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Tampa Bay Lightning salary cap outlook after Miller and Callahan news

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Two pieces of news came out over the weekend that impact the salary cap outlook.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that Ryan Callahan was done with hockey due to back issues. On Saturday, the Lightning traded J.T. Miller to the Vancouver Canucks to free up some cap space. While Callahan will be added to Long Term Injured Reserve at the start of the season, it still created some issues for the Lightning if they didn’t move some salary.

LTIR is a fairly complicated beast to understand. If you really want to read more in depth about it, then check out the CapFriendly.com FAQ on LTIR. For the rest of you, I’ll try to simplify this as best I can. When dealing with LTIR at the beginning of the season, there are two different possibilities for how it’s calculated. The first is for when the team can Price Is Right the salary cap with the LTIR player’s cap hit. That is, get as close to the salary cap as they can without going over. This is the preferable method and the one the Lightning used while they were dealing with the Mattias Ohlund LTIR situation. The second is to be over the cap with the LTIR player’s cap hit.

The first method gives the team a lot more flexibility. After placing the player on LTIR, they will be allowed to exceed the cap by the player’s cap hit minus whatever cap space was remaining before putting the player on LTIR. With Callahan’s $5.8 million cap hit, if the team was $300,000 under the cap, then they could go over the cap by $5.5 million after placing him on LTIR.

The second method though is a bit more complicated and harder to get relief from. That method is to be over the salary cap by up to the amount of the LTIR player’s cap hit. The team then gets relief for how much they are over. However, it means that to be able to add any players or salary, they’d have to remove salary via a trade or demotion of a player other than the LTIR’ed player. This gives little flexibility to the team. While the team could go to the full 23 man healthy roster to push the salary cap as high as possible and doing some other finagling, they would not have as much wiggle room to add a player at the deadline or for multiple injuries.

What trading J.T. Miller does, is gets the Lightning closer to being able to use that first calculation method. When the Lightning sets their initial roster, they will need to have at least 20 players, plus Callahan on the roster. They can also utilize players that are waiver exempt to further manipulate the numbers. I’m going to get a bit mathy here in just a minute, so please bear with me.

Math Time

Counting up the players that are waiver eligible, under contract, and won’t be able to pass through waivers, plus Matt Carle’s buy-out cap hit, we get to a total of $68,719,165. With the now confirmed $81.5 million salary cap, we are left with $12,780,835 in cap space with 13 healthy players signed, Callahan, and Carle. We will need at least seven more bodies to fill out the roster.

Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Jan Rutta, Louis Domingue, Mikhail Sergachev.

There are three RFAs to worry about; Brayden Point, Adam Erne, and Cedric Paquette. Back at the beginning of May, I made predictions for all of the Lightning’s restricted free agents’ salaries. For these three players, I projected $8.25, $1, and $1.3 million respectively. For now, I’m going to leave Point blank, because we need to fill in some other variables before we can see how much room we have for Point. For now, we can plug in Erne and Paquette with those two projections.

We’re now at just under $10.5 million in cap space remaining. We have 15 healthy bodies, plus we’ll be adding Point. So to get to our 20 roster spots, we need four more bodies. We can do this with some of the cheapest available players in the system. Erik Cernak has a cap hit of $697,500 and can fill in as one of our bodies.

Danick Martel could also be re-signed for the league minimum of $700,000, but even without him, we have Cameron Gaunce, Daniel Walcott, and Cory Conacher all signed at $700,000. While all four of these players (not Cernak) are waiver eligible, the risk of any of them being claimed is fairly low. So we can fill our four body positions with Cernak, Conacher, Martel, and Gaunce.

This will leave us with $7,683,335 under the cap to sign Brayden Point. It’s possible that a deal could be worked where he signs for $7.5 million, but that seems fairly unlikely. If he’ll sign for that, then great, I’ll take the win, the extra space, and not having to move another player from the roster.

There are three options to open up a little more room; one or both of Erne and Paquette could be traded. One can be replaced by our remaining body, Gaunce, making $700,000. That is assuming that we were able to re-sign Martel at $700,000, but that number could end up being higher. Otherwise, Oleg Sosunov at $721,600 and Dennis Yan at $728,333 are the next up for lowest cap hits. There’s also still the probability of signing a player or two off the free agent market for the Syracuse Crunch that would have a $700,000 cap hit.

