Yanni Gourde

Getty Images

NHL Power Rankings: Teams hit hardest by flat $81.5M salary cap

As focused as NHL teams are on the present with the ambitious return to play, the CBA extension introducing a flat salary cap for 2020-21 leaves GMs (and fans) with plenty to think about.

Sure, there are NHL teams who can take advantage of a flat salary cap. That’s a post for another day — maybe a future edition of PHT’s power rankings?

But, overall, there are plenty of NHL contenders and hopefuls who are sweating that flat salary cap far more than there are those ready to circle like vultures. At minimum, the flat NHL salary cap presents huge obstacles for 2020-21. The ripple effects of COVID-19 could affect multiple seasons, especially if the world continues to struggle to contain the coronavirus.

Let’s power rank the five NHL teams hit the hardest by the flat $81.5 million salary cap, then. While the larger future will be considered, these rankings weigh the offseason heading into 2020-21 most heavily.

Frankly, plenty of teams will sweat this situation, so the honorable mentions section is quite robust.

[At least there’s the NHL return-to-play schedule to look forward to.]

Power rankings: 5 NHL teams hit hardest by the flat salary cap

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Even in an ideal, pandemic-free world, the Lightning would need to tighten their belts. This franchise is a lot like the dynasty-era Blackhawks when it comes to perennial cap crunches, only they sadly don’t have the jewelry to show for it. But with the NHL salary cap flat at $81.5M? That belt-tightening morphs into the potential for painful surgeries.

After all, with about $76M already devoted to 15 players (give or take), things would be snug. Then you factor in talented RFAs Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev deserving significant raises, and … yikes. It’s the sort of thing that might make you want to jet ski out of town.

(Cirelli can’t wait tables forever.)

Infomercial voice: But that’s not all.

To make matters worse, Lightning GM Julien BriseBois faces potential hurdles in no-trade/no-movement clauses. Via Cap Friendly, supporting cast members such as Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn all own such clauses. So, it’s not just about who you’d want to move out (as painful as that already would be), but it’s also about who you could convince to leave.

Even by their frequently cap-challenged standards, the Lightning have their work cut out for them.

2. St. Louis Blues

The Lightning and Blues could really be a 1a/1b situation.

Much like Tampa Bay was expecting struggles even with a cap increase, the Blues likely knew that it would be difficult to keep Alex Pietrangelo. With about $79.45M devote to their roster, how could St. Louis afford a Norris-level defenseman like Pietrangelo? Heck, how can they make it work to keep underrated RFA blueliner Vince Dunn?

Also like the Lightning, it might come down to the Blues convincing players to waive clauses, or finding snug fits to places they’d accept.

Maybe the Blues could make it work by moving a combination of Alexander Steen, Jake Allen, and/or a more painful loss like Brayden Schenn or Jaden Schwartz. Or maybe the Blues lose Pietrangelo, still need to make an uncomfortable decision or two, and need to find a way to stay afloat?

Good thing they won at least one Stanley Cup, eh?

3. Arizona Coyotes

It’s OK if you’re doing a double-take at the Coyotes now. Aren’t they supposed to be a team barely making it to the floor? Weren’t they putting Chris Pronger and Pavel Datsyuk on their cap just to get there?

Well, over the years, the Coyotes have quietly been getting more and more expensive. They haven’t always got what they paid for, but this isn’t a wholly cheap team. (Although there’s still a Marian Hossa here or there on LTIR.)

Cap Friendly places Arizona’s cap allocation at almost $80M devoted to 17 players.

And that’s without Taylor Hall. Trading for Hall represented a statement that the Coyotes want to be taken seriously. Making him more than a rental would really cement that, but could Arizona really make that work — assuming Hall would return?

The Coyotes might deal with many of the same trade clause headaches as others (Phil Kessel, Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski, Carl Soderberg), although bribing someone to take on Derek Stepan‘s $6.5M could be key. It may not be easy to find an oasis in this salary cap desert.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are like a family trying to divvy up a pizza pie. You already had some hungry siblings who were going to leave little more than toppings and crust (see: expensive stars Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner). Now concerned parent/GM Kyle Dubas must deal with being delivered a medium pizza instead of the extra large he was expecting before the flat NHL salary cap.

At least in this coming offseason, he doesn’t have too many overly important mouths to feed.

(Yes, that lengthy pizza parallel is my hunger staining this conversation like grease on a pizza box.)

The flat salary cap hurts the Maple Leafs hardest in trying to make more aggressive moves toward improving. Maybe they can stem the tide of losing flawed-but-featured defensemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci. But will they get better in hoping internal options like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren can sink, not swim? That remains to be seen.

