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RFA defensemen signings now lay groundwork for Lightning signings later

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Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy, and Brandon Carlo signings give basis for Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak contracts next summer

NHL: JUN 29 Lightning Development Camp Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There have been many restricted free agents this summer whose contract negotiations dragged on into the start of training. The Tampa Bay Lightning are still working on Brayden Point’s contract for example. But there have also been some defensemen signings over the past week that give a glimmer of insight into next years negotiations for the Lightning.

Defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak will both be restricted free agents following this season. Sergachev will be completing his third season in the NHL. Through his first two seasons, he had put up a 40 and 32 point season and should be expected to be back in that range for a third straight season. Cernak will be completing his second full NHL season and posted 16 points last season.

This year’s restricted free agent class, plus one of next year’s class that signed yesterday, gave us four comparables for Sergachev and give us a clue of what to expect during his contract negotiations next summer. There’s also another defenseman that is a pretty good comparable for Cernak as well. Let’s take a look at each of these players, their contracts, and how they fit as comparables for both players.

Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stats are from Evolving-Hockey.com. Contract data is from CapFriendly.com.

Ivan Provorov

Contract: 6 years, $6.75 million cap hit, expires as UFA

There’s a lot of comparisons you can draft between Provorov and Sergachev. Both are Russians. Both are left handed. Both have good size, though Sergachev has a couple inches and about 15 pounds on Provorov. Both are offensively gifted from the blue line providing offense at even strength and on the power play. Both were top 10 picks in the draft with Provorov going 7th overall in 2015 and Sergachev following at 9th overall in 2016. Both made it into the NHL at 19 years old.

One of the bigger differences is in ice time with Provorov averaging 23:45 and having topped out at 25:07 last year. Sergachev has only averaged 16:30 with his high coming last year at 17:55. Sergachev could see a bigger role though and be over the 20 minute mark for this coming season, but also doesn’t need to play 25 minutes with Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh on the roster.

From a WAR perspective, over the past two seasons, Sergachev has provided more overall WAR (3.0) compared to Provorov (2.3) even though he has had less ice time. Sergachev has a better GAR at even strength and on the penalty kill. Provorov makes up some of the difference by contributing on the penalty kill. He also rates very well where penalties are concerned.

How well Sergachev performs this year, and how much larger of a role he takes on, will certainly impact if he can command this kind of contract. With so much in common, if Sergachev were to sign a longer term deal, this is the likely starting point for a negotiation.

Thomas Chabot

Contract: 8 years, $8 million cap hit, expires as UFA

Chabot just signed a long term extension with the Ottawa Senators yesterday adding another data point in considering Sergachev’s future. He was selected 18th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and really broke out last season. He played most of of 2017-18 in the NHL scoring 25 points in 63 games. Last year, he racked up points with 14 goals and 55 points over 70 games. Chabot also jumped up to playing 24:17 TOI last year as he was the clear number one defenseman for the Senators.

After putting up only 0.5 WAR in his rookie season, Chabot took a bit jump last year playing like a clear number one defenseman with 2.9 WAR. He had a huge jump in his even strength and power play GAR, as well as his Penalties GAR. He saw only a modest increase in his short handed GAR though he only had 41 minutes of shorthanded time.

Zach Werenski

Contract: 3 years, $5 million cap hit, expires as RFA

Werenski went one pick after Provorov in the 2015 draft, going to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s also a left handed defenseman with similar size to Sergachev. Like Sergachev and Provorov, he made it to the NHL a year after being drafted. Werenski made an immediate impact for the Blue Jackets and has recorded points totals of 47, 37, and 44 points the past three seasons.

Werenski has also put up more ice time than Sergachev clocking in at an average of 22:08 with a high of 22:54. He’s also gotten more of a boost in his points totals because he is Columbus’ first power play defenseman.

When we go to GAR and WAR, Sergachev again comes out ahead in total WAR over the past two seasons with Werenski putting up 1.8 total WAR. Werenski plays more shorthanded, but not as much as Provorov. He also had a down year last season in Even Strength GAR or he would have compared more favorably to Sergachev. Werenski also outshines Sergachev on Penalties.

Charlie McAvoy

Contract: 3 years, $4.9 million cap hit, expires as RFA

McAvoy is an interesting case. He was drafted in the same draft as Sergachev going 14th overall in 2016. However, the Boston Bruins did not slide his ELC for 2016-17 when he only played six games during the playoffs. This allowed him to get to restricted free agent a year earlier than Sergachev.

McAvoy is a little different from the rest of the group as he is a right handed defenseman, which in itself brings a little premium because of their rarity in the NHL. McAvoy has posted seasons of 32 and 28 points, but has also missed 47 games due to injuries over that span. His scoring pace would equal out to around 40 points over a full season.

McAvoy has also established himself as a top four defenseman more quickly than Serahcev averaging 22:09 and 22:10 TOI the past two seasons. He also doesn’t score much on the power play with only nine of his 60 points coming with the man advantage. He does a lot of his offensive work at even strength.

Moving on to GAR and WAR, McAvoy has been better than Sergachev in the past two seasons with a 4.2 total WAR compared to Sergachev’s 3.0. McAvoy’s GAR has been better at even strength in both of the past two seasons than Sergachev. He’s also produced GAR shorthanded, but has a negative GAR on the power play. Sergachev is slightly better in penalties.

