Getty Images

Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman

4 Comments

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

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

Getty Images
24 Comments

While we wait to see how the Erik Karlsson situation is figured out, Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning are going about their business. On Tuesday, it was announced that they’ve re-signed forward Nikita Kucherov to an eight-year, $76 million extension.

“I’m truly grateful to sign this contract extension to keep me in Tampa for the next eight seasons today,” Kucherov said in a statement. “I’d like to thank the Lightning organization and all of the fans for the support since making the Bay Area my home.”

Kucherov has one year left on his current deal, which will pay him $5.55 million this coming season. According to Joe Smith of The Athletic, the extension has a full no-trade claude in the first four years.

The max deal for Kucherov means he’s one of five Lightning players — with Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh — signed through the 2023-24 NHL season. The contract, which kicks in at the start of the 2019-20 season, will put him tied — for the moment — for the sixth-highest cap hit ($9.5 million average annual value) in the league, and yet it still seems like a bargain (not to mention Florida’s state tax situation).

Via the AP’s Stephen Whyno, here’s how the contract breaks down:

19-20: $1M salary/$11M bonus: $12M
20-21: $4M salary/$5M bonus: $9M
21-22: $3.5M salary/$8.5M bonus: $12M
22-23: $4M salary/$5M bonus: $9M
23-24: $5M salary/$5M bonus: $10M
24-25: $5M salary/$4M bonus: $9M
25-26: $5M salary/$3M bonus: $8M
26-27: $4M salary/$3M bonus: $7M

Over the last two seasons only Connor McDavid has more points (208) than Kucherov (185), and only Alex Ovechkin (82) and Patrik Laine (80) have more goals than the 25-year-old Russian (79) since the 2016-17 season.

With the ceiling continuing to rise, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Kucherov land an extension carrying a double-digit AAV. Yzerman has done a masterful job in Tampa navigating the tricky cap waters tying up his core pieces, while making some additions and still keeping the Lightning not only a playoff team but a Stanley Cup contender.

Here’s where the fun starts: Currently, the Lightning have a little over $65 million tied up in 12 players for the ’19-20 season, per Cap Friendly. Some major salary will have to go out if they’re to land Karlsson and sign him to a max extension. But given his history, it’d be hard to doubt Yzerman’s ability to make it work. The championship window remains open for the Lightning and won’t be closing any time soon.

————

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.

How Bolts could fit Erik Karlsson under cap

Getty
14 Comments

Over the last few hours, it’s been reported that the Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the favorites to land franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators. For that to happen, Bolts GM Steve Yzerman would have to get creative because he has to find a way to create cap space.

As of right now, the Lightning only have $3.446 million in cap space. Even if we forget about Karlsson’s extension, which would start next year, they still have to find some money to make it work. If anyone can pull this off, it’s Yzerman. He’s managed to pull rabbits out of his hat before (see this year’s trade deadline).

So, how can Yzerman make this work? There’s a few different ways. Let’s take a look.

• Find a taker for Ryan Callahan

Trading Callahan is going to be easier said than done. The 33-year-old is currently the second-highest paid forward on the team at $5.8 million per year for the next two seasons. Callahan put up five goals and 18 points in 67 games last season and he also has a long injury history. To make matters worse, he underwent shoulder surgery in late May. He’s expected to be sidelined for five months.

Still, there are teams that won’t be competitive that could take on the final two years of this contract if the Lightning make it worth their while. The Montreal Canadiens were willing to take on Steve Mason‘s contract from Winnipeg (they eventually bought him out). The Habs still have cap space. Could they be part of a deal?

The one thing the Lightning can’t do is retain salary. They’ll need money next year to pay Karlsson and Nikita Kucherov and they already have Matthew Carle’s dead money ($1.83 million) on the cap.

• Unload Dan Girardi and Brayden Coburn

These two veteran defenseman combine to make $6.7 million (Coburn earns $3.7 million, Girardi earns $3 million). It’s not like the Lightning don’t have youngsters that can step into that role right away, either. Both Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin were regularly scratched at the end of last season because there was no room for them.

Yes, losing Girardi and Coburn would hurt you in the leadership department, but it’s a small sacrifice to make if they’re going to add Karlsson to their current group of defensemen.

Even if they’re forced to give up Mikhail Sergachev to the Senators, they’d still have a top four of Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman. That’s as good of a top four as there is in the NHL right now.

• Get Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat or Alex Killorn to waive their NTC

This all depends on what their going to give up to get Karlsson. If they have to unload a center like Brayden Point, then they’ll want to keep Johnson because he’s a natural center. If Yzerman finds a way to keep point, Johnson could become expendable.

Of course, if they wanted to trade Johnson, it would have been easier to do so before July 1st when his no-trade clause kicked in. But maybe they didn’t realize how motivated Ottawa was to trade Karlsson in the summer.

