This article is part of our Cap Compliance series.
While the current season remains on hiatus, there is no time like the present to start looking ahead to next year. Over the next several weeks, we'll take a look at the cap situation for all 31 NHL clubs, including restricted free agents, unrestricted free agents and even potential buyouts. Then, we'll play a little armchair General Manager by providing our recommendations for how we would approach the upcoming 2020-21 campaign if we were running the club.
In our most recent Twitter poll, the Tampa Bay Lightning finished third and will be the last team featured this week.
2020-21 Cap Situation
The Lightning currently have 10 forwards, three defensemen and two goaltenders under contract for next season at a price tag of $76,166,666. Assuming a flat cap of $81.5 million, this leaves the club with $5,333,334 in cap space and eight spots under the 23-man roster to fill.
Restricted Free Agents
Mitchell Stephens ($833,333) Anthony Cirelli ($728,333) Carter Verhaeghe ($700,000) Mikhail Sergachev ($894,166) Erik Cernak ($697,500)
AJ Scholz: Starting with Cirelli, the 22-year-old has steadily increased his point total in each of his three NHL seasons and has started to take on a power-play role as well. At times, he finds himself anchoring the top line alongside world-class stars in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Looking for comparables, Cirelli finds himself on a similar production level as Jean-Gabriel Pageau when he signed his three-year, $9.3 million deal back in July of 2017. I think the club is going to be hard pressed to convince Cirelli to take anything less than a $3 million AAV deal, which pretty much eats up their cap space right off the top. That likely means that Stephens, Verhaeghe and Cernak shouldn't expect anything more than their qualifying offers, which could cause some heartburn for Cernak especially after he played 67 games this season in which he averaged 18:57 of ice time. Finally, we come to Sergachev, who has turned into an offensive powerhouse for the club and will be the bane of Habs fans for years to come. If the club does some roster shuffling, more on that below, they might be able to offer him a one-year deal around $2 million AAV and promise to pay him down the road. If the blueliner is willing to do it, this might be a prime time for an offer sheet to come in. Even offering him closer to $4 million AAV, which he is certainly worth, the other team in question would only be forking over a second-round pick. Not too many clubs would balk at the idea of getting a player of Sergachev's caliber for a mere second-rounder. I don't envy general manager Julien BriseBois this offseason, though if the team can lift Lord Stanley's cup this summer, then who really cares.
Kyle Riley: Stephens was decent in a rotational bottom-six role for Tampa Bay this season, picking up six points while posting a minus-9 rating in 38 games, but that's the only NHL experience he's had to date, so he shouldn't be expecting much in terms of a raise. I think a two-year, $2 million deal should get it done. Cirelli, on the other hand, has become a mainstay in the Lightning's lineup over the past two seasons, racking up 35 goals and 83 points while posting an impressive plus-53 rating in 150 contests. He can play up and down in the lineup, he's developed into one of Tampa Bay's best two-way forwards, and he's also been one of the team's best penalty killers over the past two years, so he's due for a sizable payday. Still, due to the club's cap crunch, I don't think a long-term deal is in the cards for the 22-year-old pivot. I think I'd try to sign him to a one-year, $4 million deal and give him the long-term contract he deserves next season when the likes of Cedric Paquette, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow will be coming off the books. Like Stephens, Verhaege is a fringe NHLer with just one year of experience with the big club (albeit 52 games). I think he's worth his QO, but he's also arbitration eligible, so the Bolts might be better off simply trying to trade his rights/letting him walk this offseason. Sergachev has developed into one of the better young defenseman in the NHL during his first three years in the league, but again, I don't think Tampa Bay can afford to hand him a massive, long-term deal at this point. Zach Werenski, who's a better player at this stage, signed a three-year, $15 million deal with Columbus last summer, so I think Sergachev will be happy with a three-year, $12 million contract. Cernak has grown into a dependable shut-down defenseman over the past two years, but he's never gonna put up many points, so he shouldn't be too expensive. A two-year, $4 million contract should get it done.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Patrick Maroon ($900,000) Kevin Shattenkirk ($1.75 million) Zach Bogosian ($1.3 million) Luke Schenn ($700,000) Jan Rutta ($1.3 million) Mike Condon ($1.325 million)
