What will free agency look like for the Lightning?

Tampa Bay isn’t looking to make a big signing, but the right smaller pieces can add a lot.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, an unrestricted free agent, has said he’d like to stay with the Lightning, but it may not be as simple as that.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, an unrestricted free agent, has said he’d like to stay with the Lightning, but it may not be as simple as that. [ COLE BURSTON | The Canadian Press via AP ]
Published Oct. 8, 2020|Updated Oct. 9, 2020

The Lightning have known the roster that ended up winning the Stanley Cup wasn’t going to last. The reality hits when free agency opens at noon today.

Six players who helped the Lightning win the Cup can become free agents. Most of them probably won’t return.

Forwards Pat Maroon and Carter Verhaeghe, and defensemen Zach Bogosian, Jan Rutta, Luke Schenn and Kevin Shattenkirk were on one-year contracts, the values topping out at Shattenkirk’s $1.7 million. Maroon, Bogosian, Schenn and Shattenkirk signed for less than their previous contracts because they wanted to prove something.

Related: Why did the Lightning trade up in the second round of the draft?

Now they likely have earned bigger contracts, and the Lightning is tight against the flat $81.5 million salary cap. Though some of the six may be interested in sticking around — Shattenkirk has mentioned he’d like to stay — keeping them might not be easy.

The Lightning have three big-impact restricted free agents to re-sign: forward Anthony Cirelli and defensemen Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. Also, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s new contract kicks in next season, costing an additional $6 million, and no big contracts will come off the books without a trade.

The Lightning enter free agency with only $4.5 million of cap space and 16 players on their roster, according to salary-tracking website CapFriendly.

The Lightning is looking to make moves, just small ones, similar to their signings last offseason: of the bargain variety.

They have three defensemen under contract: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Braydon Coburn. Cernak and Sergachev are expected to re-sign eventually, but that would bring the Lightning to only five.

(Other teams can present an offer sheet to a restricted free agent; the player’s team has the chance to match the offer or let him go and accept draft pick compensation.)

Cal Foote, the Lightning’s first-round draft pick in 2017, could be ready to graduate from the AHL; he’s on an entry-level contract worth $925,000. The Lightning likely also want another veteran NHL player willing to sign for a year or two for a low salary.

The forward situation is both easier and harder. Only Maroon and Verhaeghe are poised to leave, and the Lightning already re-signed Mitchell Stephens.

Related: The Lightning started by re-signing two but are already poised to let one restricted free agent walk away

They chose not to make Verhaeghe a qualifying offer after conversations with his agent made apparent they were not on the same page. General manager Julien BriseBois called that one of the tough decisions he’s going to have to make.

The toughest of those decisions will be about trades. The Lightning have 11 forwards under contract and will have to deal probably at least two to make cap space.

That also would open a gap in the lineup. The Lightning have prospects looking to move up. Restricted free agents Mathieu Joseph and Alex Volkov, and re-signed Gemel Smith and AHL veteran Luke Witkowski stand out as options. They also could look to add an NHL veteran at the right price.

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Adding smaller pieces worked for the Lightning last season. They had only three free agents leave but traded three more without making major moves to replace them, adding just the right pieces to create a championship team.

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