But Dubas would also probably be wise to get proactive, because the bill is coming soon for key players. If the Maple Leafs want to keep one or more of Frederik Andersen (contract runs through 2020-21) and Morgan Rielly (through 2021-22), it will probably mean making some painful trades during the offseason.

The long-term outlook for the Maple Leafs is bumpy. They’re placed slightly lower in these specific power rankings because other teams face even more immediate concerns, though.

5. New York Islanders

Unlike others on this list, the Islanders aren’t already almost bumping their heads on that flat NHL salary cap ceiling. That said, their almost cozy-looking space (Cap Friendly puts them at about $73.4M pledged to 19 players) could get claustrophobic quickly.

Most importantly, the Islanders need to reach a deal with pending RFA star Mathew Barzal. Back about 20 years ago (OK, March), Lou Lamoriello said that the Islanders would match an offer sheet for Barzal. That’s comforting for Islanders fans who may still smart from losing John Tavares, but that doesn’t mean Barzal will be cheap. Frankly, his talent and importance to the Islanders probably justify a salary far exceeding their cap space.

Even at a discount, the Islanders won’t have much space to retain another important player in RFA defenseman Ryan Pulock. They’ll probably need to find a way to move some shaky contracts (such as those of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk), which is easier said than done, even for a master of the dark GM arts like Lamoriello.

Some teams below might technically face more immediate, in-your-face challenges. On the other hand, the uncomfortable thought for the Islanders is that they might face big bills with diminishing returns.

Quick thoughts on other teams likely to be hit hardest by flat NHL salary cap

You might believe that others deserve a mention, so feel free to chime in via the comments. A few quick hits before we go:

  • The Boston Bruins might rank as the biggest honorable mention. Even if you disagree, you’d likely admit that some pain may come. If they keep Torey Krug around, then Don Sweeney deserves a raise.
  • Then again, the Bruins aren’t alone in the honorable mentions. Much has been made of the Vancouver Canucks, who may feel enough of a squeeze to explain those Brock Boeser trade rumors, even if someone else ends up being the one standing at the end of flat NHL salary cap musical chairs.
  • The Washington Capitals face a conundrum with Braden Holtby, for sure. They also must try to figure out the future for Alex Ovechkin, whose lengthy contract wasn’t as lifetime as it seemed (it ends after 2020-21).
  • The Chicago Blackhawks are required to have cap issues. That’s simply the rule we must all abide by. In the latest iteration, it’s difficult to tell what might happen with their goaltending situation.
  • Again, this might be fodder for a future post, yet opportunistic rebuilding teams could feast if they’re creative. Why not take some short-term pain in the form of shaky contracts to earn long-term gains in future assets, particularly if you don’t expect your team to be very good anyway? A little further down the line, the flat/barely moving NHL salary cap could be a huge boon to the Seattle expansion team, too.

Who else will feel the crunch? Would you rank honorable mentions in the top five, or bump others out? Do tell.

MORE NHL POWER RANKINGS FROM PHT:

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.

Mikhail Sergachev thinks Lightning will find a way to work out his next contract

Tampa Bay Lightning Mikhail Sergachev contract salary cap
Getty Images

By just about any standard, it sure doesn’t look like it will be easy for the Lightning to sign pending RFA defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a new contract. Sergachev told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen that he believes it will all work out, though.

“It’s a little different obviously right now, but I’m trying to leave it to my agent (Mark Gandler),” Sergachev said on Thursday, via Rosen. “He’s going to deal with it, I guess. But for me, I just want to continue the season, play and get better and see what happens. I feel like they’re going to work out something. I have a good agent.”

Here’s why this is an interesting situation to watch, considering Sergachev’s potential, and also the Lightning’s larger cap challenges.

What is the right contract?

Sergachev, 21, really earned more trust — and playing time — from the Lightning this season.

Sergachev’s ice time climbed from 15:22 per game in 2017-18 to 17:55 in 2018-19, and finally 20:22 on average this season. Despite the pause, Sergachev set career-highs in goals (10) and points (34).

The Lightning see improvements in his all-around play, too, as Victor Hedman noted to The Athletic’s Joe Smith in January (sub required).

“He’s evolved into a great two-way defenseman,” Hedman said. “ … He’s an unbelievable talent offensively, we all know that. But the shot blocks, the hits, the way he plays in his own end, it’s fun to watch.

“I’ve said this many times before, the sky is the limit for this guy. This is just the start.”

During certain stretches, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Lightning were holding Sergachev back a bit.

Such a thought makes you wonder if we haven’t really seen his offensive ceiling yet. On the other hand, theoretically, veteran defenseman Hedman and Ryan McDonagh could also insulate Sergachev defensively.

