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Where a steadily rising salary cap puts the Tampa Bay Lightning

With a report that the cap will rise gradually over the next few years, a look at what that means for the Bolts

2021 NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by NHL Images/NHLI via Getty Images

Tampa Bay Lightning Julien BriseBois had to make some moves this summer to get the Lightning salary cap compliant for the 2021-22 season. The two biggest moves involved letting Yanni Gourde go in the expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken and trading Tyler Johnson to the Chicago Blackhawks. They also moved Mitchell Stephens to the Detroit Red Wings, but that was more due to running out of roster spots after signing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry to fill out the fourth line than the salary cap. BriseBois also signed RFAs Alex Barre-Boulet, Taylor Raddysh, and Boris Katchouk to potentially team friendly three-year contracts for the league minimum. The last remaining piece of the puzzle to fall is RFA forward Ross Colton.

Salary Cap information in this article comes from CapFriendly.com.

There’s still almost a full year left, but it’s never too early to think about the next offseason. And maybe even the offseason after that. Knowing the future situation informs what the Lightning could do in the short term. As always with looking far enough in the future, there’s a lot of variables. With reasonable inputs for some of those variables though, and seeing which variables still need inputs, we can have a little idea of where they’re at.

Further to that, Frank Seravalli reported that the salary cap is expected to rise to $82.5 million for the 2022-23 season. That’s a very good sign as it means that the NHL’s revenues are rebounding from the lack of people in the arenas, as well as new media deals signed with ESPN and TNT and the addition of the Seattle Kraken to the league. Give the article a quick read for an understanding of the math and mechanics that’s happening within the league.

The simple explanation is that once the league’s revenues hit $4.8 billion in a season (which the report suggests that the NHL expects to hit that target in 2021-22) it starts a period where the salary cap will raise by $1 million each season until the escrow owed to the owners is paid off. Once it’s paid off, then the league will go back to the normal calculations for the salary cap. DailyFaceoff’s math suggests that 2026-27 is when we could see the NHL return to that normal calculation and we could see the salary cap jump as much as $6 million.

That’s a bit down the road, though. Let’s get back to the near future. Adding $1 million each of the next two offseasons gives the Lightning a little bit more breathing room to take care of business. Next summer should be fairly easy for BriseBois, but the following summer could put him quite a pickle, even with the salary cap raising to $83.5 million for the 2023-24 season.

Summer of 2022

Next summer, the Lightning have Ondrej Palat, Pat Maroon, Jan Rutta, and Brian Elliott scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. On the restricted free agent side, Mathieu Joseph is the only player currently set to need a new contract. If Colton only signs a one-year contract now with hopes of cashing in better next summer, then he would also need a new contract. Beyond that, the only other RFAs are minor leaguers and prospects that have yet to reach the NHL and aren’t particularly expected to reach the top league in the coming season.

Assuming that Barre-Boulet, Raddysh, and Katchouk are all on the roster, and none of the unrestricted free agents are brought back, the Lightning sit with $7.9 million cap space. Joseph and Colton would finish out the necessary forwards, and the Lightning would just need one defenseman and one goaltender.

The Lightning could take the approach of getting Joseph and Colton signed to longer term contracts, say three or four years for a combined $5 million or $2.5 million each. That sounds pretty reasonable to me. Those contracts also shouldn’t be too far out of line for a couple of third line forwards that have established themselves in the NHL as such. However, doing so would mean getting Colton to sign just a one-year contract this season so that he would be an RFA next season. Those contracts would then give the Lightning $2.9 million to add a forward, defenseman and a back-up goaltender, or an average of about $950,000 each with the league minimum salary being $750,000.

If the Lightning sign Colton to a two-year contract and have him under contract going into 2022-23 for $1.1 million (approximately the amount of cap space the team currently has to give him for 2021-22), then that presents either a problem or a potential. If Joseph signed the above mentioned $2.5 million contract, then with Colton’s $1.1 million contract, the team would then have $4.3 million for a 13th forward, 7th defenseman and back-up goaltender.

The problem here, as you’ll see a bit more in the Summer of 2023 section, is that the Lightning will need to be careful and calculated about adding salary beyond the 2022-23 season. While it’s possible the Lightning will be able to use up that salary on one-year contracts, those players will need to make around $1.4 million each. The Lightning don’t have to use up all of that salary cap space necessarily, as they could instead use most of it and leave enough room for a 23rd player on the roster at opening night to maximize the salary cap relief from Brent Seabrook’s LTIR. That player wouldn’t need to remain on the roster past the first game, and could be sent back to Syracuse afterwards, but it would give the Lightning extra flexibility in case of multiple injuries. That would also mean signing those three players needed for the everyday roster for around $1 million each.

