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Salary Cap Ramblings And Musings about Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, and RFA Contracts

Just another in a long line of rambling thoughts.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

I wouldn’t call myself a Salary Cap Expert, but I’m certainly a Salary Cap Hobbyist. It’s something I’ve written about many times here at Raw Charge as well as on Twitter. It’s an area of the NHL that a lot of fans don’t fully understand or aren’t willing to put the time in to learn the little intricacies of how things work and fit together. But I’m a nerd, and I love doing this kind of stuff. It’s a little bit like a game, trying to fit all the pieces together and consider all of the different scenarios.

One of the things we know about Julien BriseBois and his staff is that they are constantly looking ahead to the future and crafting different scenarios for the future. They want to know what to expect in the future, every possibility, and have a plan of action before it happens, if it ever happens. In a way, they’re working to create a map of all of the alternate universe timelines of the future. Every decision made creates dozens of possible future scenarios and each one of those can spawn dozens more.

Like, what will the team look like if Steven Stamkos had a career ending injury? What if Ross Colton breaks out and scores 30 goals and 60 points next year? What if Anthony Cirelli only scores 35 points next year? 45 points? 65 points? 85 points? What if we trade Cal Foote? What if a prospect doesn’t work out? What if they do and are in the top six in two years? Those are just a handful of scenarios that come to my mind that are realistic for the front office to consider. A lot of scenarios can be dismissed, or at least not have much time put into them because the chances are infinitesimally small, but they should nevertheless be considered so that the front office is never caught by surprise and without a plan to handle it.

It may feel like the decision to approach Ryan McDonagh about a trade and ultimately trading him to the Nashville Predators was sudden, but I believe that this is a move that the front office has been thinking about for a long time. And not just during the past few months or during this season, but probably back to last year.

I talked about the pros and cons of exposing Ryan McDonagh in the expansion draft last year so that the team could protect Yanni Gourde. My suspicion was that despite many in the public space considering McDonagh’s contract an albatross, that NHL General Managers would still view him as being a good player and worth his contract. The trade to Nashville, when the Lightning had limited options that McDonagh would accept a trade to, showed that my suspicion was correct about his value around the league. It’s not considered a great value contract, or else the return would have been much higher than an overpaid reclamation project of a 6/7 defenseman and a middling prospect. The Seattle Kraken may or may not have chosen to take him last year if he was exposed; something we’ll never know how they would have decided.

The front office had a big question to ask itself, which happened to be the same question it had to ask itself before deciding to move on from Ryan McDonagh. Do you give up some talent and depth on the blue line to maintain strength in the forward group? Or do you keep a strong blue line together and allow the forward ranks to be thinned of both talent and depth?

Going into the expansion draft, the team decided to protect it’s blue line depth, probably feeling at the time that it was harder to address that area of the team in free agency and from the farm than it was to address the forwards, and maybe also feeling Mikhail Sergachev wasn’t ready to take the full step up into McDonagh’s spot.

After losing Yanni Gourde to the expansion draft, and Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman to free agency, the Lightning added Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in free agency and had Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk coming up from the farm. Add in Mathieu Joseph as well who would get the opportunity to take on a bigger role than he had the previous couple seasons.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, those three young players did not step up enough to be difference makers in the bottom six for the team. Fortunately for the Lightning, the free agent signings worked out well. Bellemare was never expected to be a big scorer, that’s never been his thing in the NHL, but was a superb defensive presence on the fourth line and the penalty kill. Perry well outplayed expectations just barely missing the 20 goal plateau (it would have been the ninth time in his career) scoring 19 goals, which was his highest goal total since 2016-17.

The inability of Raddysh, Joseph, and Katchouk to elevate their games when given the opportunity led to JBB making the decision to trade all three of them for Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul. Those two were big upgrades over what the other three guys brought to the roster and with the re-signing of Paul, the Lightning will have both on the roster for multiple seasons to come, contributing in the middle six of the forward group.

This time around, the Lightning decided to dip into their blue line depth. While the team has yet to complete a deal with Ondrej Palat, they are hoping to bring him back into the mix as losing him would be a big blow to the Lightning’s top six and one-third of what has been a dominating line of Palat-Point-Kucherov on the first line.

