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Deep Dive: The Tampa Bay Lightning Versus the Salary Cap

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Hooooo boy. It’s looking tough.

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

We’ve known for a long time now that the Tampa Bay Lightning were going to have a lot of heavy lifting to do to be salary cap compliant for the 2020-21 season. That situation was only made worse by the salary cap remaining at $81.5 million, instead of going up a projected $2-3 million. That little bit of salary cap room now is likely the difference in the Lightning being forced into trading an additional player to make room.

Salary information comes from CapFriendly.com. Salary projections come from Evolving-Hockey.com.

I certainly do not envy Julien BriseBois his job over the next few weeks and months in trying to navigate the problems facing the team. As it stands, the Lightning have just over $5.3 million in cap space with ten forwards, three defensemen, and two goaltenders under contract for next season. The Lightning have six Restricted Free Agents that played a NHL role in 2019-20 and are due raises from their previous contracts. Three of those restricted free agents are due much larger raises than the normal small, incremental amounts.

Over the last few weeks in particular, I’ve been narrowing in on the different strategies and scenarios that the Lightning could go through in solving the puzzle of the salary cap. Now that I’ve had time to digest and analyze the information available to me, let’s dive deep into it to see where the Lightning are and where the team could possibly go.

The Restricted Free Agents

Forwards - Anthony Cirelli, Mitchell Stephens, Carter Verhaeghe, Mathieu Joseph, Alexander Volkov
Defensemen - Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak

Let’s start here. These are the players that have some of the biggest question marks that need to be answered in order to figure out the rest of the equation. Having an idea of what’s needed to fit these players in will inform the rest of the decisions the team will make. Some of these players will fill in the roster around the edges and provide depth for the team.

The Lightning certainly will not be able to sign any of the big three to longer term contracts, so I will be focusing more on the 2-3 year contract predictions from Evolving-Hockey.com.

Anthony Cirelli

Evolving Hockey’s Prediction: 6 years, $5.8 million

Evolving Hockey’s 2-year Prediction: $3.66 million

My Starting Cap Hit Consideration: $3.5 million

Cirelli has been the hardest cases for me to nail down a comparable on for quite a while. Sean Couturier has felt like the closest as he is also a young, defensively capable center (who now has turned into one of the best defensive centers in the league). The Flyers forward signed a six-year contract with a $4.333 million cap hit before the 2016-17 season. However, that was his third contract and came after a two year, $1.75 million contract.

Mitchell Stephens

Evolving Hockey’s Prediction: 1 year, $840,000

Evolving Hockey’s 2-year Prediction: $990,000

My Starting Cap Hit Consideration: $800,000

Stephens played basically half of the season with the Lightning. He’s not established enough to get much more and a one year contract near the NHL minimum of $700,000.

Carter Verhaeghe

Evolving Hockey’s Prediction: 2 years, $1.2 million

Evolving Hockey’s 2-year Prediction: $1.2 million

My Starting Cap Hit Consideration: $950,000

Verhaeghe did enough this year to get himself a little bit of a raise. Evolving Hockey projects him for two years, but the one year prediction is $965,000, which is why I’ve gone for the slightly lower cap hit for him.

Mathieu Joseph

Evolving Hockey’s Prediction: 2 years, $1.4 million

Evolving Hockey’s 2-year Prediction: $1.4 million

My Starting Cap Hit Consideration: $1.1 million

Joseph is in a weird spot. He spent the entirety of the 2018-19 season in the NHL, but was demoted half way through the 2019-20 season. While he warmed up for some playoff games, he never cracked the line up. With the changes that are coming for the Lightning though, it’s likely that he’ll find his way back to the NHL for the 2020-21 season. My $1.1 million prediction is in line with Evolving Hockey’s 1 year contract prediction.

Alexander Volkov

Evolving Hockey’s Prediction: 1 year, $785,000

Evolving Hockey’s 2-year Prediction: $825,000

My Starting Cap Hit Consideration: $700,000

Volkov only has ten games of NHL experience under his belt, including one Stanley Cup Final game. Because he still has a lot to prove, I’m penciling him in for a league minimum, one-year deal. That’s also assuming that he doesn’t decide to give up on the NHL and return to Russia for 2020-21.