So what’s a fair contract for Sergachev? Again, it’s tough to tell.

Using Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool while adjusting for an $81.5M cap hit, the anticipated deal might be for eight years with a $6.5M cap hit. While Evolving Hockey’s model puts an eight-year deal at a 32-percent chance, other most likely outcomes sit at six years (25 percent) or a two-year bridge (13%).

Let’s zoom out, though, as the Lightning’s overall situation and history could factor into Sergachev’s individual value.

Can the Lightning pull off salary cap magic again with Sergachev, Cirelli, Cernak?

Time and time again, we’ve seen the Lightning pull off serious wizardry in tight cap situations. All of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman signed for less than market value.

Watching Alex Killorn zoom around Tampa Bay docks on his jet ski provides a reminder of why they took discounts, along with the “playing for a really good team in a state with tax breaks” factors.

Financial blowback from COVID-19 might make this offseason the trickiest one yet for Tampa Bay. After all, they were already anticipating some challenges if the cap went up to, say, $84.5M or so.

When rating all 31 NHL teams’ salary cap situations, The Athletic’s James Mirtle ranked Lightning dead last (sub required).

(You’d think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be compared to a “deep-fried pickle,” but alas.)

Via Cap Friendly, the Lightning already have $76.16M devoted to 15 players for 2020-21. That’s before you factor in new contracts for Sergachev, but also dark horse Selke candidate Anthony Cirelli, and useful defenseman Erik Cernak.

Going back to Evolving Hockey’s projection tool, hypothetical estimates combine the three at $14-$15M. Even Mirtle’s more generous estimate would tack on $11M.

(Frankly, if the Lightning signed Sergachev and Cirelli for $11M, let alone Cernak, they’d be getting great deals.)

But, yeah, we’ve seen players accept less than they might otherwise get with the Lightning. It wouldn’t be shocking to see this happen again, especially if Sergachev is OK betting on himself by taking a shorter “bridge” deal.

Even so, expect painful losses for the Lightning. It’s tough to imagine bargain bin free agent Kevin Shattenkirk squeezing in again, and you’d expect Tampa Bay to lose one or more of Tyler Johnson or Yanni Gourde.

Yes, there are worse problems to have … which is probably why Sergachev will just relax and do cat-centric exercises rather than worrying too much.

More on the Lightning:

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.

What is the Lightning’s long-term outlook?

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Getty Images

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Lightning have been favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the past few seasons due to their cornerstone pieces at every level. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov lead the forward group and are the top two point scorers on the Bolts roster through the first 70 games. Victor Hedman is the most prominent name on a well-balanced blueline and Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy.

In addition to the stellar building blocks, the Lightning also have secondary offensive firepower. Brayden Point is close to becoming a foundational player, if he is not there already. Alex Killorn was closing in on a 30-goal season, Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and others contribute in a meaningful way.

Tampa Bay also hasn’t seen the true impact of trade deadline acquisitions of Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

The Lightning have all the pieces needed to accomplish their goal of winning a championship but remain in limbo until society solves the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-Term Needs

The wish list in Tampa Bay is quite short. The organization has accomplished a lot in recent years but still needs to get over the final hump and win a Stanley Cup. Ultimately, the Lightning’s regular season performance had little impact on the judgment of this team as long as they reached the postseason.

The long-term needs for the franchise are essentially the same as other teams that have a core in place and compete for a championship year in and year out. Find value in the NHL Draft process and continue to produce prospects that can contribute in one way or another to the varsity team. General manager Julien BriseBois also needs to manage the salary cap effectively and not fall into the trap of paying for past performances but rather remain focused on the future.

Long-Term Strengths

The best asset of the organization is their current core group of players. Hedman, Kucherov, Stamkos and Vasilevskiy are all locked up for the next several seasons. Point’s contract does not expire until the end of the 2021-22 season and is close to becoming an integral part of the team, if not already.

If the NHL season does not return, the Lightning will be one of the more fascinating teams to watch this upcoming offseason. Will they blow it up as if they didn’t achieve their goal? Does Jon Cooper remain coach? Or, do they take another shot at a championship next season and reevaluate at that time?

The pause in action created a murky situation for the future of several NHL teams and the Lightning are near the top of that list.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
• Lightning biggest surprises and disappointments so far


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

Tampa Bay Lightning: Biggest surprises, disappointments

Lightning surprises disappointments Shattenkirk Vasilevskiy
Getty Images
1 Comment

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Lightning disappointments were mostly mild ones

If there’s one overwhelming disappointment for the Lightning’s season, it’s that it came to a pause, and may not end. That’s the elephant in the room for any credible contender, really, but the Lightning rank among the teams with the biggest reasons to gripe about the pandemic interruption.

