Right at the start of free agency yesterday, we found out that the Tampa Bay Lightning had placed Tyler Johnson on waivers. Today we found out he was not claimed by any team.
Tyler Johnson cleared waivers— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) October 10, 2020
General Manager Julien BriseBois had reportedly been working on finding a trade for Johnson in an attempt to clear his $5 million cap hit. Johnson’s contract has a full No Trade Clause. This meant that he could not be traded to any team without approving the trade. Johnson’s camp was reportedly working with the team to facilitate a trade and gave them seven or eight teams to work with. The draft came and went, and BriseBois had not found a deal for him (or Alex Killorn, the other obvious trade candidate to make cap space).
It’s been clear that many teams around the league are not interested in taking on a lot of money. There weren’t a lot of player trades around the draft, though there were a handful. Most of the trades made were picks for picks. The flat salary cap, as well as the financial uncertainties that have made some teams impose a lower internal salary cap, have just made it so that many teams don’t have the cap space or the actual money to make moves.
BriseBois thought he found a way around being unable to come to an agreement on a trade by placing Johnson on waivers. Through waivers, any team in the NHL could place a claim on Johnson. Teams have priority based on the previous season’s standings. The lowest team gets the highest priority. The team with the highest priority among teams that make a claim would then be awarded Johnson and would have to pay the Lightning a small cash fee (under $20,000).
This would get Johnson’s salary cap hit off the Lightning’s book and transferred to another team. The downside is the Lightning would not receive any assets back. The upside is that if the only deals available involved the Lightning giving up assets, they now don’t have to. Johnson’s No Trade Clause also does not prevent being placed on waivers or being transferred to another team through waivers or the expansion draft.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case now since he went unclaimed. Basically, not one team wanted him without being paid to take on his contract. That’s not good. Really not good.
Now, BriseBois will have to circle back to the teams he has permission to trade Johnson to (assuming Johnson hasn’t rescinded his willingness to accept a trade) and be forced into paying the price that they demand. It puts BriseBois in an even worse position leverage wise, and those teams could also now ask for a higher price to take his contract than they were before after the rest of the NHL showed they don’t want him for nothing.
If there really is no one out there willing to take him on at a price that BriseBois can stomach, BriseBois is going to be in a very, very, very tough position. He still hasn’t managed a trade for Alex Killorn. He’s still looking at another year at least of a flat cap after this, and potentially deflated revenues, that could continue to keep other teams from being willing to take on salary without being highly paid to do so.
The one backdoor option that the Lightning have, and this is still a weird and awkward one to get to, is a buy-out. The regular buy-out period is over though, so the Lightning can’t just outright buy him out right now. However, there is a second buy-out period. You may remember last year that Kevin Shattenkirk wasn’t bought out until well after the June buy-out period. The way to get to a second buy-out opportunity is to have two restricted free agents go to arbitration hearings.
The awkward part about that? The Lightning only have three players that are eligible for arbitration; Ross Colton, Ben Thomas, and Dominik Masin. But all of them are AHL players that have not even made it to the NHL, nor really even been within sniffing distance of a roster spot. Taking any of them to arbitration, and specifically all the way through to having hearings, would be somewhat absurd. However, the Lightning could potentially go through with it and get that second buy-out period.
I’m not saying that will happen. A buy-out of Johnson is still not a particularly appetizing option. The Lightning would only save $2.27 million in 2020-21 instead of the $5 million they were looking to save by moving him to another team. The savings would get a little better in 2021-22 with just over $4 million in savings. Then in the next two seasons the Lightning would save $2.27 and $3.27 million. The following four seasons after that, Johnson would count for $1.48 million against the cap.
Once the Lightning buy him out though, there’s no moving his contract. If the Lightning can find a way through the 2020-21 season somehow without moving him, their options open up a bit more in the next offseason (and if revenues rebound, more teams will be willing to spend again) in addition to the expansion draft.
With current projections, the Lightning have just under $2.9 million in cap space with 12 forwards, four defensemen, and two goaltenders signed. Cal Foote could likely take one of the defensemen spots for $925,000, but that leaves $2 million to sign Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak.
It the Lightning trade Alex Killorn and Cedric Paquette, and replace both with league minimum salary players, the Lightning could then have $6.7 million to sign the last three restricted free agents. For the Lightning to get it done for that amount though, the restricted free agents would need to be ok with signing probably one year deals for significantly below market. I don’t know if the players have the appetite to make that kind of sacrifice and take that kind of risk since a major injury could ruin their future earning potential.
Not being able to move Johnson has put the Lightning in a tough situation and I look forward to seeing BriseBois work his magic and get out of this pickle.