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BriseBois faces plenty of questions in replacing Yzerman as Lightning GM

Bombshell news dropped on Tuesday, as word surfaced that Steve Yzerman is transitioning to advisory role with the Tampa Bay Lightning, while Julien BriseBois gets a promotion to GM.

It’s all a lot to take in, and the hockey world is scrambling to find out what happens next with Stevie Y, and why Stevie Y is stepping down in the first place. Could Yzerman be coming back home to the Detroit Red Wings, or perhaps setting the stage to be build a potential Seattle expansion team?

Those questions – along with a simple “Wait, what?” – come to mind immediately following such news.

What about the Lightning’s side of the equation, though?

BriseBois (pictured to the right of Jacques Martin in this post’s main image) has been the subject of GM rumors for some time, so the 41-year-old carries some hype into his promotion. He’s undoubtedly ranked as a big part of the picture in Tampa Bay, including running an outstanding operation for their AHL affiliate the Syracuse Crunch.

Now it’s his chance to justify that hype, and while Yzerman’s done great work in locking up stars Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to team-friendly extensions, BriseBois faces challenges in molding all of that promise into postseason glories.

Consider some of the key decisions BriseBois must make over the next couple of years:

The bill’s coming for Vasi

Andrei Vasilevskiy has two years remaining on a bargain $3.5 million cap hit. Soak that outstanding value in for a moment, as while his Vezina campaign fizzled as his energy waned in 2017-18, he was still a worthy finalist at a remarkably cheap rate.

Those savings won’t last forever, although note that the 24-year-old would once again be slated for RFA status. (Seriously, this team is a well-oiled machine for cap management.)

Can BriseBois leverage that last RFA year into savings, or the sort of term that would benefit Tampa Bay? Of all the decisions ahead, Vasilevskiy’s future is the most pivotal single scenario.

Court Karlsson?

Could he make a big splash by getting Erik Karlsson?

This would be tricky, yet it’s worth exploring, particularly if the Golden Knights relent in their pursuit of the star defenseman after landing Max Pacioretty.

Cap Friendly lists Tampa Bay’s cap space at just $2.646M, so a Karlsson trade might be easier around the trade deadline. And, really, such a move seems tough to imagine if the Senators truly require Bobby Ryan or Marian Gaborik to be a part of any package. Maybe the ship sailed once Tampa Bay committed to Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, along with Kucherov, anyway.

Still, it’s worth asking: would BriseBois pursue Karlsson – or perhaps some other splashy upgrade – with even more vigor than Yzerman did?

Young guns

Moving back to situations with brilliant young players, Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point are entering contract years.

Gourde (26, $1M cap hit in 2018-19) is slated to become a UFA, while Point (22, dirt-cheap rookie deal) would become an RFA. BriseBois must gauge how much additional leverage each forward might gain – or lose – by playing out their deals, and react accordingly. Would it save money to sign them soon, or would it be better to see where the cap comes in for 2019-20?

(For whatever it’s worth, Point mostly developed in the WHL before flourishing with the Lightning, while Gourde began his Crunch days in 2013-14.)

In defense

Whether he makes the unlikely move to land Karlsson or not, there are some decisions looming regarding the Lightning’s defense.

Granted, Stevie Y and BriseBois already did the heaviest lifting, as most NHL teams would practice dark arts to put together a trio like Hedman, McDonagh, and Sergachev, especially considering that the veterans are locked up long-term and Sergachev is still covered for two more seasons.

Still, this is a team with lofty ambitions, so surrounding that trio with other capable defensemen could be the difference between hoisting the Stanley Cup or looking back wistfully at near-misses.

Anton Stralman might be the odd man out among capable defenders, as his $4.5M cap hit expires after this season, and he’s arguably already showing signs of decline at 32. It’s likely a relief that Braydon Coburn (33, $3.7M) and Dan Girardi (34, $3M) will see their deals expire, too, but Tampa Bay could see a lot of experience evaporate in the near future.

A shrewd GM would use those expiring contracts to possibly get out of trouble, or grab some rentals. Getting rid of Ryan Callahan‘s contract would be huge, and it’s plausible that BriseBois would be far more interested in doing so than Yzerman, who seemed to love collecting former Rangers.

Beyond those older defensemen, BriseBois will need to ascertain the value of younger expiring contracts in Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin.

The coach?

Jon Cooper’s a great quote. He’s also enjoyed success just about everywhere he’s gone, hustling through some obscure coaching gigs to make his way to Tampa Bay. You could do a lot worse than sticking with him.

While BriseBois must respect Cooper – he briefly coached the Crunch – it’s possible that Cooper might not be “his guy.” Even if he is, if there’s a belief that Cooper is nearing his expiration date – as many believe just about every coach reaches at some point – then it’s a situation to watch.

The Lightning don’t operate in a pressure cooker of a hockey market, which might explain why they didn’t absorb too much criticism after falling short in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, not to mention missing the postseason altogether in 2016-17. Considering context, it’s totally reasonable for them not to draw much heat.

