TAMPA — This offseason has been circled on the Lightning’s calendar for a few years. Even last year, as Julien BriseBois was asked about the difficulty of re-signing Brayden Point, the general manager pointed ahead to this season as a bigger challenge.
BriseBois got a small reprieve when this summer’s offseason was pushed to the fall, but it’s only temporary. And the situation got more challenging when the salary cap was fixed at $81.5 million, instead of its projected small jump.
Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak are all restricted free agents this year.
Not only that, but the Lightning also has $76.2 million committed to the 15 players already under contract. In other words, only 14 players from the team’s expected playoff lineup are signed for next year.
They only have three defensemen — Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Braydon Coburn — currently under contract for next year, along with 10 forwards. The Lightning is set at goalie with Andrei Vasilevskiy starting his eight-year contract and Curtis McElhinney with one more year.
BriseBois is going to have to get creative. There’s no one on long-term injured reserve to trade to a team that needs to get above the salary-cap minimum, as BriseBois did with Ryan Callahan last year.
Cirelli, Cernak and Sergachev have all had breakout years the past two seasons and are the priority re-signings. As we learned last year from the Point re-signing, priority doesn’t necessarily mean these three will come first.
Pat Maroon, Mitchell Stephens and Carter Verhaeghe’s contracts also expire this year among the forwards. Kevin Shattenkirk, Jan Rutta, Luke Schenn and Zach Bogosian will be up among the defensemen.
Stephens and Verhaeghe will be restricted free agents and could return at salaries close to $1 million. Shattenkirk was considered a bargain at $1.75 million after his contract was bought out by the Rangers. He likely will fetch a higher salary on the open market.
What they’ve already done
The Lightning already have made moves with this offseason crunch in mind. When BriseBois paid the high prices of a first-round pick for forward Barclay Goodrow and a first-rounder plus a prospect selected in the first round for forward Blake Coleman, part of their value was their low contracts. Coleman has another year at $1.8 million and Goodrow at $925,000.
When last year’s training camp opened, BriseBois signed McElhinney for two years in order not to get squeezed into paying a high price for a backup goalie next season.
In a star-studded class of restricted free agents last season, Point signed one of the most team-friendly deals at $6.75 million. It gives the Lightning at least some wiggle room, especially compared to Mitch Marner’s $10.9 million in Toronto and Mikko Rantanen’s $9.25 million in Colorado.
The Lightning carried fewer than the roster max of 23 players for most of this season in an effort to avoid any salary-cap overages from performance bonuses.
In the system
The Lightning do have some options within the organization.
Cal Foote could step in at defenseman; coaches have commented on his increased physicality in the playoff training camp. The organization also could re-sign restricted free agent Dominik Masin on the blue line.
At forward, Alex Barre-Boulet has had another dominant year in the AHL, and coaches have been complimentary of his play in this brief playoff training camp.
Both Mathieu Joseph, who played in the NHL last year but found himself back in the AHL this season, and Alex Volkov, who made his NHL debut this year, are also restricted free agents. But they won’t carry as big a price tag to re-sign.
This year, there weren’t many roster spots open in the preseason, but next year could see an increase in competition.
The Lightning have used no-trade clauses to negotiate lower salaries with players, so BriseBois likely will have to convince someone to approve a trade.
Point and Alex Killorn will be the only players making over $4 million who won’t have a full no-trade clause this offseason. Trading Point, who took on the role of top center, a year after re-signing him isn’t likely to be on the table.
Killorn’s deal transitions to a modified clause in which he will submit a list of 16 teams he could be traded to. He had a big year in 2019-20 with his first 20-goal season, a strong presence on the power play and an increased leadership role in the dressing room. All of that makes him someone the Lightning would prefer not to lose but also a more attractive trade option for other teams.
Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, both of whom have moved throughout the lineup, also could be on the trading block. But they would have to waive their no-trade clause for that to happen.