The Tampa Bay Lightning helped their cap situation with a trade late Sunday night. The deal sent Braydon Coburn, Cedric Paquette, and a 2022 second round pick to the Ottawa Senators for Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson. Gaborik and Nilsson are both injured and will not play during the 2020-21 season. The Lightning have already announced that both will be placed on Long Term Injured Reserve.
When I first read the news and started analyzing the situation, I thought this was going to work and be the end of the Lightning’s moves before the season starts. As I dug deeper though, I realized that the Bolts are still coming up just a little bit short if they want to have any breathing room on the roster at all. So I had to dig even further in and try to figure out some scenarios for where the Lightning could go from here.
CapFriendly.com currently lists the following healthy players for the Lightning; Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Pat Maroon, Mitchell Stephens, Mathieu Joseph, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Jan Rutta, Luke Schenn, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Curtis McElhinney. This gives the Lightning 12 forwards, six defensemen, and two goaltenders, the minimum they need for a functional roster. None of these players are waiver exempt. In addition to the healthy players are Nikita Kucherov, Marian Gaborik, and Anders Nilsson who will all be on Long Term Injured Reserve.
That roster gives the Lightning a total cap hit of $97,316,666 putting the Lightning $15,816,666 over the $81.5 million salary cap. The three players on LTIR have a combined cap hit of $16,975,000. No combination of players other than all three is enough to get the Lightning under the salary cap. If the three were placed on LTIR with the above listed roster, the Lightning would receive $15,816,666 in salary cap relief. They would effectively be right at the $81.5 million cap and would not be able to add any players.
That obviously presents an issue since it would mean that if there was an injury, the Lightning would be unable to add a player to the roster. The Lightning could fill up as much of that $1,157,334 difference between the LTIR Cap Hits and the amount they are over the cap by adding a player like Cal Foote and his $925,000 cap hit. That would at least give the Lightning an extra defenseman, but leaves them with just 12 forwards. If more than one forward was injured, the Lightning would then be in a bit of a jam and unable to add.
The best way for the Lightning to gain some flexibility is fill out the roster of 23 healthy players to get as close to $81.5 million as they can, then flip some players around to give them flexibility in who they can recall, as well as some small tricks they can use to give themselves a little more room, which I’ll get into a bit later here.
The First Solution - Trade
The first possible answer is for the Lightning to trade Tyler Johnson or Alex Killorn as has been speculated for a very, very long time now. The math is a little bit different depending on the player because their cap hits are different, but the concept is still similar. So I’ll use Tyler Johnson as the example since we actually know that the Lightning have actively shopped him in trade talks, as well as placing him on waivers as a last ditch effort to move him without paying for the privilege to do so.
As a preface to the following math, there are a lot of subtleties to Cap Science and not all of those little details are publicly known as they are not published in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. While I believe that my understanding is sound, I am making some conservative interpretation decisions to hedge towards the worst case interpretation of my understanding of how this would work. If this happens to pass, the details may end up being a little different because of those interpretations the NHL has made, but the basic concept remains the same even when the numbers are a little different.
Go back to our previous roster of 12 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders (12/6/2), but remove Tyler Johnson. The Lightning would then be $10,816,666 over the salary cap, but would need to add at least a forward to get to the minimum roster size, but could also add 3 more players beyond that. CapFriendly has not included Alex Volkov on their roster even though he is waiver eligible and I don’t think the team would risk losing him on waivers so we’ll add him to the players originally listed. The Lightning would then put Kucherov and Nilsson on LTIR. This would effectively make the team’s salary cap $80,916,666 for opening night with the team having a cap hit of $80,916,666.
The Lightning, after submitting their opening night roster, would then place Marian Gaborik on LTIR. This would give the Lightning $4.875 million in LTIR Cap Space. I specify LTIR Cap Space here because that cap space would not grow through the season if unused like cap space normally does. This would then allow the Lightning to add Cal Foote to the roster, as well as other forwards as needed due to injury and not really worry about the salary cap. They could also potentially sign a free agent from the market that could use some of that cap space. For example, free agent defenseman Sami Vatanen.
