It’s been a little over a month since the Tampa Bay Lightning reached the mountaintop and claimed the Stanley Cup. With the celebrations long since passed, and Pat Maroon remembering that he does own shirts, focus has shifted to the upcoming 2020-21 NHL season. The salary cap issues that are plaguing the Lightning have long been discussed, in fact it seems like this has been a rolling conversation for the last two or three offseasons. Things do seem to be coming to a head a bit this season. So where do the Lightning stand as an organization in early November?
Simply put they are in a holding pattern. The only headline we’ve seen in regards to the roster was that the re-signing of Maroon and Luke Schenn were finalized. That’s it. No trades. Heck, there haven’t even been rumors of trades out in the media. Things just seem to be at a standstill at this point.
There are some factors, both bad and good, that are out of their control that they might have to wait to be resolved before they can make their next move. It’s not unexpected. Cap problems aren’t usually solved in a day or two even during normal times, and these are decidedly non-normal times. So Lightning fans will have to rely on something that is in rather short supply these days - patience.
Where are the Lightning at as of today? Barring any moves made earlier today, according to CapFriendly their current cap hit is projected at $78,604,166. That puts them an estimated $2,895,834 under the $81,500,000 cap for the upcoming season. That’s good in the sense that they could actually participate in the upcoming season should it begin any time soon.
It would be better if they were looking at that number and had all of their players signed. As has been reported endlessly, they still have a few Restricted Free Agents left to sign. The chances of Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, Mathieu Joseph, Alexander Volkov, and Dominik Masin agreeing to split less than $3 million is highly unlikely. Let’s be clear - it’s not happening.
A small silver lining is that they might not have to sign all six. Dominik Masin is currently signed with Amur Khabarovsk in the KHL and was the only unsigned RFA that was eligible for an arbitration hearing - an option that he chose not to exercise. Masin, sensing his options might be limited in the NHL, may be comfortable staying in the KHL and punting a decision down the road.
The same could go for Volkov. It’s somewhat surprising that he hasn’t found work overseas yet. While the Lightning did pluck him from a second-tier Russian league when they drafted him in 2017, the 23-year-old would surely find playing time on a KHL team if he was interested in heading over there. On the other hand, with some spots certain to open up in the forward ranks for the Lightning he may be waiting for word on the NHL season before making a decision.
Even if those two choose not to re-sign with the Lightning that leaves four players left to pay, with only one, Joseph, likely to take the minimum raise offered. Heck, even if those four took the minimum qualifying offers, the team would be over the cap. So, the Lightning’s path to fiscal compliance still involves moving at least one salaried player currently on the roster. The likely names to be moved haven’t changed much: Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and maybe Yanni Gourde.
Sadly, this isn’t a video game where you can just find a team that has the available cap space and make a swap. There are some factors that may be throwing a monkey wrench in Julien BriseBois’s best laid plans.
Uncertainty of what the upcoming season will look like.
The NHL is still holding onto the idea of a full 82-game season. Whether or not that they actually believe that they can have a full season or if they are maintaining the illusion prior to negotiating a shortened season with the NHLPA has yet to be determined. As we saw in major league baseball any season that is less than 82 games is most likely going to involve some sort of salary reduction on the part of the players. That’s not going to be an easy negotiation with the players already seeing less of their take-home pay due to higher escrow.
Add on top of that the uncertainty on where games will be played or how many, if any, fans are allowed to attend games and there is a tremendous amount of fiscal uncertainty around the league. It’s hard to commit to another $4-$5 million in salary when you don’t know what your revenue stream is going to be in the upcoming season.
No one wants to bail the Lightning out
This one might be a little overblown. After all if teams really wanted to take advantage of the Lightning there would be an endless stream of offer sheets being faxed over to their RFAs. Since it’s unlikely that’s happening we can ease up on the “no one wants to help the Lightning” narrative.
What teams do want to do is maximize the return they get for helping Tampa Bay alleviate their cap issues. While they aren’t going to make a deal as a favor to Julien BriseBois, it’s not like other teams are taking on players that are going to make their teams actively worse. Someone trading for Tyler Johnson or Alex Killorn will most likely be upgrading their middle six depth at the worst, and adding a top-line forward at best.
The issue facing Mr. BriseBois is that he has no leverage whatsoever in these dealings. He’s handicapped by no trade clauses, tight salary caps, and uncertainty in the market. Instead of being in a position to take the best deal for Tyler Johnson, Julien BriseBois may be forced to take the least worst deal. One side benefit of whatever negotiations are going on is that he’s probably getting a firm idea of what prospects in the Lightning organization other teams value. That could come in handy down the road at some point.
The soft free agent market
There are still a few names out there that swim in the same water as Johnson and Killorn. Mike Hoffman is the top forward still looking for a contract, but some teams may see Derick Brassard, Anthony Duclair, Conor Sheary, or Corey Perry as cheaper (and shorter term options) than what the Lightning are offering. Would Alex Killorn provide more offense than Brassard? Probably, but you can also sign Brassard for a cheaper, shorter term deal and not lose that much productivity.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are some positive actions over the last few weeks that could work in the Lightning’s favor.
The cost of trading for Tyler Johnson or Alex Killorn went down
As part of the Memorandum of Understanding that the NHLPA and the NHL signed back in the summer as part of the CBA extension, all players that had a Standard Player Contract for the 2020-21 season received a paycheck at the end of October for 8.1% of their agreed upon salary. For many players that’s the first money they’ve seen since the end of last season (and also the likely reason the Maroon and Schenn contracts were finalized in the last week of October).
For a team that’s looking to acquire Johnson or Killorn it means they saved around $300,000-$350,000 by waiting to trade for them. That may not seem like a lot when dealing with multi-million payrolls, but in uncertain times, any money saved is a bonus. Teams with a lot of cap space (looking at you Ottawa) tend to be more concerned with actual payroll dollars than cap hits. Now that cutting that check isn’t something they have to do, they might be willing to start talking about finalizing a deal.
As far as we can tell there are no other pay dates scheduled until the season starts so there is no tangible reason to wait longer if a team is interested in any of the players that may be available from Tampa Bay.
Teams are wrapping up their own affairs
The RFAs are starting to come off the board. Teams are finishing up their arbitration hearings (or settling before having to go into the room). For instance, Detroit, a team with cap space, just signed RFA Anthony Mantha to a four year deal. That not only clears up their cap for this year but also gives them a little certainty heading into the future, which is important when looking at picking up players like Johnson and Killorn that have term left on their deals.
Now that they have their own affairs in order, they may be willing to circle back with the Lightning and renew talks that took place earlier in the offseason.
So, there isn’t any real sense of panic creeping in just yet in regards to trading players. While there may be little action on the surface, there is a good chance that a lot of things are going on behind the scenes. Heck, there may even be some handshake agreements down with the RFAs that are waiting for other pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.
The good news is that once the right piece settles in, there could be a flood of transactions. Until that happens, we have to do what we’re not really good at - wait patiently.