on LTIR, the team's effective cap total becomes $74.507 million including Ohlund gaining the team $3.107 million in cap space. By playing around with the roster make up using recalls of waiver ineligible players, Yzerman can get the cap obligation as close as possible to the cap to gain the most advantage when he puts Ohlund on LTIR. He did that at the beginning of the 2014-15 season by making paper transactions like sending Kucherov to Syracuse to manipulate the number. Expect him to do the same this fall to maximize the amount of cap space available.
It's possible that the team moves a contract to allow for more flexibility as the season goes on particularly if Yzerman wanted to add a piece at the trade deadline that could potentially carry some salary. Fortunately, the team should have a couple million in cap space heading into the season that will give them the room to add 2-3 players from Syracuse as injury replacements as needed even without dumping a salary. With Carle and Filppula both having three years left on their contracts, it may be too early to move them. If Yzerman can afford to carry Carle for one more year and get his remaining deal down to just two years, he'll become easier to move. Filppula with his veteran experience is still very much a desired piece of the locker room and the team can continue to hold on to him.
Many may assume Yzerman's offseason should be fairly easy with a good Lightning team in place with only the NHL draft and bolstering Syracuse's lineup on the to-do list. But don't take Yzerman lightly. If he sees a good reason to make a move, he won't be afraid to do what he needs to do to make it happen and that could involve trading a beloved player.