Mikhail Sergachev

Evolving Hockey’s Prediction: 8 years, $6.5 million

Evolving Hockey’s 2-year Prediction: $4 million

My Starting Cap Hit Consideration: $4 million

Honestly, I think that getting Sergachev locked up for eight years for $6.5 million would be a steal. I’d love it if the Lightning could afford that kind of contract, but I’m not really seeing it happening. The big contract comparables for Sergachev I’ve focused on have been Ivan Provorov, Charlie McAvoy, and Zach Werenski. They’re all young, and established, top-four offensive defensemen. Provorov got a six year contract for $6.75 million. McAvoy and Werenski both took three year bridge deals as RFAs for $4.9 million and $5 million respectively. A two-three year deal for Sergachev at $4 million would still be a bargain compared to McAvoy and Werenski.

Erik Cernak

Evolving Hockey’s Prediction: 2 years, $2.5 million

Evolving Hockey’s 2-year Prediction: $2.5 million

My Starting Cap Hit Consideration: $2.5 million

Because Cernak’s a borderline top-four defenseman, and doesn’t have a lot of offense in his game, his number is perhaps less than most people might have expected. I could also see him coming in a little lower at more like $2 million.

Where do these RFA deals put the Lightning?

Plugging in all of these numbers for the Restricted Free Agents, the Lightning are over the cap by $8.2 million. However, this is also with 15 forwards, five defenseman, and two goaltenders. So we still have a little bit of adjusting to do to account for where the team would really need to be.

For one thing, I expect Cal Foote to make the NHL roster with his $925,000 cap hit. For now, we can also plug Luke Witkowski in as the seventh defenseman as well at $700,000. That spot may not actually be Witkowski, but could represent someone like Luke Schenn or Cameron Gaunce filling in that spot at the league minimum.

Now with those changes, the team is still over the cap by $9.8 million and has two forwards too many. Because of the trade possibilities that we’ll explore in the next section, I will use this as our starting point because anyone traded would need to be replaced by another player.

Can’t The Lightning Restructure a Deal?

For those of you that are more used to the NFL and NBA, you may be asking this question. It happens all the time for a team to create salary cap space. In the NHL though, a contract can not be re-negotiated after it’s been signed. As a team, your options are to live with the contract, trade the player (if you can), waive the player (if they don’t have a No Movement Clause) and hope someone claims them but you get nothing for the player, or buy the contract out.

With the way buy-outs work, you reduce the salary cap hit and it’s also spread out over twice the remaining length of the contract. Unfortunately, that’s not much of an option as it will not save the Lightning enough space with any of these contracts, unless they buy out multiple players. That then also creates a lot of dead cap space that the team will have to deal with over the 6-8 years. And at that point, there’s nothing at all the team can do about that dead cap space from a buyout.

The Easy Trades to Make Room

The most obvious trade, and in my opinion the one most likely to happen, is Alex Killorn. He has a $4.45 million cap hit and has a modified No Trade Clause that would allow the team to trade him without needing his permission. Killorn had a career year in goals and points. However, I think that it’s more of an aberration than a sign of him becoming a 25-30 goal scorer past the age of 30 when he had averaged around 15-17 goals per season previously.

Trading Killorn gets the team to needing just under $5.4 million in cap space. Keep in mind, that because Killorn’s spot is being replaced by a player making between $700,000 and $1 million, the actual savings from his cap hit is reduced by that much.

Another fairly obvious trade to trim a little bit of money is Cedric Paquette. He’s been a serviceable fourth line center for the Lightning for a long time now. Mitchell Stephens’ emergence over the past year though has made it clear that he’s ready to take on Paquette’s responsibility. Paquette may not return much more than a mid-round pick, but the Lightning can get value and a little big of salary cap space. With a $1.65 million cap, replacing him with Stephens and the $800,000 cap hit I projected for him, means the team is saving $850,000. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a little bit more breathing room for the team.

Taking those two trades into account, the Lightning are now at needing $3.7 million in cap space, but our roster now sits at 13 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders. This means that we will need to actually make at least $4.4 million more in cap space to move any player.

The Hard Trades to Make Room

So, now we get to the really hard part. The Lightning still needs more space to be compliant. Where’s it going to come from?

First, let’s eliminate some names... Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. These five players either have full NMC/NTC and/or are vital to this team continuing to be a Stanley Cup contender. Technically Kucherov’s NMC doesn’t kick in until free agency opens, but there’s just no reason to believe he’d be traded. Vasilevskiy and Point do not yet have trade protection. But again, the Lightning cannot be a Stanley Cup contender without either of them. Ditto Victor Hedman.

Stamkos is open to more argument, especially since he didn’t contribute in the playoffs, other than 2:47 and one goal. At the same time, he’s in full control and there’s no reason for him to move unless he wants to. Also, the backlash of trading the face of the franchise and captain would be too much to bear.