The heat could really rise if the Lightning don’t meet expectations this time around, particularly if it seems like Cooper commits Typical NHL Coach Sins like not trusting young players enough. You could argue that he should have given Sergachev a longer leash last season, among other situations, so it’s not totally out of the question.

***

If you were to poll NHL executives about “dream” GM jobs, the Lightning would almost certainly land in the top five. In plenty of cases, they’d probably rank first overall.

So, there are a lot of blessings that come with this, although the curse is that critics will be harsh if BriseBois stumbles now that he’s landed the top gig.

Fair or not, many will view him as a failure if this outstanding Lightning core fails to nab the franchise’s second Stanley Cup (and possible more). There are worse situations to be in, but that doesn’t mean this is necessarily an easy job.

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.

Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Steve Yzerman seems to have every piece of the puzzle in place going forward.

A forward contingent that includes superstar names such as Stamkos and Kucherov, a rearguard that features a Norris winner in Victor Hedman and up-and-coming talent in Mikhail Sergachev, and a Vezina-calibre goaltender that would have stormed away with the award if not for a late-season hiccup due to fatigue.

The supporting cast around this core is almost unmatched, too. Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and J.T. Miller are all solid pieces. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson (assuming he has a bounce-back season) are strong complements.

Ryan McDonagh is exactly what the Lightning needed on defense, and they locked him up long term after trading for him at the deadline.

Tampa’s farm system is filled with players both talented and allowed to mature in the minors.

The general manager of the Lightning has built one of the best teams in the NHL today and has seemingly figured out how to keep that going in the future, with his core locked up long term.

Building a great team is one thing. Keeping it great for an extended period of time is another. If the Lightning want to replicate the success of the Chicago Blackhawks, let’s say, it’s not the big name deals that turn into three Stanley Cups in six years, but the smaller ones that fill in the cracks.

Tampa has all sorts of money tied up in big name players. They sit just over $2.6 million below this year’s salary cap of $79.5 million.

They’re fine this season. It’s next year where things start to get interesting.

[2017-18 review | Breakthrough: Brayden Point | Three questions]

The team can shed roughly $10 million in Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi if they so choose. All three are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.

Nearly half of that money will go to Kucherov, whose annual average value is essentially doubling at the start of 2018-19 after signing a big-money extension earlier this summer.

Then Yzerman needs to find a way to re-sign Brayden Point, the team’s No. 2 center who, if he continues to improve, could become a point-per-game player this season. That kind of production commands big money, although a bridge deal could help lessen the blow for a couple years.

Yzerman will also have to sort out what to do with Yanni Gourde, a late-blooming rookie last season that put himself into the Calder conversation with 25 goals and 64 points. He’s getting paid a paltry $1 million for his services this season and will be in need of a nice raise come next summer as well, if not sooner given his UFA status next July.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, if he continues in the same vein as he is now, will need elite goaltender money in two years. Mikhail Sergachev, who is shaping up to be a franchise defenseman, will also need a significant pay raise in the same offseason that Vasilevkiy does. And there will be more, assuming a litany of talented prospects pan out as well.

“These guys are good players, really good players, and when you look around the League, they’re going to get paid a certain amount,” Yzerman said after the Kucherov extension. “We want to keep as many of our good players as we can. We’d like to keep everybody. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. But we’re trying to be as competitive as possible while trying to manage the salary cap.”

This is all heading toward some tough decisions for Yzerman. Can they afford Gourde after this year? Does a big name player with a big name contract need to be shipped at some point? Do they lose three depth defenseman with plenty of experience?

The cap is likely to increase, but so is the market value of the players Tampa must sign.

Yzerman’s biggest task now is managing the empire he’s created while he tries to win a Stanley Cup, if not two or three.

Their best window is now.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Not ‘impossible’ for Lightning to add big piece after Kucherov extension

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Now that Nikita Kucherov is locked up, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman wasn’t ready to rule out adding another big contract if the price is right.

“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Yzerman said on a Wednesday conference call. “But if you just look at our one-way commitments for the following season, we still have cap space left for this year to add if we wanted. But if we were to bring in a significant contract we would have to make the money work so to speak, and going forward it would be the same situation beyond this year.”

Of course, a significant addition could be that of Erik Karlsson and a potential extension that comes along with a trade that’s been rumored for weeks. Things appeared to heat up last week but has now seemingly cooled for the moment. But according to Yzerman, don’t believe what you read or hear.

“Despite what you’ve read or may have reported, it’s inaccurate,” he said.

[Kucherov’s $76 million extension with Lightning is a bargain]

Even without a Karlsson addition plus a max extension, the Lightning’s salary cap picture going forward is an interesting one. Yzerman has proven already he knows how to navigate tricky waters, and he’ll have to continue to do so next summer.

As per Cap Friendly, the summer of 2019 could see bigger names like Yanni Gourde, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi able to hit the unrestricted free agent market. Brayden Point, meanwhile, is schedule to become a restricted free agent on July 1 of next year. Add in that both Mikhail Sergachev and Andrei Vasilevskiy will be eligible for extensions in a year’s time and you can see just how much maneuvering Yzerman will need to do in order to keep his key pieces in town.

