What if? That’s the theme this week on SBNation and it got the brain wheels turning for me. What if? There’s plenty of what ifs that could be asked. What if OK Hockey hadn’t traded away Dan Boyle? What if the Lightning had kept Brad Richards around? What if Drouin had been onside? What if Tyler Johnson hadn’t broken his wrist during the 2015 Stanley Cup Final?
There’s plenty of What If questions to ask. The harder part is answering them. The biggest issue with time travel ethic, is that you never know how changing one event, no matter how big or small, would change history after that point. So much of life and history is a series of chance. So anytime you try to answer a What If scenario, you have to make some guesses at what would have changed, what would have been different. Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong, maybe you’re only kinda right. But I’m going to take my best stab at answering this question...
What if there had been no compliance buyouts as a result of the 2012 NHL Lockout?
Let’s go back for a little bit of a history lesson of what really happened so we can understand what we’re changing about history. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NHL and NHL Players Association (NHLPA) expired following the 2011-12 season. Discussions did not progress to either party’s satisfaction as the 2012 summer went on. As the 2012-13 season approached with no agreement in place, the owners locked out the players and the season did not start on time.
Eventually, the various issues between the NHL owners and NHLPA were worked out and in early January 2013, an agreement was made. After a short training camp, the season resumed and a 48 game season was played. There are too many small changes to list them all, but we can cover a few of the more major points. The agreement was for ten years with an opt-out option after eight years (which has been exercised). The player’s revenue share was lowered. Contracts were limited to seven years, or eight years if re-signing with the players own team.
The custom of heavily front loading very, very long term contracts that paid very little at the end of the contract when a player would be expected to retire, thus gaining salary cap advantages was banned by limiting the salary variance. All non-playoff teams now had a chance in the lottery at the number one overall pick. And perhaps the biggest one, and the core of our question, was that teams were allowed two compliance buyouts that would not count against the salary cap for the team.
The Lightning used both of their compliance buyouts. The first was in the summer of 2013 on Vincent Lecavalier. At that time, he had seven years left on his contract with a salary cap hit of $7,727,272. If he had played out the entirety of that contract, he would have been a free agent this summer. The buyout cost the Lightning just short of $33 million, which is a lot to pay for a player to not play for you, but he no longer counted against the cap. Because buyouts are stretched out over twice the years remaining, the Lightning will still be paying Lecavalier through the 2026-27 season.
The Lightning used the second compliance buyout on Ryan Malone following the 2013-14 season. Malone was arrested for DUI and cocaine possession in April of 2014. Would he have been bought out if he hadn’t been arrested? Possibly, as his effectiveness had diminished greatly due to injury. The arrest didn’t help his cause, though.
Malone only had one year left on his contract with a $4.5 million cap hit, but because he was only owed $2.5 million, the cost of the buyout was only $1.666 million stretched out over two years. The Lightning didn’t have as much of a cap crunch in 2014-15 and 2015-16 so the $833,333 he would have cost with a regular buyout over those two seasons isn’t that much of a factor. For that reason, I won’t be discussing the Malone buyout further.
So what happens in our alternate version of history if the Lightning were not able to buy out these two contracts basically for free?
Alternate History Theory #1: The Lightning buyout Lecavalier’s contract anyway.
By this point in his career, Lecavalier had already started to decline at least partially due to injury issues. He played just 65 games in 2010-11 and 64 games in 2011-12. He also missed nine games during the shortened 2012-13 season. He was still pretty productive, but the risk of him missing time due to injury and declining further was high.
A regular buyout at this time would have saved the Lightning between $5.2 million and $6.7 million in salary cap charge each year from 2013-14 through 2016-17 and a little over $2.2 million in 2017-18. However, in 2018-19 and 2019-20, the savings would be non existent due to the back diving nature of the salary in his contract with him being owed just $2.5 million in the last two years of his contract. In those two years, he would count for just short of $8 million and $8.5 million respectively. Then his cap charge would have changed to $1.76 million from 2020-21 through 2026-27.
That’s a lot of salary cap space to pay for a long time for a player that isn’t playing for your team. Especially with those couple of seasons where his salary cap charge is actually higher than his original cap hit. Waiting longer doesn’t help the situation much either, other than to lower the cap hit after 2019-20 and shortening the length of time the buyout would count against the cap.
The Lightning still may have been able to sign some of the free agent deals they made and re-sign some of their young stars. But think about the cap crunch the Lightning have been in the past two seasons, and then think about how much worse it would be if the Lightning had almost $8 million less in cap space the past two years.
Maybe Brayden Point has to be traded instead of signing a bridge contract. Maybe Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn get traded instead of being signed to long term deals. Maybe the Lightning don’t sign Valtteri Filppula because they can’t give him as many years as he’s looking for. The Lightning would have been ok for a few years during this buyout, but that spike would have been very hard to handle.
Alternate History Theory #2: The Lightning ride it out with Lecavalier as long as possible.
With the decision to hang on to Lecavalier as long as possible, what does the team look like in 2013-14 and beyond? First off, the Lightning don’t acquire Valtteri Filppula. His signing was a direct response to buying out Lecavalier and a need for a second line center. Tyler Johnson had only just made his debut in 2012-13 and it wasn’t until the 2013-14 season got going that the glimmerings of him being capable as a second line center started to show through, especially after Steven Stamkos broke his leg.
While Filppula was a favored whipping boy of fans especially in his last two seasons with the Lightning, he was quite effective in his first two seasons. He played the second line center role well, won faceoffs, and was effective on the penalty kill. Lecavalier followed up his buyout by signing with the Philadelphia Flyers. His first season with the Flyers was effective, but he was limited to just 69 games scoring 20 goals and 37 points.
With Lecavalier sticking around on our imaginary roster, maybe he has a bigger season in 2013-14 than he had with the Flyers. He could have been the one to benefit from moving up to play with Martin St. Louis after Stamkos broke his leg instead of Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Maybe he has a big year and proves he can still be a difference maker.
The 2014-15 season saw Lecavalier’s production take a harder dip to eight goals and 20 points in 57 games. Some of this can be attributed to his continuing to wear down, but also a coaching change in Philadelphia impacted his performance. In our Alternate History universe, he most likely ends up moving down to a third line role with the rise of the Triplets. Hopefully.
Lecavalier likely finishes out his career with the Lightning in this scenario playing on the third line until an injury comes along that allows him to go on LTIRetired. A career-ending injury here would allow the Lightning to gain some relief in placing him on Long Term Injured Reserve. Or potentially trading him to the Ottawa Senators for the last two years on his contract, much like what the Lightning did with Ryan Callahan.
Speaking of Callahan, there is a possibility here that Martin St. Louis doesn’t decide to leave Tampa because his ties to and history with Lecavalier keep him around. Or maybe the Lightning don’t target Ryan Callahan in the MSL trade, but instead just get more prospects and picks. Or maybe the Lightning don’t re-sign Callahan after the end of the 2013-14 season.
There’s really no way to definitively answer what would have happened with Lecavalier and the Lightning if they had not been able to get out of his contract without a salary cap penalty. They could have done it anyway and just bit the bullet and dealt with the consequences. They could have kept him as long as possible and overpaid him as his production diminished.
But that’s always the fun of the What If?