With this trade, JBB has also given himself some more breathing room for all of the restricted free agents that will be up for new deals this time next year; Anthony Cirelli, Ross Colton, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Cal Foote. Oh, and now Phillipe Myers who was acquired in the McDonagh trade from Nashville, though if he does not take some steps forward this season, he could be non-tendered and allowed to walk away as an unrestricted free agent. puts out Contract Projections every year around this time to give us an idea of what to expect free agents to sign for. They’ve built the model using previous contract signings that allows them to look for players of similar age, position, stats, time on ice, etc. to project what their next contract might look like. It’s not perfect, since there’s always the negotiating part of the free agency process, but it’s done a pretty good job of getting in the neighborhood more often than not. For example, for Nick Paul, the most likely projection was a four year contract with a $3.44 million cap hit if he signed with a different team and a five year contract with a $3.871 million cap hit if he signed with the same team. On a seven year term, they projected $4.186 million if Paul re-signed with the Lightning.

As I said, the real world is often a bit different, and when you start getting to the edges of the range of possibilities a model tends to get a bit more warped. There aren’t very many players of Paul’s stature within the NHL that have been signed for seven years, so it was very reasonable of the model to not project that as a possibility. Even still, it lets us look at those shorter projections and what Paul signed for and see that the Lightning got themselves a pretty good deal by giving him the longer term compared to similar players that have signed contracts in the past.

For the five (possibly six) restricted free agents that the Lightning have coming up in 2023, we can take a look at the current projections since Evolving-Hockey projects every player in the NHL. However, those projections will change in a year. All of those players will be one year older. They’ll also have one more season of stats, and stats that could be elevated from what they’ve been the past few seasons. There will also be a bunch of signings this offseason that will be incorporated into the model next year. We can at least get a general idea of where the players stand in their contract negotiations (and we may see one or two or three, who knows?) sign early instead of waiting for next summer.

Using the projections from Evolving-Hockey as a starting point gave me enough pause to be worried about where the team would be in 2023. This was before the playoffs had even finished and I already had a pretty good feeling the team really wanted to re-sign Nick Paul and so I started working on those projections with Paul signed for $3 million. In pretty much all of my projections, I figured the Lightning could easily find themselves $1-$2 million short of giving all of those players the money they could command. And it seems that BriseBois and the front office were also having the same visions.

If the Lightning end up re-signing Palat for around $5 million, in addition to moving on from McDonagh’s $6.75 million, that extra $1.75 million could be just enough to get the job done. Yes, the blue line has taken a bit of a hit with McDonagh moving on, but with the additions of Hagel and Paul and hopefully hanging on to Palat for a while longer, the forwards will stay in a stronger position.

The team is going to have to lean on Mikhail Sergachev to take on much of that load left behind by McDonagh. It feels like Sergachev should be a lot older than he is with how long he’s been around, but he made it to the NHL full time as a 19-year old and only turned 24 a couple weeks ago.

A lot of hockey fans point to 27-29 years old as being a hockey player’s peak and prime years. However, there has been plenty of hockey research that has shown that players tend to peak around 25 years old, plateau for about two to three years for their prime, and then start to decline until falling off the cliff with the potential to fall off the cliff becoming exponentially higher every year past 30 the player gets. One of the outliers in that research is that elite players are more capable of extending their plateau for longer and staving off the decline by adjusting their game and relying on their superior skills while some other skills like skating may be in decline. For examples, see Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, et al.

With Sergachev just entering the prime years of his career, I think he has more to show from his already exceptional toolbox. His biggest area of improvement needs to be in his consistency. If he can be more consistent and play at a high level the vast majority of the time, the Lightning should barely notice the absence of McDonagh on the ice.

The decision to trade McDonagh was certainly a hard one, and a hard one for many fans to swallow. His personality and his dedication to the team won over many fans. While he may not have always gotten the loudest cheers when his name was announced before games, he was well respected and well regarded by the fans of Tampa Bay.

The hope is that this decision will give the team a better overall chance of keeping the Stanley Cup contention window open for longer. Allow the team to hang on to the younger parts of their core. Allow the team to keep reaching for the top of the mountain. Before they have to give up and start a major retooling, or even a full on rebuild, of the roster.