As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look towards the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The first batch of Offseason Primers will feature Atlantic Division squads. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning offseason.
Tampa Bay Lightning Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
It projects to be quite the busy summer for general manager Julien BriseBois. The Lightning could see quite a lot of roster turnover, as a high amount of young core pieces, as well as important veteran options, are on expiring contracts.
Tampa’s unrestricted free agents include Kevin Shattenkirk, Jan Rutta, Zach Bogosian, Pat Maroon, Luke Schenn, Mike Condon, Cory Conacher, Cameron Gaunce, and Scott Wedgewood. Patrick Sieloff and Spencer Martin are Group Six UFAs.
Luckily for Tampa, their most important restricted free agents are not eligible for arbitration. Those RFAs include Mikhail Sergachev, Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, Alexander Volkov, Devante Stephens, Dennis Yan, and Mathieu Joseph. Their arbitration-eligible RFAs are Carter Verhaeghe, Ross Colton, Gemel Smith, Ben Thomas, and Dominik Masin.
Salary Cap Outlook
The Lightning will undoubtedly be one of the most disadvantaged teams this offseason by the NHL’s decision to not increase the salary cap. The team, via their CapFriendly page, projects to only have $5.33 million in cap space for the 2020-21 season. That’s an impossibly small amount considering the calibre of young talent they have to retain this offseason. The Lightning will most likely see a few pieces traded out to accommodate those signings.
A low-cost, low-risk pickup at the beginning of this year by the Lightning, Shattenkirk rewarded the team with an offensive resurgence. After a monster contract signed with the New York Rangers, Shattenkirk’s stock had dropped considerably since his 56-point campaign in 2016-17. He got a bit of his game back last season, tallying 34 points in 70 games.
While that bolstered the Tampa blue line this past year, the team won’t be able to afford to keep him around. A pending unrestricted free agent, it’s likely that Shattenkirk tests the open market as Tampa gives way to younger pieces.
Tampa will need to find trade partners for a couple of players in order to retain their prominent restricted free agents. Gourde is one of these players. Note that Gourde has a full no-trade clause that would need to be waived.
While mock trades won’t be part of these Offseason Primers, if cap space needs to be cleared to re-sign certain players, trade candidates will be listed. While Gourde exploded for a 64-point campaign in his first full season in the league, 2017-18, his offensive totals have dropped steadily since then. Gourde only netted 10 goals and 30 points this year in a reduced role, and his $5.17 million cap hit isn’t looking good for the Lightning. Gourde will likely be able to recapture his game given a larger role on a team with opportunity, so the Lightning shouldn’t have a terribly hard time moving his deal. The trade would leave Tampa with a slightly more healthy $10.5 million in cap space, but it’s still not enough for what they need.
Killorn appears to be another trade piece that the Lightning may need to say goodbye to this offseason. A career Bolt who’s the epitome of consistency, it’s a tough pill to swallow. However, Killorn appears as a favourable trade piece due to an old business adage: buy low, sell high.
Killorn was drafted as a third-round pick in 2007, but has developed into one of the better and more consistent middle-six forward talents in the league. Yet, at age 30, Killorn is coming off the best offensive season of his career. He had the only 20-goal season of his career and complemented it with a career-high 49 points. It’s unlikely Killorn hits those totals again, so it makes a wee bit of sense to ship Killorn and his $4.45 million cap hit elsewhere to make room for the Lightning’s youngsters. After that cap dump, Tampa now has $14.95 million in projected cap space, which is enough to retain their RFAs. Killorn has a 16-team no-trade clause.
While still a dependable third, or fourth-line piece in the NHL, Maroon has likely priced himself out of the Lightning’s comfort zone. He rewarded the Lightning’s one-year offer this year with a nine-goal, 23-point campaign. The nine-year NHL veteran of over 500 games will likely have to look elsewhere for work this offseason, however.
A pending restricted free agent, it’s unlikely that Tampa extends a qualifying offer to Verhaeghe this year. While it’s likely that he’ll find work on an NHL deal on the open market, Tampa will need all the wiggle room they can get this offseason. Verhaeghe’s first year in the NHL, he put up 13 points in 52 games this past year. Already 24-years-old, he doesn’t project to be much more than a fourth-line centre, and will likely head to a team with more cap space looking for additional depth.
Rutta has performed nicely for the Lightning over the last season-and-a-half, but will likely be a cap casualty this offseason. Playing a solid two-way game, he can play anywhere in the lineup and makes himself out as a versatile offering to most teams looking to add in free agency. His offensive totals were nominal, seven points in 33 games, and Tampa likely can’t afford to sink valuable money into retaining him when they could look to fill his role internally.
Sergachev is a crucially important piece for the Lightning to retain. He’s spent time in Tampa playing on his off-side, and will likely slot into a top-pairing role alongside Victor Hedman next season. While talks of offer-sheets surrounding him have been rampant, it’s unlikely that Sergachev leaves the Bolts. BriseBois will make the necessary trades to retain him.
With Tampa’s $14.95 million in space after trading Gourde and Killorn, Sergachev can stay with the Bolts. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) thinks Sergachev will receive a max eight-year deal worth $6.5 million a year, leaving Tampa with $8.45 million in space to sign one more vitally important player.
The impact of Cirelli on the team’s success this past season cannot be understated. While his offensive totals aren’t off the charts (44 points in 68 games), he’s developed into one of the better two-way centres in the league. He’s capable of playing second-line minutes but can play a third-line role as well if the Bolts split up Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point on different lines. His offensive game will only grow over time as well, as Cirelli is only 23-years-old.
Evolving-Hockey projects a six-year deal for Cirelli at $5.81 million a season, bringing Tampa to $2.64 million in space to play around with.
Every contending team needs a tried-and-true tough defensive defenceman, which is exactly the kind of game Cernak brings to the team. Also only 23-years-old, he plays with a certain confidence and growl to his game that few others develop. His nominal offensive output isn’t a consideration, as Cernak’s intangibles and defensive prowess make him a valuable part of this Lightning squad.
Evolving-Hockey projects the right-shot D will receive a two-year deal from the Lightning, valued at $2.5 million a season. It brings them right up against the salary cap.
Potential Free Agent Additions
Tampa’s intense cap crunch means they won’t be adding any real big names via the free-agent market this summer. Their extremely tight cap situation means that they’ll likely hope to fill their lineup holes internally. Players like Alexander Volkov are likely to receive serious looks at training camp as the Lightning try to continue to contend.
Check out the other Offseason Primers for the Atlantic Division: