No team has been more successful over the past six years than the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Their win over the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final finally gave this core the championship it needed to validate all of that success.
They still have a powerhouse roster that is going to be a championship contender during the 2020-21 season as almost all of their core players remain signed to long-term deals. They are also going to continue to get a huge return on their trade deadline moves as complementary players like Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow remain under contract for this season at a ridiculously low salary cap hit.
Thanks to that current contract situation and the overall strength of the Lightning roster they really have not had to do much so far this offseason.
They re-signed Patrick Maroon and Luke Schenn, lost Kevin Shattenkirk (Anaheim Ducks) and Zach Bogosian (Toronto Maple Leafs) to unrestricted free agency, did not tender Carter Verhaeghe a qualifying offer and let him become an unrestricted free agent, and have mostly remained the same.
That will eventually have to change in some way because somebody on this roster is going to have to go.
Salary cap crunch and restricted free agency
The Lightning currently sit just $2.895 million below the NHL’s salary cap and only have 18 players under contract for this upcoming season.
They not only have to fill out the remainder of their roster, but they have two of the most significant restricted free agents in the NHL to deal with. Those players would be defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and forward Anthony Cirelli. Unless they are able to get them signed to wildly team-friendly contracts, each of their new deals individually would be enough to put them over the cap.
They not only have to re-sign both, but also restricted free agent Eric Cernak and probably add another depth forward and defenseman.
If there were ever a team vulnerable to an offer sheet, this should be the team.
Sergachev and Cirelli are fantastic players, and if a team with cap space and the required draft pick capital could agree to a deal with one (or both?) of them it would certainly put the Lightning in a bind when it comes to matching. It would either force them into a trade (maybe a bad one?) elsewhere on the roster, or force them to hand over a talented young player.
But other than Montreal’s failed attempt at signing Sebastian Aho more than a year ago it is just not something that happens in the NHL very often. Getting a player to agree to the offer sheet, and their current team not being able to match (or being unwilling to match) just makes it a difficult path.
Still, even if the Lightning do not have to worry about an offers sheet they still have to create a significant amount of salary cap space.
Somebody has to go
It is tempting to wonder what the Lightning could get for a player like, say, Steven Stamkos, given that they just won the Stanley Cup without him. But let’s be realistic here, that is just not going to happen (nor should it, I don’t think).
The most likely candidates to go remain one of Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, or Ondrej Palat, almost certainly in that preferred order. Maybe Yanni Gourde, but the way he instantly connected with Coleman and Goodrow to form that line in the playoffs should make keeping him a priority.
Each of them carries enough salary that trading even one of them should probably give the Lightning enough space to re-sign everyone without losing a core player elsewhere on the roster.
The Lightning have already made it pretty clear which is their preferred option.
It is Johnson.
One of the first moves the they made this offseason was to place Johnson on waivers, looking to see if anyone would claim him and remove his $5 million salary cap hit from the books.
No one took the bait. No one was willing to bail the Lightning out of their salary cap crunch.
That leaves Tampa Bay in a position now where it may have to retain salary or throw in a sweetener in the form of a draft pick or player to get someone to take that contract off their hands. Johnson is still a good player, but the $5 million cap hit for next three seasons for a 30-year-old forward is just too rich for a cap-strapped team in a flat-cap league. That also limits the potential trade partners.
Trading one of the RFA’s (Sergachev or Cirelli) should not be considered. They are both too good, too young, and too valuable to trade away.
In the end the Lightning are going to lose a good player, but as long as they have the core of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Stamkos, and the rest of their complementary parts that has come through their organizational pipeline they will remain one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders.