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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.”

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

Which teams benefit most from potential buyouts?

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Today is the day that the NHL’s buyout window officially opens. Teams that are looking to rid themselves of certain contracts to open up cap space can do so by buying players out from June 15-30.

With the salary cap projected to increase from $75 million to anywhere between $78-82 million, we may see teams be less willing to bite the bullet because of the additional space. But that doesn’t mean certain organizations won’t go this route to give them a little more breathing room heading into the summer.

PHT’s Adam Gretz took a look at some of the buyout candidates for 2018, so feel free to check out his list by clicking here.

Now, we’ll look at which teams stand to benefit most from buying out a player or two.

• Minnesota Wild

The Wild already have over $67.5 million committed to the salary cap for 2018-19 and they still have to ink restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba to a new contracts. If they hope to make an impact signing or two in free agency, they’ll have to find a way to open up some cap space.

This is where Tyler Ennis comes into focus. Ennis is coming off a season eight goals and 22 points in 73 games. The 28-year-old has a long injury history and he comes with a cap hit of $4.6 million next season. According to Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, buying out Ennis would cost the $2.167 million on the cap next season and $1.216 million two seasons from now. That works out to a cap savings of $2.433 million in 2018-19. Every penny counts for Minnesota.

• Pittsburgh Penguins

There’s an excellent chance the Penguins will look to tinker with their lineup after being eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs. To do that, they might need to find some additional cap space via trade or by buying out a player or two.

The most common player linked to a buyout on the Pens roster is Matt Hunwick. The 33-year-old is set to earn $2.25 million per year over the next two seasons. For a guy that was a healthy scratch for the most part in the second half of the season and in the playoffs, that’s too much money.

If GM Jim Rutherford decides he’s seen enough from Hunwick, he could save almost $1.8 million in salary next season by buying him out. The problem, is that the veteran blueliner would be eating into the Penguins’ salary cap for the next four years. His buyout cap hit would go from $458,3000 to $1.208 million to $708,333 over the final two years.

An outside-the-box buyout candidate might be Carl Hagelin, who comes with a $4 million cap hit in the final year of his contract, but that’s a long shot. The Pens could probably find a taker for him via trade, which would eliminate their need to buy him out. A hypothetical buyout would save them over $1.5 million next season. Again, it’s extremely unlikely, but it’s interesting to look at because he’s in the final year of his contract.

• Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning have already spent almost $67.8 million for next season. That doesn’t include the money they’ll have to pay RFA J.T. Miller.

Bolts GM Steve Yzerman isn’t shy about buying players out, as he already did so with defenseman Matthew Carle back in 2016 (Carle’s contract counts for $1.83 million for two more years).

In order to make room for youngsters like Slater Koekkoek or Jake Dotchin, the Lightning could opt to buy out Braydon Coburn, who has one year remaining on his contract at $3.7 million. The 33-year-old wasn’t terrible last season, but paying $3.7 million for a guy that averaged 16 minutes of ice time per game is a lot. Buying him out would cost Yzerman $1.233 million over the next two years. That’s a cap savings of $2.466 million next season, but it’ll also cost them $1.233 million in 2019-20.

The Lightning may also be tempted to buy out forward Ryan Callahan, who has had his share of significant injuries over the last few years. The 33-year-old has two years left on his current deal that comes with a cap hit of $5.8 million (he’s the second-highest paid forward on the team behind Steven Stamkos).

Buying out Callahan would save Yzerman $3.13 million over the next two seasons. It would also cost him $1.567 million three and four years from now. That’s a steep penalty to pay down the road, but it’s something to look at for a team that’s in win-now mode.

The issue with Tampa is simple. Saving money in 2018-19 is great and all, but paying buyout money in two years from now could become a problem because Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and Yanni Gourde will all need to be paid again before next summer.

• San Jose Sharks

The Sharks already took care of some major business when they locked up Evander Kane to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension this offseason. Now, they have $67.49 million invested in their current group of players and they still have to re-sign RFA Tomas Hertl and potentially UFA Joe Thornton.

Assuming those are the two moves they’re going to make, the Sharks will have enough cap space to make that work. Here’s the thing, they’ve also been linked as a potential landing spot for John Tavares.

If they want to take a serious run at JT, they’ll need all the flexibility they can get. That means that they could let Thornton walk, but it also means that they can stand to buy out the final year of Paul Martin‘s contract.

Martin, who has one year remaining on his current deal, is set to count for $4.85 million on the cap. Buying him out would save GM Doug Wilson $2.833 million in 2018-19.

The 37-year-old spent time in the minors and he was made a healthy scratch often enough. It would be surprising to see a team take on his salary via trade. This might be the Sharks’ only option if they want to open up money for a big splash in the free-agent market.

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.