The Tampa Bay Lightning re-signed J.T. Miller on Tuesday to a five-year contract at an Average Annual Value (AAV) of $5.25 million. The reaction from Lightning fans was mixed. Some felt the contract was fine but many felt it was an overpay for a team with the Lightning’s salary cap situation. These kinds of initial gut reactions are to be expected but let’s try to walk through the steps of a measured analysis to understand the contract and give a reasonable evaluation of the front office’s performance here.
Before we get into the salary cap implications, we’ll want to look at Miller as a player. To start, let’s review his player card from HockeyViz to understand what kind of player he is.
Miller scores at a first-line rate at 5v5. He hasn’t gotten much power play time, but in those opportunities, he’s shown that he can be an effective member of a second unit. He has neutral shot impacts and positive goal impacts, which is likely a quirk of playing in the Rangers system under Alain Vigneault where they frequently got outshot but still managed to come out ahead in goals because of Henrik Lundqvist and an offense that specialized in generating dangerous shots.
From this, we can conclude that Miller is a second line skater who scores at a high rate and might look better through the lens of shot metrics now that he’s out of Vigneaults’s system. At twenty-five years old, Miller is still in his prime and a five year contract will end just after he turns thirty making it unlikely that he begins to seriously decline before the end of the contract.
In terms of value, the best way we have to assess the market value of a player is to use Matt Cane’s free agent contract projections. Cane’s model estimated that a five year contract for Miller would cost a little over $6 million per year. Keep in mind that this isn’t a reflection of the player’s actual value but rather an estimation of his value in the market set by other contracts around the league. Using this number as a guide, the Lightning payed about $750k per season less than expected.
So at this point, we can say objectively that the Lightning signed a second line forward to a discounted deal that will cover age twenty-five to twenty-nine. In a vacuum, that’s a good piece of business. And the Lightning didn’t even need to include significant no-trade protection to get it done. Miller will have an eight-team no trade list but that’s hardly a deterrent.
Considering what we’ve covered so far, the front office looks like they did well. But contracts don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist within the context of the organization including the rest of the roster and the cap situation. And this is where things start to get a little dicey for Steve Yzerman and crew.
Next summer is going to be a wild one in Tampa. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point will be restricted free agents and due significant raises. Kucherov’s deal will be especially rich. Potential Hart Trophy winner rich. In addition to the two star forwards, Yanni Gourde, Anton Stralman, and Ryan McDonagh will all be unrestricted free agents. I’m not going to do a full cap breakdown here but suffice to say, bringing back all of those players is going to require some maneuvering.
The problem with the Miller contract is the same as the problems with the contracts for Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson. At some point, the Lightning will have to move on from one or more of these players because the salary cap won’t allow them to continue to pay at or slightly below market value to their entire roster. If they fill the whole roster with players making market value, they’ll eventually end up with an average team.
Part of being a good team means having players making well below what their production suggests and that’s usually accomplished through entry level contracts. Because the Lightning have drafted and developed well under Yzerman, they now have a glut of players graduating from their ELCs into contracts where the pay reflects their performance. And at some point, the Lightning won’t be able to keep all of those players.
That time could come as soon as next summer and if not then, almost certainly the following summer when Andrei Vasilevskiy and Mikhail Sergachev are due for new deals. Having too many players who’ve earned high paying contracts is a nice problem to have. But make no mistake, it is a problem.
The looming specter of next summer hangs heavy over the Miller contract and I think that’s the source of much of the consternation from fans. But at the risk of sounding pedantic, next summer is...well...next summer. The Lightning have plenty of cap space to get through 2018-2019.
For a team trying to win a championship, it makes sense to go into the season with as strong of a roster as possible. J.T. Miller is certainly better than whatever the other option would be if he had been traded for picks at the draft. I understand the desire to get ahead of next summer’s cap problems, but I don’t think dumping a valuable player a year early is a justifiable strategy and the deal Miller signed supports that idea further.
The relatively low price and the minimal trade protection makes Miller probably the most tradeable player on the Lightning. Most teams in the league can use a top six forward making 15% below market value through his prime years. So if the reality of next summer’s contract negotiations means that the Lightning can’t afford Miller, they can trade him then. But I don’t see a reason to assume that will be the situation and weaken the team for this season just to avoid a problem that may or may not arise twelve months from now.
The wild card in all of this is John Tavares. The Lightning are meeting with the pending unrestricted free agent today (Wednesday) and if they could somehow convince him to sign in Tampa, they would immediately be over the cap and need to start making moves to free up space. That’s the only part of this Miller deal that I don’t quite understand. Why not wait 48 hours, make sure you have clarity on Tavares, and then do this?
Realistically, the Lightning have almost no shot at signing the Isles captain. Even before the Miller deal, their cap situation was complicated. Maybe the front office felt that if Miller was willing to take a team friendly deal like this, they needed to do it immediately. And if Tavares surprises them, they can always pivot and use some combination of trading Miller or Johnson or Braydon Coburn and buying out Ryan Callahan to clear the needed space.
In summary, the Lightning front office’s approach here is clear. They signed a second line forward to a below-market contract through age twenty-nine. They might not be able to afford that contract beyond this season, but if they can’t, moving it won’t be a challenge because barring some sort of injury or drastic change in results, Miller and his contract will generate demand on the trade market.
While re-signing Miller does add more complexity to next summer, it also makes the Lightning a better team heading into 2018 than if he wasn’t on the roster. And with so many moving parts over the next year, doing something now in anticipation of next summer’s problems seems imprudent.
The contract keeps the front office’s options open. That uncertainty can be uncomfortable. They face a slew of hard decisions next summer and potentially sooner in the unlikely event that things get weird with Tavares. But in terms of positioning themselves for this season and maintaining flexibility for next summer, the Lightning front office handled this well.