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Re-visiting the Lightning’s cap situation and Erik Karlsson

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It won’t be long before the chatter on Karlsson to the Lightning picks up.

2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The rumblings about Erik Karlsson and the Tampa Bay Lightning have already started to pick up. For the moment, it’s still just a quiet murmur. However, as we get closer and closer to July 1st, that rumbling is going to get much louder. After the Lightning’s chase of Karlsson at the 2017-18 deadline, many fans still dream of him joining fellow Swede Victor Hedman on the blue line.

But there are some serious cap issues to work through. First, let me get one important fact out of the way. The following players are very unlikely to be traded: Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Yanni Gourde. While Gourde’s No Trade Clause doesn’t kick in until July 1st, the other three have full NTCs that are currently active and will remain active until at least July 1st, 2020.

I know that there are some of you out there that say at least one of these players needs to be gone, and needs to be gone yesterday. You have your various reasons, whether it’s a belief that the player is under performing, way overpaid, awful, horrible, doesn’t belong in the NHL. But the reality of the situation is that these players have trade protection. I don’t see any logical, rational reason why any of them would waive their NTC to leave a Stanley Cup contender. So for my evaluations of the salary cap, I won’t be including any such assumptions.

So let’s move on to doing some calculations to see where we can find some salary cap room to fit Erik Karlsson, along with a hefty pay raise to Brayden Point.

All salary information comes from CapFriendly.com.

Current Situation

The NHL salary cap is believed to be going up $3.5 million to $83 million for the 2019-20 season. The Lightning have 17 players currently under contract with a cap hit of just under $74.5 million. That leaves us with $8.5 million at the moment to fill at least three, but more like four roster spots.

Restricted Free Agents

The Lightning’s restricted free agents include Brayden Point, Adam Erne, Danick Martel, and Cedric Paquette. A few weeks ago, I did my predictions for what these players, and others, will sign for. There are several minor league level players that are also RFAs, but they are only expected to sign for the league minimum on two-way deals.

Prospect Hole Fillers

The Lightning have a handful of prospects and minor league players that could be ready to plug in some holes in the roster. Mitchell Stephens seemed on the cusp last preseason, though he didn’t make the roster out of training camp. Injuries derailed his season with the Syracuse Crunch, but he was effective when he was in the lineup. Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Barre-Boulet lit up the AHL offensively and are options for wings in the bottom six. Cory Conacher is also signed for the league minimum next season.

On the blue line, the only player the Lightning have that could be ready to step in his right hander Cal Foote. He could likely still use with a little more seasoning in the AHL, but if push comes to shove, the Lightning could utilize him on the blue line if they can’t afford another veteran that would cost a little bit more.

Salary Shedding

There are realistically only two contracts on the books that make sense as possibilities for shedding some salary; J.T. Miller and Ryan Callahan. Whether the Lightning sign Erik Karlsson or not, Ryan Callahan is certainly at the end of his Lightning career. They can no longer afford to carry his cap hit for another season.

Since Miller signed his five year contract extension, I’ve viewed him as being a salary cap safety valve. He was not given a full NTC, but does have a modified-NTC that allows him some control of where he goes. However, according to CapFriendly, he can only block trades to 8 teams in the NHL, leaving 22 other teams he could be traded to. His $5.25 million salary is fair market for a player of his status and should be attractive to other teams that could use a flexible top six forward.

Outside of these two, Yanni Gourde and Nikita Kucherov are the only contracts of any value that can be traded. As stated before, I don’t see them doing that to Gourde, and Kucherov certainly isn’t going anywhere. The Lightning could gain some small amounts of cap space though by letting go of Cedric Paquette and Adam Erne and replacing them with some of the prospect hole fillers listed above.

Getting a minimum starting point

The first thing to do to get us anywhere close to being able to afford Karlsson and Point is to trade Miller and Callahan and get their cap hits off the books. We can also replace Paquette with Stephens, which should save us somewhere around $500,000 in cap space. Likewise, Erne can be replaced by Conacher and save another $300,000-$500,000. For this part of the exercise, I’ve also re-signed Danick Martel for the league minimum of $700,000.

