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What would it take for Tampa Bay Lightning to afford John Tavares?

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Elliott Friedman thinks it’s possible Tavares signs for a discount with Tampa.

2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Skills Competition

Our friends over at Light House Hockey have had a running article for almost a year now chronicling all of the rumors, reports, and everything under the sun about John Tavares and his pending free agency. We at RawCharge so far have avoided adding our names to the article, but this article should do it. Elliotte Friedman in his last 30 Thoughts of the season said that he has “visions” of Tavares signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning for a discount.

While our staff is of the opinion that Tavares will most likely remain with the New York Islanders, we are willing to explore the idea, however far-fetched it may seem. And in the process give our friends at Light House Hockey another entry into their encyclopedia.

The biggest challenge is obviously the salary cap. While there are less challenges facing the Lightning with the salary cap in 2018-19 when Tavares would be signing, the summer following will be an amazingly hard challenge. Possibly as challenging as the 2016-17 offseason was for general manager Steve Yzerman.

The first question to ask is what would it take to sign Tavares to a contract. The Lightning have set an artificial individual cap within the team with Steven Stamkos’ $8.5 million salary cap hit. While Tavares should command around that, he would have to play by Yzerman’s rules and sign for less to make a deal happen. In Tavares, you’re getting a left handed center that has consistently been around the point per game mark in his career. While not as prolific a goal scorer as Stamkos, he’s consistently put up points in his career.

He has a career high of 38 goals, 50 assists, and 86 points over nine NHL seasons. He has hit the 30 goal plateau three times and 80 points twice. He also managed 47 points in 48 games in the 2012-13 lockout shortened season. With Tavares, the Lightning would be adding a third forward of the caliber of both Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

I recently wrote about Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat’s contracts prior to both signing their new long term deals. In that, I illustrated that free agents generally get $1 million per 10 points of expected production. That rule bends a bit when you get into the top end of point producers such as Tavares. With his expected production being in the 70 to 80 point ranges with 30 goals, that means $7 to $8 million is the floor and more likely he would stretch into the $9 to $9.5 million range on the open market.

For the Lightning, I think it would take Tavares signing for $7.5 million likely with an seven year term. He’d be making less than cornerstones Stamkos and Victor Hedman and that would represent a discount from his expected salary cap hit as Friedman suggested. If the Lightning have the cashflow capacity to structure his deal in the same way as Stamkos with the majority of his salary coming in the form of signing bonuses, he would also be gaining major tax benefits over many other clubs he could sign with, especially New York.

The last big question to answer is how much will the salary cap go up? Hopefully with the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights to the league, we’ll start to see a little bit more revenue. On the other hand, that revenue is being split between 31 teams instead of 30 teams. Since it’s impossible to predict exactly how much the cap will go up, I’m going to assume a $2 million increase per season and hope for the best.

2018-19 Salary Cap

Now that the questions of Tavares and the salary cap are “answered” for our scenario, we can explore what it would take to make it work.

At forward, the team is committed to Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde, and Brayden Point. Chris Kunitz, Erik Condra, and J.T. Brown will be unresticted free agents. Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette will be restricted free agents, along with potential prospect additions Matthew Peca and Adam Erne.

With the eight forwards under contract, the Lightning have committed $35.5 million.

On defense, under contract for 2018-19 will be Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, Mikhail Sergachev, and Jake Dotchin. Andrej Sustr will be an unrestricted free agent and Slater Koekkoek will be a restricted free agent. With those six defensemen, the Lightning have committed $20.78 million in salary cap.

In goal, the Lightning are pretty well set with Andrei Vasilevski and Peter Budaj both under contract. They combine for just over $4.5 million in salary cap hit.

For eight forwards, six defensemen, and two goalies, the Lightning sit at just under $61 million committed in salary cap. Add in John Tavares and his $7.5 million cap hit and you’re up to $68.5 million. The team would need to add four more forwards and two more defensemen, six skaters in all. On top of that, the Lightning still have a $1.833 million cap hit due to the buyout of Matt Carle. With presumed a $77 million salary cap for 2018-19, that leaves the team with right around $7 million to sign their five skaters.

Cedric Paquette will be due for a raise as a RFA to something around the neighborhood of $1.25 million unless he can break out this season and put up 10 goals and 20+ points similar to how he performed in his rookie year. It would also be very similar to contracts given out to J.T. Brown and Erik Condra. It would probably be a two or three year contract.

