Yes, it’s way too early for fans to worry about the salary cap situation for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2021-22 NHL Season. But it’s not too early for the front office to be worrying about it. While the Lightning had a lot of moving pieces and deals that they’ve worked through to get salary cap compliant for the 2020-21 season, there are still more moves to come in the next nine months to get to the same result for the 2021-22 season.
There is still the potential for another move or two to happen before the start of this season which could impact the following calculations. By the time we get to the offseason, there is a good likelihood that this won’t be quite right, but it will give us a starting point to think about where the team could be going into the Seattle Kraken expansion draft and next offseason.
Current Standing for 2021-22
As it stands right now, the Lightning have eleven forwards, five defensemen, and one goaltender [Editor’s Note: For brevity, roster breakdowns after this will be listed as F/D/G in numbers.] under contract for 2021-22, not including prospects still in the minors, juniors, Europe, and NCAA that most likely will not be ready for the NHL. Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Luke Schenn, Curtis McElhinney, and our resident LTIR friends Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson, will be unrestricted free agents. Notable restricted free agents are Alex Volkov and Cal Foote.
With those players currently under contract, the Lightning have a cap commitment of just over $85 million. With the salary cap expected to remain flat next year at $81.5 million as the league continues to recover from lower revenues due to the pandemic, that shows us that the team is already in a position where they will need to move salary. Right up front, $3.5 million needs to be moved to get under the cap, but then since the team would need three forwards, two defensemen, and a goaltender, the team would need more space than that to fill out the roster.
The Most Likely Contracts to be Moved
Right off the top, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat lead the list of players that can be moved due to having modified No Trade Clauses. Killorn’s is already a m-NTC, but Johnson’s and Palat’s won’t kick in until free agency opens up, though they could potentially waive those clauses a little earlier to facilitate a trade prior to the draft and/or expansion draft.
The team has to consider what they will want to do with the Seattle expansion draft. My expected protection list is Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. When we get closer to the expansion draft, I will go more in depth on my thinking of these selections, but I think it’s a pretty sound place to start. The team could possibly make a trade with Seattle to get them to take the player the team wants them to take (Tyler Johnson?) or just let them take whichever exposed player they want.
Yanni Gourde could potentially be a target for Seattle in the expansion draft, but I kind of have my doubts he would be the pick unless he has a huge bounce back season offensively for the Lightning. He would need to show that taking him and his longer term contract would be better for Seattle than taking on a declining Johnson with term or Palat with just one year left on his contract or Killorn as the in-between position of those two.
Getting Under the Cap
I think that Killorn is actually the least likely of the three tradeable contracts the Lightning would want to move on from. He’s also the lowest cap hit of the three. He will only have two years remaining on his contract and had a strong offensive season in 2019-20. If he can repeat in 2020-21, that just makes him even more valuable at his lower cap hit.
So let’s start with the scenario of Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson being moved, whether via expansion draft or trade. These two moves puts the Lightning at just under $6.8 million in cap space, but with a roster of just 9/5/1. At a minimum, the team would need three forwards, a defensemen, and a goaltender. The team would have about $1.3 million in cap space per player to fill out those positions. Realistically the team would need another forward and defenseman on the roster for injuries, and would also want at least enough room to recall another player for injury reasons.
Let’s fill in a few variables to see where we stand in this scenario. I don’t think the team will want to spend quite the minimum amount possible at back-up goaltender. We can plug in a $1.5 million value there. It could end up being a little less, but it’s enough money to make sure they can secure a back-up behind Andrei Vasilevskiy that will be worth something. Then we can fill in a couple forward spots and a defenseman spot with minimum salary players. Gemel Smith, Ross Colton, and Alex Barre-Boulet are all options here at forward. On the blue line, the team could bring back Luke Schenn for another year or look to RFA Andreas Borgman.
Those variables leave us with $3.183 million to sign Volkov, Foote, and one more forward. This is where things get tricky and is very much dependent on how big of a role that Volkov and Foote have in the NHL this year. If Foote doesn’t play much, then he’d be in line for a contract at a similar amount to his $925,000 cap hit on his entry level contract. Volkov would still likely be due a raise. Best case, the Lightning would have $2.4 million to sign both if they filled in the last forward spot with another minimum salary player. Even if that is enough room to get both signed, it doesn’t leave any room to recall a player for injury until later in the season when some cap space has been accrued.
It’s possible that this scenario will work and keep Killorn around for another year, but it’s very much dependent on what Volkov and Foote demand as RFAs and the confidence the team has in running some fringe players and prospects out on the ice at the bottom of the line up. However, that could also be mitigated if, for example, Barre-Boulet and Colton make some big leaps forward in the AHL. Or, if one of Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk finally get over the hump and become useful NHL players. That’s a lot of ifs and doesn’t leave the team with much room to wiggle.
This scenario also gets a little worse if Alex Killorn is traded instead of Ondrej Palat or Tyler Johnson. If it’s Killorn instead of Palat, then the team has $850,000 less cap space, and if it’s Killorn instead of Johnson, then it’s $550,000 less cap space. That just makes it even harder to squeeze everyone in. It likely means signing a lesser back-up goaltender, as well as needing Foote and Volkov to sign for lower amounts.
Here’s an example of what the line up might look like under this scenario.
Steven Stamkos - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn - Anthony Cirelli - Alex Volkov
Alex Barre-Boulet - Yanni Gourde - Mathieu Joseph
Pat Maroon - Mitchell Stephens - Ross Colton
Victor Hedman - Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh - Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev - Cal Foote
Andrei Vasilevskiy - Free Agent Goaltender
Scenario 2 is basically just the same as above, except that the Lightning also trade Alex Killorn and open up an additional $4.45 million in cap space. This would mean that the Lightning could be more active in filling out the roster with a couple free agents. The team could explore bringing back Barclay Goodrow. They could at least have conversations with Blake Coleman, though I would guess he signs elsewhere. The team could also spend a little more on a back-up goaltender, as well as just have more room to deal with injuries.
This could also be necessary if Volkov and Foote both have breakout years and would allow the team to sign both to multi-year contracts. They could look at something like 3 years at $2.5 million for Foote. They could look at a two-year contract for Volkov in the $3.5 million range. If the team signed both for those kind of totals, they could probably afford to bring in another veteran in the $1 to $1.5 million range for the bottom of the line up like Goodrow. But it would still mean having four players on the roster that were making minimum salary.
I don’t want to go too much deeper here because there are far more variables involved. But let’s say that Volkov and Foote didn’t have big years and could be re-signed for a combined $3.5 million ($2 million for Volkov and $1.5 million for Foote) for one or two years. The team could look to the free agent market for another middle six forward that could cost in the $3 million range. You’re not going to get a star there, but if the free agent market continues to get squeezed by the stagnant cap, the Lightning could certainly look for a bargain on the market to help replace Killorn and his production in the middle of the line up.
To sum it up, Julien BriseBois’ work isn’t done.