“These guys are good players, really good players, and when you look around the League, they’re going to get paid a certain amount,” Yzerman said. “We want to keep as many of our good players as we can. We’d like to keep everybody. Unfortunately you can’t do that. But we’re trying to be as competitive as possible while trying to manage the salary cap.”

The Lightning currently have nearly $66 million tied up in 12 players for the 2019-20 NHL season. Should a Karlsson deal and extension get done, that number will change depending on the contracts heading out of Tampa. Yzerman will also likely be helped by another increase in the cap ceiling, which has steadily risen since the 2013 lockout.

“I guess we’re comfortable [in regards to the salary cap] for the time being with this season,” he said. “We’re comfortable where we are going forward. But at some point we’re going to have to make decisions that are strictly cap-related.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Lightning hand Ryan McDonagh giant extension

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The Tampa Bay Lightning announced a huge signing on free agent day, but it didn’t involve John Tavares.

Instead, to some surprise, the Lightning signed defenseman Ryan McDonagh to a seven-year, $47.25 million extension (which means it will be a $6.75M cap hit). The extension will kick in starting in 2019-20, as McDonagh still has a season remaining on his current deal, which only registers a $4.7M cap hit.

Here are a few additional reported details:

McDonagh turned 29 on June 13, so he’ll be 30 by the time his new contract kicks in. From that standpoint, the Lightning are taking an interesting risk. It also sheds some light on some moves that they might not make.

In the long run, GM Steve Yzerman is committing to a future that involves Victor Hedman (27, signed through 2024-25 at a $7.875M cap hit) and McDonagh on defense, with Mikhail Sergachev carrying two more years on his entry-level contract. Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, and Dan Girardi all enter contract years in 2018-19, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Lightning move on from all three (or only keep one) of those veteran blueliners.

It’s also worth noting that Yzerman has wasted little time in locking down the big pieces of the McDonagh trade from the New York Rangers. Mere days ago, the Lightning handed J.T. Miller a five-year, $26.25M contract that was also more than a bit surprising.

Time will tell if the Lightning made the right calls in locking up those former Rangers for such term, as Stevie Y & Co. still have some questions to answer. Nikita Kucherov is set for a massive raise after this season, while Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde could also become RFAs next summer. A bigger payday isn’t far away for Vezina finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy, either, as his $3.5M cap hit only runs through 2019-20.

While it sure seems like a cap crunch is coming, there’s no denying that the Lightning look like a juggernaut heading into 2018-19, even if the remainder of their moves end up being marginal. Keeping a high-end defenseman such as McDonagh in the fold highlights that point.

Do the Lightning have even more surprises waiting for the hockey world? We’ll find out soon enough.

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.

Amid Tavares push, Lightning give J.T. Miller big contract

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One J.T. down, one to go?

The Tampa Bay Lightning raised some eyebrows on Tuesday by signing J.T. Miller to a five-year, $26.25 million contract, which means he’ll carry a $5.25M cap hit from 2018-19 to 2022-23. This lofty deal surfaces despite the already-cap-challenged Lightning reportedly being a part of the bidding war for John Tavares‘ services, which makes this substantial investment doubly surprising.

That’s not to take anything away from Miller, 25, who’s coming off three consecutive seasons of at least 22 goals. He generated a career-high by a small margin with 23 this past season, also accruing 58 points. He fit in very nicely in Tampa Bay, essentially filling trade partner Vladislav Namestnikov‘s spot alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

(This deal is the latest reminder that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman sure loves ex-Rangers. See: Ryan McDonagh being in that trade, not to mention commitments to Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan, and Anton Stralman over the years.)

This only strengthens the impression that Yzerman will need to pull some strings – maybe trade Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Braydon Coburn, etc.? – to make Tavares fit into the salary structure, even for a season.

The five-year term stands as one of the most interesting things to consider, as the Lightning face some steep potential raises in the near future. Consider these situations:

  • Nikita Kucherov’s almost-scandalous bargain of $4.767M expires after 2018-19. Yzerman deserves credit for squeezing Kucherov’s RFA status for all it was worth there, but even as an RFA again, Kucherov’s going to get paid … one way or another.
  • Andrei Vasilevskiy is due for a big raise from his $3.5M cap hit. On the bright side, Tampa Bay has him on the hook for two more seasons.
  • Two exceptional young players will be eligible to become RFAs during the 2019 summer: Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde.

All things considered, it sure seems like the Lightning are primed for an all-in season in 2018-19, and then they’ll need to pivot. Some of that cap crunch is likely to strike much sooner, and there’d be some serious gymnastics required if Tavares becomes a genuine possibility.

If anyone can do it, it’s Yzerman and the Bolts.

Will we look back at this contract as one Stevie Y will regret, or this yet another ahead-of-their-time bargain? It should be fascinating to find out.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, “J.T.” stands for “Jonathan Tanner.” At least when it doesn’t stand for John Tavares.

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.