Johnson has six years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $5 million per season, while Palat has four years left on his deal at $5.3 million. Again, either player would have to accept to be moved, which might complicate matters. Maybe either one of these players could be headed to Ottawa in the trade. They’re still both just 27 years old, so the Sens could have an interest in them.

Moving Killorn’s deal may be a little more difficult. He has five years left at $4.45 million.

• Make Senators retain salary

As if this would ever happen.

Karlsson is set to earn $6.5 million this year. Convincing the Sens to eat some of that contract would help the Lightning fit him under the cap this season, but again, it’s unlikely that the Senators will be interesting in going down that route for obvious reasons.

MORE: 

No prospect should hold up an Erik Karlsson deal

Five logical landing spots for Erik Karlsson

What would Erik Karlsson mean for Stars?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Lightning’s best chance for Stanley Cup is now, with or without Tavares

Getty
8 Comments

Remember when the Washington Capitals viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as their “two-year window” to win a Stanley Cup, and then they ended up hoisting it one year after that window seemingly closed?

A similar situation may be brewing for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Now, it’s important to first clarify that Capitals GM Brian McLellan wasn’t saying that the Capitals would either win by 2016-17 or fall flat. Instead, he viewed those two years as Washington’s best opportunities. Considering the regular season splendors versus this past season’s moderate dip (before the unprecedented highs), it was easy to understand that logic.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman hasn’t made a similar statement, but looking at their salary structure on Cap Friendly, it would be reasonable if he has thoughts along the same lines.

It’s a big reason why the Lightning rank as arguably the most logical destinations if Erik Karlsson and/or John Tavares decide to make a one-season stop somewhere, rather than signing on longer term at a destination. And it’s a situation that has to at least be in the back of Yzerman’s mind as free agency opens up on Sunday.

Consider some of the contracts that will expire after 2018-19, or soon after:

Yzerman authored one of the truly great summers of wizardry in 2016, avoiding losing Steven Stamkos yet landing him for a team-friendly $8.5 million cap hit, signing Victor Hedman to a bargain extension, and hammering RFA leverage with Kucherov. Landing three years of the elite winger’s services for $4.767M per season through 2018-19 was a gob-smacking steal then, and it only looks more incredible after campaigns of 85 and 100 points.

Another example of Stevie Y’s deftness comes in the fact that Kucherov will still be eligible for RFA – not UFA – status after next season, but you’d have to think that Kucherov would strike an enormously tougher bargain for his next deal.

Maybe management can try to point to Stamkos’ $8.5M as a “ceiling” for deals, or at least argue that Kucherov shouldn’t make much more than that. Such arguments may fall on deaf ears for a winger who was massively, almost insultingly underpaid for years, though.

One cannot help but wonder if the Lightning are watching Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation nervously when it comes to their own Vezina-caliber goalie.

The comparison isn’t one-to-one (Bob could be a UFA without an extension, while Vasilevskiy would be an RFA), yet the Lightning must hope that few other goalies make anywhere near Carey Price‘s $10.5M cap hit once they’re able to negotiate with Vasilevskiy.

He’ll command a hefty raise. Much like with Kucherov, the Lightning just have to hope it’s not to a devastating level.

Do you think there’s a small part of Yzerman that’s glad that certain Lightning players fell short at the 2018 NHL Awards?

During a less robust season for rookies, Gourde would have been a Calder Trophy finalist, if not the winner. He scored 25 goals and 64 points in 2017-18. For context, consider that Auston Matthews only generated five more during his 2017 Calder season, and Gourde’s 64 slightly edges some other strong winning seasons including Nathan MacKinnon in 2013-14 and Jeff Skinner in 2010-11 (both scored 63 points).

Point, meanwhile, followed up a nice rookie season (18 goals and 40 points in 68 games) in 2016-17 by scoring 32 goals and 66 points in 2017-18.

If the Lightning couldn’t hammer out some proactive extensions – plausible if the players want to maximize value, or if Tampa Bay wants more cap ceiling clarity – there’d be few moments in recent history where other GMs would be more justified to break up the country club mentality and send some challenging offer sheets to the likes of Point, Gourde, and maybe even Kucherov.

***

Naturally, it’s foolish to question Yzerman considering his history as a Salary Cap Houdini.

When asked about the Lightning seeking Tavares and how they’d make the cap crunch work, he likely shed some light on how this team expects to maneuver in the probable scenario where they don’t land the big fish.

“Well, we would have to make room,” Yzerman said simply enough early this week, via The Athletic’s Joe Smith. “If we brought in a significant salary, we would have to (make cap room).”

Again, Yzerman’s been able to move cap space and bad contracts before, and he’s likely to pull such slights of hand off again.

Even then, the Lightning will almost certainly need to lose some of the supporting cast members that play a part in making Tampa Bay not just dangerous, but also deep. As we saw with the Capitals, the best days might come when things are leaner, as long as they keep their core intact.

(And maybe they’ll just find more Points, Gourdes, and Tyler Johnsons and continue laughing at the rest of the league. That could happen too.)


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

Getty
11 Comments

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.