Congratulations to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who managed to become just the second team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in the cap era.
The Lightning went all-in for the second straight season, bringing back their core and trading their first-round pick for the second straight season, and thanks to some clever cap gymnastics, Nikita Kucherov returned for the playoffs and led the team in scoring. Now that the season is officially over, they have to address the big elephant in the room: The Lightning has to break up.
According to CapFriendly, the Lightning are the only team over the cap heading into the offseason. With the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 million, they are a little over $5 million over the upper limit with 19 players on the roster. Key role players including David Savard, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow are set to be UFA and young contributors Cal Foote, Ross Colton and Alex Barré-Boulet will need new contracts. It seems unlikely any of their pending UFA’s will return; with 29 percent of their cap already allocated to defensemen, Savard will likely get a more lucrative contract elsewhere and Coleman may be headed home to Dallas, according to Bally Sports Midwest’s Andy Strickland.
There are numerous ways to get under the cap, but barring another LTIR-related move, there’s no question the Lightning will have to shed a contract or two. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, the only untouchables are Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Given how each of them has performed in the playoffs, it’s safe to assume that list has not changed.
The most obvious path to shed salary is through the expansion draft. Based on Matt Larkin’s projected protect list with four defensemen, the Kraken will have a good pool to pick from, including Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Pat Maroon and a slew of young players ready to graduate from the American League. The problem with this path is it gives the Lightning very little control and consists mostly of them crossing their fingers that the Kraken will tap into the local talent pool and select the Spokane-born Johnson, who was waived but went unclaimed at the beginning of the season. To ensure the Kraken does take Johnson, the Lightning may have to part with a draft pick or prospect.
But, when it comes to trading, everyone knows the Lightning are in a tough spot and they won’t have much leverage in trade negotiations. The good news is that the Lightning has plenty of players who should be of interest to multiple teams, including captain Steven Stamkos. It seems unthinkable Stamkos would be available after he turned down other offers to remain with the Lightning in the fateful summer of 2016, but the Lightning cannot afford to save a little here and there; they are over the cap by such a significant amount with spots left to fill that moving a big contract will give them the most flexibility going forward.
Stamkos has a no-movement clause which may hamper the Lightning’s ability to get a fair return, but the main goal is the get under the cap. Not saying it will happen, but Stamkos could do his new team a favor and ensure they don’t give up too much for him in case it hurts their ability to compete; remember, Dominik Hasek reportedly did something similar when he threatened to nix a trade to the Red Wings if the Sabres asked for too much in return, according to ESPN. Stamkos’ power-play prowess will be a significant loss; over the past three seasons, he ranks fourth in the league with 39 power-play goals even though he’s played fewer games than the three players ahead of him.
Palat has one year remaining with a $5.3 million cap hit, and he’s an enticing piece for a team looking for a one-year rental in the hopes of a 2022 Cup run. His modified no-trade clause gives the Lightning a list of 20 teams they can deal with, but note that Palat’s base salary is backloaded in the final year, making teams that are strapped for cash something to consider. Palat’s a strong two-way player and his expiring contract gives the Lightning some flexibility moving forward, but if there’s a line the Lightning would be unwilling to break up, it’s probably their top line.
Gourde just signed a six-year extension in 2018 but also has some control over his future with a no-trade clause. His contract carries a $5.16-million cap hit with four more seasons remaining, and he was part of an outstanding checking line that should be held in the same regard as the Red Wings’ Grind Line from the ‘90s that won multiple Cups. Losing Gourde, along with Coleman and Goodrow in free agency, would also force the Lightning to revamp their penalty kill, which ranked fourth in the season.
Cirelli makes a lot of sense with a $4.8 million cap hit with two more years remaining and he will be an RFA when the contract expires, which gives the Lightning more control. He’s a strong two-way forward with plenty of upside at just 23 years old, and has proven to be a clutch player going back to his days with Oshawa in the Ontario League. He should be a big piece of their core moving forward, but if the Lightning are backed into a corner and find no takers for the other contracts they would rather shed, it may force them to part with Cirelli, but it’s an easier pill to swallow with two Cups under their belt.
The Lightning would also prefer to keep Ryan McDonagh, who has five more years remaining at $6.75 million per season with a no-trade clause, and Mikhail Sergachev, who has two years remaining at $4.8 million per season and will be an RFA in 2023. Sergachev is more desirable due to his age and contract, but trading either would really hurt the Lightning’s depth on defense when the league is becoming more aware of the importance of quality depth and mobility on the blue line.
In any of these paths, the Lightning will surely lose a talented player. One way to quantify how much the Lighting may lose is through hockey-reference.com’s Point Shares, which calculates the number of points a player contributes to his team over the course of a season. Adding the Point Shares of each player who suited up for their respective team should add up to the team’s point total in the standings with an average absolute error of 5.05 points per 82 games. The Lightning’s players accumulated 73.6 Point Shares during the 2021 season and the team finished with 75 points in the standings.
The Lightning will still be a very good team, but the loss of free agents Coleman, Goodrow and Savard is equivalent to about three wins, and if either Stamkos, Cirelli, Palat or Gourde become cap casualties, that’s another three to five wins lost. But, having a healthy Kucherov, who recorded at least 10 Point Shares over his past four regular seasons, should help stem some of the losses. Barré-Boulet and Colton, who scored the Cup-clinching goal, will certainly get a chance to be NHL regulars.
It would’ve been a long shot anyway, but no team has won three straight championships since Al Arbour’s Islanders in the early ‘80s. The Penguins have come closest in recent years, and interestingly enough, the Lightning are in a similar situation where they will lose a key player; the Pens’ shot at a three-peat ended in Round 2 against the eventual Cup-winning Capitals in 2018 – the year after they lost Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas expansion draft.