After eliminating those two players, it gets us to two remaining groups... players with No Trade Clauses and players without trade protection.

No Trade Clauses

Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Ryan McDonagh, Braydon Coburn, all of the Restricted Free Agents.

First, we can cross off Coleman and Goodrow from this list. For one thing, their cap hits aren’t near enough to create the room the team needs. For another thing, they were acquired at the trade deadline, specifically because they were under contract for 2020-21 at cheap cap hits relative to their value to the team. They were acquired to help the team weather the cap issues.

Braydon Coburn likewise doesn’t offer much with just a $1.7 million cap hit. As I said before, he’d have to be replaced with a player making at least $700,000. So at best, the team opens up $1 million in cap space by trading him. He’s also 35 and probably not interested in moving his family, which is why he got a NTC on his two-year contract, despite the low cap hit and his low level on the depth chart.

That turns us to the three names that get talked about the most; Palat, Gourde, and Johnson. All three players have the hammer. They all have a full NTC. For the team to be able to move any of them, the player has to agree. We can examine each and see what the potential is for each one.

Palat is under contract for two more seasons at a $5.3 million cap hit. He had one of the best seasons he’s had since the Triplets season. Health and an improved training regimen last summer were definitely big factors in his success. His trade value would be quite high right now. I think he’s the biggest of the three that the team would want to keep and would only explore trading him if they were left with no other great options. He fits well in the top six as a supporting player that opens up space for his line mates.

Yanni Gourde has five seasons left at $5.166 million. His 2019-20 season was definitely a downer for him as more was expected of him. He did come up big during the playoffs with Coleman and Goodrow. The length of his contract though may make him a bit harder to even find a trade partner though. The playoff performance may be enough to interest someone, but I’m not sure of what the return would really end up being.

Johnson has four years left at $5 million. Like Gourde, he has some term left going into his early 30s. However, I feel like Johnson might be the player most likely to agree to a trade. He is a natural center that has played very little in the middle of the ice the past few years. He’s been shuffled off to the right wing with the Lightning’s dearth of center depth. A trade to another team could give him a more defined 2nd center role. He would be my number one pick to trade. But once again, it’s all up to him. According to Pierre LeBrun, it sounds like Julien BriseBois has already started talking to Johnson’s agent about just such a move.

The Dark Horse to get traded (and there have been some whispers that the player that gets traded could be a surprise contender) is Ryan McDonagh. He’s already 31 years old and has six years left on his contract. He has a young family though and maybe that’s enough to make him not want to leave. His NTC doesn’t become a modified NTC until close to the trade deadline in the last year of his deal.

He did get his Stanley Cup win, but this contract could be a bit of a burden for the team as he gets closer to 35 years old. Moving McDonagh would also open up more ice time for Mikhail Sergachev. At a $6.75 million cap hit, he’d also open up more room to get the space needed, but also replace him with a third pairing defenseman off the free agent market. Or maybe even by re-signing Kevin Shattenkirk for the right side with that extra $2-$3 million in cap space trading McDonagh would open up. Or locking up Sergachev to a long term deal at around the same cap hit as McDonagh.

No Trade Protection

The reality of the situation, is that if all of the players above say “Nah, I like it here, I want to stay,” then the Lightning will be left in a position where they’d need to trade Anthony Cirelli or Mikhail Sergachev or lose one of them to an offer sheet. Because of the amount needed, the Lightning would actually need to find a little bit more space somewhere if it was Anthony Cirelli based on the contract that I have him penciled in for.

Erik Cernak also could be a casualty as well to an offer sheet, especially if another team wanted to offer him a long term deal around $4.5 million, which would only net the Lightning a second round pick. I think that the team could get a first round pick for him, so they would have to consider trading him if an offer sheet was eminent. Even that doesn’t solve the salary cap issues.

I hope that it doesn’t get to this point. I hope that BriseBois will find a way to not get to this point. But it’s a reality, and a scenario, that we as fans have to consider. If BriseBois can’t work his magic with the players that have No Trade Clauses, then he’ll be forced into trading one of these players or letting one of them walk to an offer sheet. I’m not trying to alarm anyone, but it is a scenario to prepare yourselves for.

Conclusion

BriseBois has his work cut out for him. On top of also having to prep for the NHL Entry Draft this week. There’s a lot of variables that need to be filled in. We’ve been in this kind of situation plenty of times over the last five seasons. This time, it just feels more threatening than it normally does.

I look forward to seeing how this plays out with all of the restricted free agents and trades that we’ll see coming in the next weeks and months as we get ready for the 2020-21 season and the opportunity to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions.

GO BOLTS!