Salary cap threatens Lightning depth, but Stanley Cup core should remain

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Before the Lightning completed their Stanley Cup repeat, we already heard about how next season’s team will be different. Jon Cooper described it as a “last day of school” feeling.

Between the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, an unforgiving (though not invincible) flat NHL salary cap, and important supporting cast members ready to hit free agency, the Lightning figure to look different when they try to strike thrice.

Simply put, we don’t know how different. (Especially since we’ve seen this movie before, and the Lightning wiggle out of salary cap traps like hockey Houdinis.)

But, even if the cuts end up hurting, it feels safe to pencil the Lightning in as a Stanley Cup contender in 2021-22. Just ask the Vegas oddsmakers.

There will be losses

If there’s an essential takeaway, it’s this.

Yes, the Lightning could take some serious hits from a depth perspective. At times, though, it might be wise to look at depth as a “luxury.” When it comes to the essentials of building a Stanley Cup contender, it still looks like the Lightning should check most of the boxes of that “blueprint.”

[More on who the Lightning could lose]

In the likely event that Blake Coleman signs somewhere else in free agency, that will sting. And, if I were running the Lightning, I’d sweat bullets hoping that Yanni Gourde doesn’t get snatched up in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

Consider how important Gourde, Coleman, Alex Killorn, and others were during the regular season by glancing at the Lightning’s leaders in expected goals above replacement (via Evolving Hockey):

Salary cap threatens Lightning depth, but Stanley Cup core should remain xGAR chart
Yes, Kucherov is not on this chart because he missed the regular season. You may have heard about that. (Chart via Evolving Hockey)

That could be painful, especially if things finally stop going the Lightning’s way. Yet, again, it must be said. If you rattled off the most important elements of a Stanley Cup contender, the Lightning would fit the bill.

They have that No. 1 center, and could remain strong down the middle overall

Maybe Brayden Point isn’t your prototypical top center because of his diminutive size. But he’s playoff proven, just 25, and forms a truly dynamic duo with Nikita Kucherov. And he’s not the only center of note.

The 2020-21 season wasn’t always kind to Anthony Cirelli after he previously broke through as a dark horse Selke candidate. But at 23, he’s the sort of center other teams would clamor for. (Though none were smart and/or brave enough to ink him to an offer sheet.)

Ideally, the Lightning could keep massively underrated Yanni Gourde, but it’s a strong group either way.

Their key pieces are in their primes

Truly, it’s difficult to believe that Nikita Kucherov topped all playoff scorers two years in a row, made everyone mad with an epic shirtless press conference, generated one of the best salary-cap era seasons with 128 points on his way to a Hart Trophy, already has 127 career playoff points, and yet is just 28 years old.

(Catches breath for a moment after listing Kucherov’s accomplishments.)

For all Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s accomplished, you’d think he would be older, too. Instead, he’s merely 26. Victor Hedman (30) and Steven Stamkos (31) are really the only main forces over 30.

Naturally, the wear-and-tear of two consecutive playoff runs (and other deep pushes) will carry costs. Still, the Lightning’s most important players feel like they have wider windows than that of, say, the Penguins, Capitals, or Bruins.

Elite defense, all-world goalie

There’s room to debate if Victor Hedman was Norris finalist material in 2020-21, but generally speaking, he still ranks among the elite. He’d be on the short list of defensemen you’d build a blueline around.

And behind Hedman, the Lightning boast almost certainly the best goalie in the world in Vasilevskiy. So, to summarize the bare Stanley Cup necessities, the Lightning boast:

  • A No.1 center, and the sort of No. 2 who can shut opponents down.
  • A top defenseman.
  • Gamebreaking scoring in Kucherov to go along with Point.
  • An all-world goalie.
  • Most of those players being in their prime.

Like with forwards, defensive depth could take a hit, but the Lightning also go deeper than almost any other team there. Hedman may eventually pass the torch to Mikhail Sergachev. While the expansion draft and/or salary cap might complicate matters, there’s also Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, and Cal Foote.

Salary cap threatens Lightning depth, but Stanley Cup core should remain 2020
(Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bright people running the ship

Oh yeah, they also have Jon Cooper, the longest-tenured coach in the NHL. Frankly, GM Julien BriseBois probably deserves more credit than he gets, even acknowledging Steve Yzerman’s crucial work before him.

That’s where we get that “seen this movie before” feeling.

Would it be that shocking if the Lightning traded their way out of salary cap trouble? If they need to bribe the Seattle Kraken for expansion draft reasons, maybe the Lightning can minimize the damage. (Shudders to think about the outrage if, say, Alex Killorn’s broken fibula warrants a trip to LTIR.)

Even if NHL teams finally back the Lightning into a salary cap corner, they could just reload from within. Seriously: would you drop your jaw if the Lightning found more gems in, say, Ross Colton and/or Alex Barre-Boulet? Or maybe someone we haven’t even heard of yet?

At some point, these developments become less about good fortune and more about the Lightning simply knowing what they’re doing. The Lightning didn’t get here by mere luck and salary cap shenanigans.

Now, that doesn’t mean this will be “easy”

Granted, with less depth, the Lightning may no longer be quite the same matchup machine. Don’t forget that the Lightning began the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the road. If the Atlantic Division ends up as tough as it looks, it may be a challenging regular season.

(They also might be playing with fire by leaning on Vasilevskiy so much, who strained when he first became a top goalie. Could they somehow make all of this work and make time to find a reliable backup?)

You can boil this down to “wants vs. needs,” though. Potential losses might leave Tampa Bay less versatile going forward. They might not be able to get away with playing the entire regular season without Kucherov.

Ultimately, though, the Lightning still figure to have the most important pieces in place to contend for a Stanley Cup once again.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.