Alternatively, the Lightning could trade Seabrook’s contract next summer, which might cost them a pick, and allow that extra cap space to accrue through the season and give the team added flexibility to add at the deadline.

One last note, while I would love to see Ondrej Palat brought back, at the moment, I’m not seeing a clear path forward to doing so. It would require trading some salary out, whether that ended up being Joseph and/or Colton, or potentially Killorn, it would also require Palat to sign an under market contract. It’s always possible that he could want to stay badly enough to sign a bargain deal, but that’s not something I can expect to happen. Players deserve to get paid, and if he wants to get paid somewhere else when the Lightning can’t pay him what he’s worth, then that’s within his right to do as a player.

All in all, the Lightnings Summer of 2022 shouldn’t be too difficult for BriseBois to navigate. While there’s some maneuvering that will be needed to do this right, there shouldn’t be too many big hang ups that will make getting everything in line for the season overly difficult.

Summer of 2023

If the Summer of 2022 is a nice summer breeze, then the Summer of 2023 looks more like a Hurricane. This is the next offseason I see in the future where things could be a big struggle for BriseBois. Theoretically, the salary cap would be up to $83.5 million for the 2023-24 season. Which is nice.

The Lightning will also have some money coming off the books with Alex Killorn, Corey Perry, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare all being unrestricted free agents with a combined salary cap hit of $6.45 million. That will ease a little bit of the salary cap tension, but may not be enough to handle everything the Lightning need to do.

The big struggle for the Lightning is that Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak will all be up for significant raises as they come off of their RFA bridge contracts that they signed prior to 2020-21. This is also where all of the variables start to become fuzzier. All three players have two seasons to continue to bolster their cases for big pay days. There’s also still time for more, big pay days to comparable players that would further push their next contract asks up.

Case in point specifically to Sergachev is the $9 million contracts that have been signed by Cale Makar, Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, and (reportedly) Darnell Nurse. Other than Makar and maybe Hamilton, it’d be hard to argue that Sergachev isn’t as good of a player. Could he demand $9 million? Could he take a little less? Those are big questions.

The comparables for Cirelli and Cernak though may be a bit more straight forward and less likely to be pushed up as much as it potentially has been for Sergachev. William Karlsson and his $5.9 million, eight year contract is a pretty reasonable comparable for Cirelli. That number could even potentially be pushed up to around $6.5 million. Cernak is a little harder to project as contract comparables for defensemen are usually a little harder to pin down for me. But something in the $4.5 to $5 million range sounds about right to me for a top four defenseman that doesn’t play on the power play.

If we take the high end of my current projection for all three players, that’s a raise of almost $8 million. It would also leave the Lightning with $8.25 million for Colton, Joseph, Foote, four forwards, a defenseman, and a back-up goaltender. In other words... not enough money. Nine players at the league minimum of $775,000 for 2023-24 would be $6.75 million. Leaving $1.25 million on top of the $775,000 already allocated to them, to spread around to Colton, Joseph, and Foote. The Lightning would also pretty much be out of contracts that they could reasonably trade to make room unless they traded Colton and/or Joseph at this point.

The big question mark that I think some people are asking is “Well, what if Stamkos retires?” Yeah, that’s possible. He would be in the last year of his contract with an $8.5 million cap hit. Could he retire by then? Sure. But I have a hard time seeing him only playing two more NHL seasons and then deciding to hang up the skates, barring a major injury. And that’s not something I want to count on.

“Oh, well what about Ryan McDonagh’s contract?” That only works if Ryan McDonagh wants to be traded. He has a full No Trade Clause and he controls his destiny in that regard. Again, not something I want to count on.

Moving one of those two big contracts may be a best case scenario for the Lightning, but because of both players’ power to control their destiny in that regard, the team can’t rely on that happening and has to be planning and projecting ahead now to what might possibly be the worst case scenario.

Hopefully, BriseBois can convince one or two or maybe all three of these big RFAs to not seek full market value. To take a little less to help the team. Once again, it’s not something I want to count on happening. If all three insist on being paid top dollar, then the Lightning may have no choice but to consider trading one of them, as hard of a pill as that is to swallow.