This is where that gets us to:

  • Forwards, 11 players, $41,606,665 - Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Cory Conacher, Danick Martel.
  • Defensemen, 5 players, $17,516,666 - Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Jan Rutta, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak.
  • Goaltenders, 2 players, $4,650,000 - Andrei Vasilevskiy, Louis Domingue
  • Buyouts, 1 player, $1,833,333 - Matt Carle

This leaves us sitting with $17,393,336 in cap space.

Getting to Karlsson and Point

Assuming that we can sign Karlsson and Point to contracts, that leaves the team also needing one more forward and defenseman to complete the roster. You’d also like to leave a little bit of cap space to be able to recall one other player. At a minimum, that means $2.1 million of cap space needed, though players on Entry Level Contracts would be making more than the minimum of $700,000.

You don’t want to go into the season with a situation where you don’t have a couple of extra bodies to deal with injuries and without space to add another in case of multiple injuries, or a goaltender injury. There are some situations in the event of an injury that allow teams to exceed the salary cap, but it requires playing one game down a player before being allowed to take that exception. Long Term Injured Reserve is also an option, but requires the player to be out for at least a month.

Adding in those extra bodies and building in a little space, that brings us down to roughly $15 million in cap space.

Evolving-Wild’s contract projections have estimated roughly $9.5 million for Karlsson on a seven year contract. Now, let’s assume that because of the Florida’s tax situation and by loading the contract with signing bonuses, the Lightning can talk him down to $8.5 million.

That’s still a big assumption, and there are some big contracts out there for defenseman that Karlsson could be interested in beating. Drew Doughty signed recently for $11 million, P.K. Subban is still on his $9 million contract. Oliver Ekman-Larsson also just signed for $8.25 million and John Carlson signed last year for $8 million. The top five is rounded out by Brent Burns also making $8 million followed by Victor Hedman’s $7.875 million contract.

If Karlsson gets talked down to $8.5 million, then the Lightning are forced into trying to get Brayden Point to agree to a two or three year bridge contract for around $6.5 million. Evolving-Wild’s projections for Point on a two-year contract is around $6.5 million and $7.25 million on a three-year contract.

Conclusions

It’s possible. There are ways to make it happen. Is it going to happen? Who knows. There’s a lot of IFs in here. The biggest IF for the short term is can the Lightning trade Ryan Callahan at all. They need to find a suitor that is willing to take his contract for one season (or to take him and buy him out) and isn’t asking too much. The Lightning also have to feel that giving up J.T. Miller to sign Erik Karlsson is a big enough difference, especially after having already acquired and re-signing Ryan McDonagh.

Another big question mark, and one that becomes much harder for me to project, is what happens in year two and three. After 2019-20, Alex Killorn and his $4.45 million contract becomes the only tradeable asset for salary cap space. One more contract could potentially also end up on the way out with the Seattle expansion draft. That could be Tyler Johnson or Ondrej Palat and would open up a little more than $5 million in cap space.

Meanwhile, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Andrei Vasilevskiy will all be RFAs. On top of those players, Mitchell Stephens would also be in line for a raise if he replaced Paquette full time this season. Carter Verhaeghe would be as erll if he moved up onto the roster during 2019-20 as well.

That’s a lot of money needed before not very long, especially in the case of Sergachev, Cernak, and Vasilevskiy. Even Cirelli and Joseph with bigger sophomore years could pump their value up by three or four times what they’re currently making even on short bridge deals.

Sergachev and Cernak could both easily be in the $4 million plus range. Cirelli and Joseph could be into the $2-$2.5 million range pretty easily. And Vasilevskiy? Well, if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he could be looking in that $7-$8 plus million range that would put him into the top five of goalie contracts.

For those five players, you’re likely looking at needing $12-$15 million in additional cap space. While with what I’ve mentioned previously, we’re only looking at moving $9-$10 million in salary. The cap would need to accelerate very strongly over the next year to make this work. Or the Lightning end up being force into trading a player like Sergachev instead of paying him and anchoring their top four around Hedman, McDonagh, Karlsson, and Cernak.

For the Lightning’s front office to figure out if it’s worth while to sign Karlsson, they first need to decide that he’s a big enough improvement over the assets they’ll need to move now to make it work. Then they’ll have to judge that he’s still worth that in another year or two or three when the Lightning have to cut more salary to make room for more new salary. All while continuing to compete for a Stanley Cup Championship.