The downside in this solution is that the Lightning would have to give up another asset or two on top of the 2022 second round pick they’ve already sent to the Senators.
The Second Solution - Another Trade
While going through the different scenarios, one name stuck out as a possible solution. And it would be one that while giving up a good player, would also result in a return of assets to offset the cost of originally acquiring the player as well as the pick given up to the Senators.
That name is Blake Coleman.
Coleman has a $1.8 million salary cap hit. It’s a great value contract with Coleman having well outperformed his contract since he signed it. Coleman’s offensive production has yet to match what Johnson has done throughout his career though. His best season came in 2018-19 when he scored 22 goals and 36 points in 78 games. 2019-20 was slightly better from a points per game perspective though with 32 points in 66 games at 0.48 points per game.
While Johnson has been up and down at times, he is a career 0.63 PPG player and scored at a similar rate as Coleman last season. Johnson though has a much higher, and longer contract, which is what really makes Coleman a better value than Johnson, even though he hasn’t produced as much as Johnson. Coleman is also only a year younger than Johnson, so age isn’t much of a factor when comparing the two, other than that Johnson’s contract takes him further into his 30s while Coleman won’t turn 30 until after his contract expires.
So let’s say the Lightning trade Coleman and we add Volkov back on to the roster. The Lightning would then want to get as close to $81.5 million without the three LTIR players to get as much cap space to play with during the season to deal with injuries. The Lightning would still have $2.258 million and three roster spots. The Lightning could fill up almost all of that space by placing Ryan Lohin, Alex Barre-Boulet, and one player making $700,000 (Gemel Smith, Ross Colton, Luke Witkowski, Andreas Borgman, etc) on the roster. That puts the Lightning $6,576 below $81.5 million without counting the three LTIR players.
The Lightning would then place their three players on LTIR and make the salary cap effectively $81,493,424. The three added players could then be re-assigned to the AHL or the Taxi Squad and the Lightning would have $2,251,758 in cap space to work with. The team could bring up Cal Foote and have $1,333,334 in cap space. That would mean the team could only add one more player to the roster in the event of injury since the minimum salary is $700,000 and two players would be more than the $1.333 million in cap space.
Where the flexibility comes in, is let’s say the Lightning need two forwards because of injuries. Remember that with our above scenario, the team only has 12 healthy forwards on the roster and 7 defensemen. The team could send Foote to the Taxi Squad. They could then replace him on the active roster with someone like Luke Witkowski or Andreas Borgman at $700,000, and then still have $1,551,758. Since that is more than $1.4 million, the team would be able to add two players to the roster. In that case, they could add Gemel Smith and Ross Colton to have them play.
Additionally to that scenario, if the need was for a goaltender because Vasilevskiy or McElhinney was injured. If a forward or defenseman was also injured at the same time, the Lightning would have to shuffle Foote to make enough room to recall the players required.
Going with this answer, the Lightning would be giving up a talented forward with potential to really perform if given a bigger role in the top six this season, but would also be gaining roster flexibility and would get a valuable asset back in exchange.
The Not So Great Solution - Do Nothing
The not so great answer is to do nothing. The Lightning would have almost no room to deal with injuries. The CBA does have a stipulation though to allow a team to exceed the salary cap in an emergency situation. An emergency situation arises when the team falls below 12 healthy forwards or 6 healthy defensemen or 2 healthy goaltenders. Normally, this situation just allows the team to recall a player and have some protections from risking that player on waivers when they are no longer needed.
But if adding the player would put the team over the salary cap, and there is no way for the team to add a player to get up to the needed player counts without going over the cap, the team must play down a player for one game. After that, the team would then be able to recall a player and exceed the salary cap.
This really isn’t a great solution. It’d be even worse if there were multiple injuries in the game and the team potentially had to play down two or three players for a game before they were allowed to recall a player.
I don’t really see this as a solution at all and I do not expect this to be what the Lightning to do. If I had to place a bet on what the team does, it would be the trade of Coleman. The more I look at the situation from every angle and try to get into the mind of Julien BriseBois, the more that move makes sense to me.