Slater Koekkoek is a big question mark. His next contract will be very dependent on how much he plays in 2017-18 and how well he does. It’s possible he may not be back with the team either. With his skill and ability though, I think he could command $1.25 to $1.5 million in his next contract. Let’s keep him in at $1.5 million as a place holder. If he’s not with the team, he could be replaced by a prospect still on a cheap contract around the league minimum of $650,000, or replaced by a veteran at a similar cap hit as what he’s earmarked for.

With Paquette and Koekkoek set, the big question mark comes to Vladislav Namestnikov. We’re down to just under $4 million in cap space. But we still need three forwards. Even at the league minimum salary for two forwards, that only leaves $2.7 million to sign Namestnikov. It’s less if one or both of those other forwards are prospects on Entry Level Contracts that are earning more than $650,000. Matthew Peca and Adam Erne could be possible at league minimum if they don’t spend too much time in the NHL in 2017-18. They could end up a little more, closer to the $750-$850k range if they do.

If you do end up with slightly higher cap hits for those other forwards, you’re left with even less room to sign Namestnikov; more like $2.3 to $2.5 million. He’s currently making just under $2 million and he will certainly be looking for more money. As long as he can produce 30-35 points again this season, he would be looking for $3 million a year at a minimum.

At this point, you’re left with either trading another forward, trading Namestnikov, or buying out Ryan Callahan. Starting with the 2018-19 season, a modified No-Trade Clause in Callahan’s contract kicks in. That would open up an avenue of trading him to another team to get out from under his $5.8 million salary cap hit. Buying out Callahan would produce a savings of $3.133 million for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 while pushing a $1.566 million cap hit on to the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.

As far as trading a forward other than Callahan or Namestnikov, there’s not many options that make sense. Johnson’s No Trade Clause will have kicked in as well as the No Trade Clause that Palat is likely to receive on his new deal. The same is true for Killorn. Kucherov is too valuable to move. And the rest don’t offer enough salary relief since they would have to be replaced by another player making league minimum on the roster.

The best option would be a trade of Callahan. Even if the team retained half of his salary cap hit, which would be $2.9 million, it would be a much better option that buying him out.

For 2018-19, it’s definitely doable. Yzerman would need to do some finagling, but it can be managed and would provide a potent 1-2 punch at center with Stamkos and Tavares. Then you’d still have Johnson and Point to take the 3rd center and a wing position and Paquette centering the 4th line. Throw in Namestnikov, Peca, and Anthony Cirelli as depth options and you have a very strong center corps.

2019-20 Salary Cap

This is where the waters get incredibly murky. I tried to project 2019-20 out, but there’s just far too many variables in play that depend on what happens next offseason.

  • How does Yzerman solve the 2018-19 cap crunch?
  • How much do Kucherov, Point, and Dotchin make as restricted free agents?
  • How capable are young prospects that could step into the line up?
  • How does the team fill the holes on the blue line left by the expiring contracts of Stralman, Coburn, and Girardi?
  • Who gets traded to make room for the big contracts?

Theoretically for 2019-20, the Lightning could be looking at four players on the roster making $7.5 million or more. That could mean 35-40% of the salary cap is being taken up by four players. And if you go a year further to 2020-21, add in a new contract for Vasilevskiy that could be a huge cap hit. Maybe then you’re talking about 45% of the salary cap being eaten up by five players.

Look at Chicago and what they’ve had to do to keep their older veterans that are getting paid a lot of money. They have three forwards, a defenseman, and a goalie making $6 million or more and they represent just over 50% of their salary cap hit this season. 20% of their roster is taking up half of the salary cap. They’ve had to trade away very productive players for picks, prospects, or less productive players just to manage to keep their heads above water and under the salary cap. They’ve had to rely on young, unproven prospects and NCAA free agent signings just to field a team.

Personally, I have a lot more confidence in Steve Yzerman to navigate those stormy seas than Stan Bowman, but it’s still a lot to ask of him. Eventually you’re going to get into the territory of some of those younger players like Mikhail Sergachev and Brayden Point asking for a lot more money too. And Yzerman is going to be in the unenviable position of trading very good, young players because he simply cannot afford them because of the contracts given out to proven veterans that are aging later on.

Conclusions

On first glance, it seems like such an awesome idea to have John Tavares on the roster. You look to a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins that have two elite, future Hall of Fame centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and you dream of multiple Stanley Cups.

The reality is that signing Tavares, even at a “discounted” price would put a significant strain on the Lightning’s salary cap situation. It could possibly mean losing players like Namestnikov and Point and maybe even Kucherov. Is that worth it?