While Sergachev has been healthier and produced more total points that McAvoy, McAvoy has scored at a higher rate and has shown that he is better and more valuable on the ice than Sergachev up to this point. Of these four RFA defensemen, I’d most want McAvoy on my team because of his all around solid play on both ends of the ice.

Brandon Carlo

Contract: 2 years, $2.85 million cap hit, expires as RFA

Now we get to the comparable for Erik Cernak. Carlo was drafted in the 2nd round in 2015 by the Boston Bruins. He is a right handed defenseman with size at 6’5” and 212 pounds. He has three full seasons in the NHL. He does not produce a lot of offense having only put up 32 points in 230 career games. He has averaged 20:20 TOI over three seasons and has a reputation of being a solid defender.

Cernak has also built a reputation for his defensive game putting up 16 points in 58 games as a rookie last season while averaging 19:15 TOI. Cernak’s WAR value was pushed up by his EV GAR. But he also provided a lot of value short handed and in penalties. Neither player contributes to the power play.

Sergachev Discussion

The four defensemen contracts I’ve highlighted give us a really good gauge on where to look for Sergachev next summer. On the one hand, you have Provorov’s long term deal. From a points and production stand point, they both line up pretty well. You’d have to think that any kind of non-bridge deal would start with Provorov’s contract for negotiations. Sergachev could come in a little lower because of his lower ice time and lower point production, but that would still leave you looking at a $6-$6.5 million cap hit.

When looking at Chabot, I don’t feel his contract is indicative of what we can expect for a Sergachev contract. For one thing, I don’t think the Lightning can afford to pay him $8 million, though I’m sure they’d love to lock him up for eight years. The two teams are also in completely different positions with the Lightning having a clear #1 in Victor Hedman and currently a clear #2 in Ryan McDonagh ahead of Sergachev.

The Senators are rebuilding and Chabot is clearly their best defenseman. They needed to lock him up and make sure he stuck around, but also have more than enough cap space to give him this kind of contract. There’s also the reality of small sample size in that he performed more like a third pairing defenseman as a rookie and then took a huge step forward last year and is just as likely to regress this year as he is to take another step forward.

On the other side of the ledger is Werenski and McAvoy. Sergachev has similarities to both, and honestly I think McAvoy is being underpaid in his contract. But they do both give a good look to what a three-year bridge contract should look like. With the salary cap crunch the Lightning are looking at next summer, a bridge deal would be preferable to keep as much of the team together as possible. But that still means looking at the cap hit coming in around $5 million, especially if he posts another 40 point season and is over 20 minutes in ice time. Add in short handed time to his resume, and that will push the comparisons closer together.

Cernak Discussion

There’s every possibility that Cernak will regress as a sophomore. He was put into a great situation playing next to Ryan McDonagh. Everything points to him being able to do it again, but there is always a little bit of a worry about repeating. He is also likely to see an increase in his ice time and be around that 20 minute a night mark.

Carlo though does bring us one of the better comparables since they are both hard working, defensively minded players. They’re both capable of breaking the puck out, but offense is not their number one priority. I think Cernak, because he does produce a little bit more on the offensive side, could end up with a little bit higher cap hit. Two or three years at $3-$3.5 million seems like a reasonable place to put him.

Conclusions

The Lightning front office is going to have a lot of work to do. Besides Sergachev and Cernak, they will also have to give out new contracts to Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s raise will also kick in eating up a lot of cap space itself. We don’t know Point’s exact cap hit yet for next season, but even just guessing it’s easy to see that there might not be enough cap space for everyone.

Alex Killorn’s No Trade Clause will become a modified-NTC next summer that will allow him to be traded. Cedric Paquette could also be traded to clear a little bit of space. Cal Foote can help fill in the gap on the blue line and there’s plenty of forward prospects in the wings that can fill out the bottom of the line up for cheap as well.

Assuming an $85 million salary cap, trading Killorn and Paquette, and signing Brayden Point for $7.5 million, the team is left with about $11.5 million to sign the four restricted free agents after filling in the rest of the roster with cheap players. If we assume $4.75 million for Sergachev and $3 million for Cernak, that leaves just $3.8 million for Joseph and Cirelli which doesn’t sound like enough to get it done on those two.

The only other option available to the Lightning will be to convince one of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, or Yanni Gourde to waive their NTC. That would allow the Lightning to free up $4-$4.5 million in further cap space. However, that decision is up to those players. The only other option available to the team if those players won’t waive their NTC is to buy one out.

Buying out Palat would save just under $2 million in 2020-21 and $3.8 million in 2021-22. He would then cost $1.45 million in 2022-23 and 2023-24. Buying out Tyler Johnson would save $2.270 million in 2020-21 and $3 million in 2021-22. However, with four years remaining on his contract at that point, he would cost $1.479 million for four seasons starting in 2024-25. Gourde would be a similar story, except he would last even longer since he would have five years left on his contract. Buying out Johnson or Gourde does not seem like a workable solution, though buying out Palat would have more potential to work out well for the team.

These RFA contracts have given us a better idea of the future. It gives us some numbers to work with in projecting out next year’s salary cap situation. It also further confirms that the Lightning front office will have it’s work cut out for it, and next summer could end up being even more turbulent than what we’ve seen this summer.