Back-to-back salary cap champion Lightning are envy of NHL

Tampa Bay Lightning
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Long before the Tampa Bay Lightning showed they were the best hockey team by winning the Stanley Cup back to back, they proved to be the class of the NHL in something far more mundane to the average fan: managing the salary cap.

With a little luck along the way, general manager Julien BriseBois made all the right moves to position his team for consecutive championships. Exploiting every loophole and unafraid to give up assets to shed salary and make the money work, he went all in and it paid off.

“The stars kind of aligned for us,” BriseBois said.

So, why don’t more teams follow the Lightning’s lead? Many try, but few have an elite goaltender like Andrei Vasilevskiy and other homegrown players at premium positions. Most GMs also tend to take fewer risks than BriseBois.

“The real advantage that Tampa has over most teams or all teams is Vasilevskiy,” said Jim Rutherford, the only other GM to win the Cup back to back in the cap era with Pittsburgh’s titles in 2016 and 2017. “They’ve got the anchor there. They know what they’re getting every game, and as long as he’s what he is today — which should be for quite a long time — they’re going to be a contender.”

Vasilevskiy and playmaking winger Nikita Kucherov are under contract through 2027, top center Brayden Point through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Victor Hedman through 2025 and captain Steven Stamkos through 2024. They take up more than half of the $81.5 million cap limit and the Lightning lost a handful of players in a salary crunch during the offseason, but their championship window is still open for likely the next three years.

Chicago GM Stan Bowman, who has won the Cup three times, has been through this before and applauded BriseBois for making so many calculated moves.

“When you’re in the moment, though, and you’re him, you do things for short-term reasons and you try to win,” Bowman said. “He’s rightfully so getting a lot of credit because he’s walking the tightrope that I walked for three or four years. … It’s really hard.”

The Blackhawks were the first Cup winner to experience a cap crunch. After they won the Cup in 2010, they traded Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd and let goaltender Antti Niemi leave after an arbitration hearing. They kept their core together by signing Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford long term, and it turned into two more championships.

“At the time, it was sort of like: ‘What is wrong with this guy? We just won the Cup. Why are you getting rid of all these players?’” Bowman said. “Now we know this is sort of a regular occurrence.”

BriseBois had a stroke of luck when Kucherov’s recovery from hip surgery allowed Tampa Bay to put him on long-term injured reserve for the shortened 2021 season. Kucherov, one of the best players in the NHL, returned for postseason opener and was again the Lightning’s leading scorer in the playoffs.

After the Lightning knocked out Carolina in the second round, then-Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton said, “We lost to a team that’s $18 million over the cap.” The league investigated the cap maneuvering and found nothing that violated the rules.

“Julien really did a terrific job, and at the same time it wasn’t just keeping the players he had,” Rutherford said. “He was able to add a piece here or there — whatever he thought he needed. Yeah, he got a break on the (long-term injury exemption) and then of course this year he’s had to part with a few more players. But as good as those players are and as important as they were, Tampa still is one of the favorites to win again this year.”

The NHL hasn’t had a three-peat champion since the New York Islanders in the early 1980s. The cap was instituted in 2005 to create what Commissioner Gary Bettman calls competitive balance. Pandemic-related revenue losses has made it even more difficult for teams to manage salary because there has been no increase from the $81.5 million cap that won’t go up any time soon.

“It used to be, just by the growth of revenue, you would almost ‘out weight’ your mistake,” said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong, who won the Cup in 2019. “Meaning, a mistake if the cap went up $3 million or $4 million a year, within three years, your mistake’s not quite as glaring. Now because of a flat cap and no increase in the foreseeable future, you have to be much more diligent not to think that revenue with outgrow contracts that don’t stand the test of time.”

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s deal with Washington, signed in 2017, counts $7.8 million against the cap each year and it can be argued that it was worth it since he led the Capitals in scoring on their Cup run the following season. But it is also a reason the aging team has shed salary.

“You can do it temporarily, and then you’re losing guys that you don’t want to lose, and you continue to do that,” Washington GM Brian MacLellan said of managing the cap while contending. “The key for me is to replace them with players that are at an appropriate salary that fit into your structure that still produce. You’re keeping older players that are still successful, but you’re trying to insert younger players.”

Tampa Bay has done that with Mathieu Joseph and Ross Colton — who scored the only goal in the clinching game of the Cup Final against Montreal last summer — and will be even younger this season. BriseBois has also hit on Rutherford’s key of adding veterans near the minimum salary: defenseman Zach Bogosian for $850,000 and forwards Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare for $1 million each.

They wanted to play for the Lightning enough to sign bargain deals.

“The wheel kind of spins itself,” BriseBois said. “You’ve got good players, you’re a good team, good players want to sign with you, and it’s just kind of trying to keep the wheel going.”

The wheel won’t spin forever, and the cap reckoning is coming for the Lightning — just as it did for the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings and will soon force the Penguins and Capitals to pivot into retooling mode. But not before hanging a second Cup banner in the rafters and taking a few more shots at adding more — which is all players and fans could ask for.

“We want to win now,” Stamkos said. “And when you have a general manager that’s willing to throw it all in — like, he’s all in — we’d better make this worth it. And it’s one thing to say you’re going to do it. He did it.”

Scroll Down For:

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

    avalanche injuries
    André Ringuette/Getty Images
    0 Comments

    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

    Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

    METROPOLITAN DIVISION

    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

    ATLANTIC

    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

    CENTRAL

    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

    PACIFIC

    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”