There’s no denying that the Tampa Bay Lightning paid a steep price for forward Blake Coleman. Nolan Foote and a first round pick basically amounts to two first round picks since Foote was the Lightning’s first rounder in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. That’s a lot. Like, really a lot. Especially since that’s the kind of package that has been rumored for a higher impact offensive player in Chris Kreider.
Julian BriseBois talked earlier this year about the risks of trading a first round pick at the trade deadline. BriseBois is a highly analytical person and studies topics from all angles. He certainly took everything he has learned about deadline trades into account when making the decision for this trade. An important distinction to make though is that he was referring to pure rentals, players that could freely walk come July 1st. Blake Coleman is not quite a rental. He has another year under contract at a $1.8 million cap hit. And that is quite important.
During his post-trade press conference with media, BriseBois was asked about his comments about trading a first round pick and the contract of Coleman. He mentioned that Coleman providing great value for his contract was a significant factor. He also said that you have to like the player first, and then like the contract. BriseBois called him the “Energizer Bunny” referring to his competitiveness and motor on the ice. Many of the characteristics that he pointed out in Coleman matches up with the Lightning’s scouting priorities in draft prospects. So it’s not a surprise the team has liked him for a while and were willing to make this trade.
Alan has covered a lot of Coleman’s game on the ice. He’s a 200-foot player with his defensive impacts similar to Anthony Cirelli. As his ice time and quality of teammates has grown, he’s filled the net over the past season and a half, similar to Anthony Cirelli. He’s played center and wing. He could play on any line. He’s averaged 17 minutes of ice time the past two seasons. But since the middle of December, that number has bumped up to 18:43.
One area I can dive into a little bit deeper is the impact on the salary cap picture for next season. The Lightning have seven players that are on or have recently been on the NHL roster that are restricted free agents come this summer: forwards Anthony Cirelli, Mitchell Stephens, Carter Verhaeghe, Mathieu Joseph, and Alexander Volkov and defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak.
Stephens, Verhaeghe, Joseph, and Volkov shouldn’t expect too much of a bump in their salaries for next season. Volkov and Stephens’ cap hits could actually go down from their current Entry Level Contract cap hits. Both have limited time in the NHL and neither has had huge contributions to the team, though that could change with Stephens still getting an opportunity to settle into the NHL. Joseph is also not likely to get much of a raise, if any, with him spending the bulk of the second half of the season in the AHL. Verhaeghe likewise hasn’t produced much in terms of counting stats and hasn’t pushed his way into a bigger role and is likely to be seeing a lot of the press box for the rest of the season after the acquisition of Coleman.
Erik Cernak will definitely be receiving a raise for his efforts, but that raise may not be as big as we thought it would be going into this season. He’s in the last year of his entry level contract with a $697,500 cap hit. As a rookie last season, he played 58 games averaging 19:15 TOI with five goals and 16 points. Through 56 games this year, he is averaging 18:57 TOI, with five goals and 11 points. If he had been able to get his points total up above 20, he would have some more favorable comparisons to draw on for asking for a higher salary. As is though, even with his second pair TOI, he might not be able to push for more than $2-$2.5 million on a short term deal.
The big question marks are Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev. With Sergachev, I feel we have the clearest projections. Charlie McAvoy and Zach Werenski both signed three year deals for $4.9 million and $5 million respectively. All three are similarly young players who play solid defense and are strong offensive contributions. Werenski is the closer comparable for Sergachev, but both contracts give us a clear view of what to expect for Sergachev since it seems highly unlikely the Lightning can afford to pay him the $6.75 million Ivan Provorov got on a six year contract.
For Cirelli, I’ve had a much harder time pinning down a good number. He’s already passed his his career high in scoring with 40 points. He’s not quite to his career high of 19 goals yet, but there’s every chance he’ll make it there. His current pace would put him at something like 20 goals and 56 points.
It’s been really hard to find correct comparables for Cirelli. There seems to be a wide range of contracts out there for players who are similar to him. Based on the market, he could sign anywhere from $2 million to $6 million. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson’s first RFA contracts at $3.33 million for three years could be right. Or Ryan Johansen’s $4 million three year contract. Or perhaps Ryan O’Reilly, another defensively sound center, and his $5 million two-year contract or his $6 million two-year contract that followed that one.
Whatever it comes out to, when you add all these numbers together with the players the Lightning currently have under contract for next season, it all comes up to one number... Over The Cap. In examining this question earlier in the season, I had already figured that the Lightning would have to trade Alex Killorn despite his big offensive season. Though the fact that they need to move him, combined with his sudden spike in offensive output, could make it a convenient time for the Lightning to trade him for a bigger return than they might have gotten in other summers.
But even after trading Killorn, we’re coming up short on money. That’s going to necessitate the team convincing one of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, or Yanni Gourde to accept a trade despite their no trade clauses (NTC). Tyler Johnson might be the most realistic. I think he can look at his place on the team and see that he’s been the odd man out of the top six more than a few times the past couple seasons. Since he has that full NTC, he could control his destiny and guide the team into sending him to a team where he’ll be the unquestioned #2 center and have his top six spot secured.
Even after taking care of that business to make enough space for all of the restricted free agents, the team will still be left with a lot of questions about who would fill in around the edges. The blue line could be pretty well set if the team brings up Cal Foote to be a third pairing defenseman and then sign another veteran to compete with Braydon Coburn for the other third pair spot.
At forward, I was having a lot of reservations about how the picture would look after trading two middle six forwards plus Pat Maroon potentially leaving as an unrestricted free agent. Even factoring in having Verhaeghe, Joseph, and Stephens on the roster, there are still two or three forward spots to fill with the minimal remaining money left under the salary cap. To me, it looked highly likely that the Lightning would need to rely on veterans on cheap contracts or unproven prospects that haven’t progressed as fast as expected.
While Coleman costs about a million more on the salary cap than the prospect options, he is likely bringing far more value at $1.8 million than any unrestricted free agent that might be available this summer. BriseBois has locked in one of those open spots with a cost effective player. According to CapFriendly.com, Coleman has the 27th lowest Cost Per Point and 13th lowest Cost Per Goal among forwards on standard player contracts this season. And that doesn’t even factor in his defensive impacts to the game.
The last couple of forward spots can still be filled out by some cheap veterans or giving a player like Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, or Alex Barre-Boulet a chance at taking a roster spot. Ross Colton could also be in that conversation. Pat Maroon could be a possibility to bring back on a deal similar to the $900,000 one-year contract he signed for this summer. Cory Conacher seems like a perennial option, though he currently isn’t under contract for next season and could choose to go overseas for a bigger pay day. Gemel Smith and Danick Martel are also restricted free agents this summer, though Martel could elect to become a Group VI free agent.
This trade doesn’t change the fact that BriseBois still has a lot of heavy lifting to do this summer to be cap compliant while also fielding the most competitive roster possible. It does change one variable, locking in a roster spot and a cap hit for next year. This may not feel like a swing for the fences trade, despite the price, but it does look like it can be a very smart trade for the Lightning that was well worth the cost.