Otherwise, finding deeper Lightning disappointments requires some probing. Allow a few attempts:

  • The Lightning stumbled out of the gate, for sure. At least by their standards.
  • In struggling early, they ceded the Atlantic Division to the Bruins. Home-ice advantage could be significant if the two titans meet in a second-round series.
  • Some seemingly promising players struggled. Let’s begin with Mathieu Joseph.

While Joseph wasn’t spectacular in 2018-19 (13 goals, 26 points), he was a useful contributor, especially considering modest ice time. Those contributions dried up in 2019-20, to the point that he played almost half of his games in the AHL.

  • Yanni Gourde didn’t suffer to the same degree as Joseph. Even so, Gourde only managed 10 games so far in 2019-20 after scoring 25 and 22 during his previous two seasons.
  • Also, it was kind of disappointing that Jon Cooper benched Nikita Kucherov during the season. Personally, I never dig it when a star player seems to get scapegoated.
  • It would be a letdown if the Lightning didn’t get to take advantage of “rentals” in Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, even if they’re extended rentals anyway (since both are under contract through 2020-21).

Lightning enjoyed some pleasant surprises in players exceeding expectations

Count me among those who really liked the Lightning making a low-risk signing with Kevin Shattenkirk. Even so, I didn’t necessarily anticipate Shattenkirk enjoying this strong of a rebound year.

Along with tying Mikhail Sergachev — another bet who’s paying off nicely — with 34 points, Shattenkirk provided all-around value for the Lightning. Consider where Shattenkirk ranks on this team GAR chart at Evolving Hockey:

Lightning surprises disappointments GAR

That above chart provides a quick rundown of other Lightning players who enjoyed better-than-expected seasons. Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat also enjoyed strong seasons, sometimes riding plenty of friendly bounces.

Cirelli, Vasilevskiy end up even better than expected

As mentioned earlier today, Anthony Cirelli makes his way on plenty of analytics-leaning Selke Trophy lists.

His potential candidacy is also starting to earn a bit more attention beyond those niche circles. Ken Campbell featured Cirelli’s Selke credibility for The Hockey News in March, for example.

Cirelli’s teammates notice, too. The Athletic’s Joe Smith reports (sub required) that Tyler Johnson said Cirelli’s nickname is “Selke,” and maybe only half-jokingly. Reigning Selke winner Ryan O'Reilly can see why Cirelli is turning heads, too.

“Oh yeah, you can see it playing against him,” O’Reilly said, via Smith. “Seeing the way he frustrates and skates and does little details. We don’t really see him enough. But I know the times we have played against him, definitely, he’s a very impactful player.”

Let’s roll out that Cirelli backchanging GIF one more time, huh?

Just as importantly, Andrei Vasilevskiy enjoyed another splendid season.

This marks Vasilevskiy’s fourth season of at least a .917 save percentage, which was his mark in 2019-20. But people sometimes chalked up Vasilevskiy’s successes mostly to the team in front of him before.

Lately, though, he’s been standing out nicely in advanced stats, such as various websites “Goals Saved Against Average” formulas.

Being that the Lightning face salary cap crunches in trying to keep their impressive assembly of talent together, Vasilevskiy faces credit in justifying his upcoming $9.5M AAV — even before that salary actually kicks in.

If you ask me, Vasilevskiy certainly made a strong argument for his value in 2019-20. That’s a promising development for the reigning Vezina winner, whether you rank that sparkling work among the Lightning surprises or merely expected it.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
• Lightning’s long-term outlook

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 stay hot but lose Kucherov, Cirelli to injuries

Lightning
Getty

PITTSBURGH — Thanks to a 37-save effort from Andrei Vasilevskiy and a game-winning goal from Yanni Gourde to snap what had been a 35-game goal drought, the Tampa Bay Lightning extended their winning current winning streak to eight games with a 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night.

The Lightning are now 20-3-3 over the past 26 games and are rapidly gaining ground in the Presidents’ Trophy race, now sitting just one point back of the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the league.

The only concerning news for the Lightning on Tuesday is that they lost two more key forwards to injuries as Nikita Kucherov and Anthony Cirelli both exited the game with lower-body injuries and did not return. Coach Jon Cooper had no update on the status of either player after the game, only to say they are being evaluated.

The Lightning were already playing shorthanded on Tuesday with as Steven Stamkos, Ryan McDonagh and Jan Ruuta were already sidelined.

As if that was not enough, the Lightning were also playing the second half of a back-to-back, on the road, against one of the league’s best teams in Pittsburgh and still managed to come away with two points.

Kucherov assisted on Mikhail Sergachev‘s power play goal in the second period before exiting the game.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.