AJ Scholz: The easiest way to cover this section would simply to say, they can't afford anybody on this list so let's move on. While that's certainly true, lets just take a look at their options for arguments sake. Condon would be gone even if this club has money to throw around, so we can start there. Bogosian was a stand-in acquired for cheap when the blue line was banged up, so he was always going to be a rental. Shattenkirk has revived his career in Tampa Bay but is unlikely going to want to continue playing for a discount, which he is considering he was earning $6.65 million AAV when he was with the Rangers. Even if you consider that an overpayment (and I do), he's back to a form in which he'd be worth the $4.25 million the Blues paid him from 2013-2017. Schenn is a solid sixth or seventh defenseman that you'd like to keep around in case your youngsters struggle or fail to develop. I could see him back for around $850,000 with up and comer Cal Foote snagging the other spot and those two rotating in the lineup. Unfortunately, Rutta would basically be the same player as Schenn and is going to cost more. Maroon is the biggest question mark. as he finally got his Stanley Cup last season, so would he be willing to stick around for another year at the same $900,000 AAV. If he wants more money, the club has enough prospects needing opportunities to let him test the waters elsewhere.
Kyle Riley: Just with the deals I outlined above, the Lightning would already be $5.5 million over the cap heading into 2020-21, so simply put, they won't be able to afford to re-sign any of their impending UFAs.
Minor-League Free Agents *Who appeared in an NHL game in 2019-20
Alexander Volkov ($864,167) Mathieu Joseph ($728,333) Gemel Smith ($700,000) Cory Conacher ($700,000) Cameron Gaunce ($700,000)
AJ Scholz: The three RFAs here, Volkov, Joseph and Smith, will be handed their qualifying offer but should be given the opportunity to secure spots on the 23-man roster during training camp, with Joseph offering the most long-term upside for the organization in my opinion. From there, Conacher and Gaunce are both 30-year-old veterans that the club would certainly like to have around with AHL Syracuse. Unfortunately for them, the best the Lightning can do at this point would probably be two-way contracts, so if they want one-way deals, it is going to have to be elsewhere.
Kyle Riley: Volkov only has nine games of NHL experience under his belt and isn't arbitration eligible, so his QO will get it done. Joseph, on the other hand, has racked up 107 games of top-level experience over the past two years, so he's due for a raise. Still, his cap is probably that of a 30-point producer, and he isn't arbitration eligible, so I think a two-year, $2 million deal should do the trick. Smith is a high-end AHLer, but he simply isn't capable of filling a full-time role with the big club, and as AJ mentioned, Conacher and Gaunce are both 30-year-old players who have combined for 10 top-level appearances over the past two years, so they won't be getting anything more than cheap, two-way deals.
AJ Scholz: If you are tracking along at home, using the contracts above, I've already put the Lightning $4.6 million over the cap and that's with pretty team-friendly deals for both Cirelli and Sergachev. Something is going to have to give and I think that means trading one of three players making $5 million AAV or more. That's Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde or Ondrej Palat. My money would be on Johnson, who had a down year by registering just 31 points, his lowest point total of his eight-year career, but can still point to back-to-back 20-goal seasons, which will boost his value on the trade market. He's also fallen out of the top six in Tampa Bay yet is still capable of filling that role elsewhere. Even with that move, the Lightning would have to consider carrying just 22 players to stay below the cap. As I mentioned above, it's going to be a tricky offseason for the team.
Kyle Riley: The plan I outlined above would put the Lightning somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.5 million over the cap heading into 2020-21, which means they'll need to be active in the trade market to make it work. Tyler Johnson's a good player, but he still has four years left on his deal at $5 million AAV, and Yanni Gourde is set to be massively overpaid ($5.166 million AAV) for the next five years, so I think Tampa Bay would have trouble moving either of them. That means the team will likely have to bite the bullet and move someone like Ondrej Palat as well as one lesser roster player, perhaps Braydon Coburn, in order to sneak under the cap heading into next season.