TAMPA — Lightning fans reacted to Brayden Point’s new three-year, $20.25 million contract with clear excitement. Other NHL fans showed a mix of incredulity and resignation.
One Reddit user wrote “The Lightning are a cheat code.” Another, referring to the organization’s ability to sign players to team-friendly contracts, wrote, “Is this even fair?”
Tampa Bay has a reputation for inspiring loyalty in players, getting them to work with the team in contract negotiations and maybe leave money on the table that can go toward teammates’ deals and thus a better team. The Lightning also have a reputation for putting winning teams on the ice. The organization sees those two dynamics going hand in hand.
“I’m well aware there’s a narrative that our players have worked with us,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “By no means do we take that for granted.”
It’s not to say Point’s contract, signed Monday, is bad or unfair to him. The $6.75 million average annual value is the largest in a three-year deal given a restricted free agent in NHL history. But it’s a lot less than the $10.893 million average Mitch Marner got from the Maple Leafs in a six-year deal agreed to two weeks ago.
Point’s team-friendly contact is key for the Lightning, who continue their preseason at 7 tonight at the Panthers.
They could have found a way to free up more money if they had had to — they wouldn’t have liked it, but they weren’t going to let Point go unsigned — but that would have required subtracting a piece. Also, they have four high-level young players who can be restricted free agents next summer: Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Mikhail Sergachev. None of them are on Point’s level right now, but Point wasn’t quite on Point’s level this time a year ago.
Those four and their agents had to be paying close attention to Point’s negotiations. Throughout the offseason, BriseBois said next year was going to be more difficult for contracts.
BriseBois expects to maintain the organization’s model of giving lower-term deals for restricted free agents coming off entry-level contracts, a position that also sets up players for bigger third contracts.
“The players that have worked with us, they’ve been rewarded in the sense that we say, ‘Work with us and we’ll make sure you’re on a competitive team, and eventually you will sign that big contract and be here long term,’ ” BriseBois said. It helps that the Lightning can point to precedents. (See: Vasilevskiy, Andrei and Kucherov, Nikita, who signed matching eight-year, $76 million extensions in the past two offseasons.)
The Lightning now is about $1.7 million under this season’s salary cap of $81.5 million. We won’t know next season’s cap for months, and though it likely will increase, it’s fair to say the Lightning won’t have a lot of room to work with for Cernak, Cirelli, Joseph and Sergachev, never mind other contracts that also will expire.
Something, or someone, will have to give.
The Lightning got cap relief for this season with trades. It sent the remaining $5.8 million on the contract of Ryan Callahan — diagnosed after last season with a degenerative back disease and told he could no longer play — to the Senators, who needed help getting to the cap floor, and it traded J.T. Miller to the Canucks for draft picks.
More trades are coming. Alex Killorn is an obvious target. He has this and three more seasons left on a deal averaging $4.45 million annually, and his no-trade clause can become a modified no-trade clause July 1, which means he then would have a list of 16 organizations to which he could be traded. But his situation can change between now and then.
The Lightning will have to find cap space again for their next round of signings, but they are set up to keep doing business the way they want to. Point’s new contract maintains the precedent of short-term bridge deals.
Diana C. Nearhos is the Lightning beat writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.