By replacing Paquette with Gaunce, we are now up to having $8.283 million so we could sign Point for $8.25 million. Then, by also replacing Erne with Sosunov, we get just over the $8.5 million mark for Point. By just replacing Erne with Gaunce, we’d be just under $8 million in cap space.

Once the Lightning get through the initial roster and putting Callahan on LTIR, the Lightning can then re-work the roster to bring Mathieu Joseph and Anthony Cirelli up and send the filler bodies back down to Syracuse as well as getting back up to their desired 22 player roster with an extra forward and an extra defenseman.

The Next Moves

Now that we have those different scenarios laid out with Point, there’s a few different rosters we could end up with. The top end of the forwards, defense, and goaltending are pretty well set. The movement mostly comes in around the bottom of the line up. If Paquette is moved, then Mitchell Stephens is the most likely to take his place. Carter Verhaeghe has earned at least a look in training camp after his amazing year with the Crunch last year. Conacher or Martel could serve as the 13th forward. Alex Barre-Boulet could also be up for a spot, especially if Erne is also moved. A fourth line of Barre-Boulet, Stephens, and Verhaeghe would be inexperienced, but would be quite fun to watch with their skill sets.

The biggest area of concern is that going about the salary cap and LTIR for Callahan this way means that there is no chance of adding a veteran defenseman to the roster that isn’t making at or close to the league minimum. Unless they are signed, or acquired via trade, after the start of the season once the Lightning have their salary cap space which seems unlikely. Realistically, this leaves us with two scenarios for the start of the season.

The first is that the Lightning are confident in playing Jan Rutta on the third pair with Coburn and playing Sergachev up on the first pairing with Hedman. That’s certainly a possibility. That leaves open the question of the 7th defenseman, but that role could be fulfilled by Cameron Gaunce. It’s not ideal in my opinion, but it could work out well enough.

The second scenario is to start playing Cal Foote now. While I believe he is getting close to NHL ready, some people I’ve talked to feel he needs another half season in the AHL. However, I think the Lightning would be in a position where they could ease Foote in next to Hedman. Style wise, he’s a good fit for Hedman. Foote is already pretty sound defensively and should be able to support Hedman while Hedman also mentors the young defender. The Lightning could also rotate in Cernak, Sergachev, and Coburn for extra shifts with Hedman to keep Foote’s ice time down. As the year goes on and he gets more confidence, then the coaching staff could start bringing up Foote’s minutes.

The one good thing about both scenarios, is that if either is failing early in the season, they could easily switch to the other. If Rutta isn’t cutting it, then they could bring Foote up, send Gaunce down, and ease him in the same as the second scenario or alongside Coburn if Sergachev is meshing well with Hedman. On the other side, if Foote isn’t fitting in early, he could be sent back to Syracuse and Gaunce brought up.

The Trade Deadline

By using the first method of LTIR calculation and forgoing adding more free agent depth to start the season, the Lightning will give themselves room to add at the trade deadline. It may not be much, as unused LTIR relief doesn’t grow through the season the same way that unused cap space does. Without moving any other salary, the Lightning could then add a player with a $3-$4 million cap hit. That could be another forward. It could be for a defenseman. Wherever the team ends up needing to add at the deadline for another run at the Stanley Cup. The important thing, is that it would give the team more flexibility.

Conclusions

The Lightning have given themselves some flexibility with the Miller trade and with Callahan’s LTIR situation. But in other ways, it has limited the team since to get the most out of Callahan’s LTIR and have the most flexibility, they can’t add any more players now and may need to replace a player or two with prospects.

The Lightning are fortunate though in that they’ve got a good forward prospect pool to choose from that would be well suited for bottom-six duty as rookies. I’ve already mentioned Mitchel Stephens, Alex Barre-Boulet, and Carter Verhaeghe, but the Lightning can also look to Alex Volkov and Taylor Raddysh as potential additions depending on how they show in training camp. Even if most of them end up back in Syracuse, they’ll still be at the top of the list for injury replacements.

The front office isn’t done yet. They still have work to do. First and foremost is figuring out Point’s contract. Then what they’ll do with their blue line. The work has only just begun and the next few weeks should be pretty interesting for the Lightning as they get everything sorted out.