TAMPA — The Lightning are in a tough spot with the salary cap. And no one really wants to make things easy on the Stanley Cup champions.
It was always possible this was going to be the year Tampa Bay would have to break up its core because of cap issues and part with a player who has been in the organization awhile. When the cap for next season didn’t rise for the first time since a cap was instituted as part of the agreement to end the 2004-05 lockout, staying at $81.5 million, such an exit for the Lightning pretty much became a guarantee.
Before the start of free agency this month, the Lightning tried to trade wing Tyler Johnson, who has four more years left on his contract at an annual cap hit of $5 million. Johnson gave them a list of teams for which he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause. Not being able to work a deal, the Lightning then put him on waivers.
Johnson wasn’t claimed. So he remains with the Lightning.
Johnson is a good player but not a great one. And because the market is bad because of the cap situation, it’s a hard time to move anyone who isn’t a great player.
“There’s not a lot of places that are looking to add players with big numbers or assuming contracts with term,” Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon told reporters. “There are a lot of teams that are really trying to be as close to the (cap) floor (of $60.2 million) as they can.”
Last week, Vegas traded Nate Schmidt, a top-pair defenseman who has five years left on his deal at a cap hit of $5.95 million a season, to Vancouver four a third-round draft pick. A year ago, the Lightning traded forward J.T. Miller, who then had four years left at $5.25 million a season, to the Canucks for first- and third-round picks.
It’s a different market.
The Lightning didn’t put Johnson’s talent on display last season. He moved throughout the lineup, mostly plugging holes. His 14-goal, 31-point season invites teams to question how much playing with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point contributed to his 29 goals the year before.
A team would need to feel that he is for them what forwards Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman were for the Lightning last season, the right piece to make the whole better. Johnson could be a good top-six forward with veteran experience on a team that doesn’t have the same embarrassment of riches as Lightning. But that team would have to be willing to pay for him.
“It’s not just the flat cap,” McCrimmon said. “It’s the chosen response of some of the teams in the league.”
The salary cap is flat because of a massive decrease in hockey-related revenue from missing 189 regular-season games after a March 12 shutdown and holding the playoffs without fans because of the coronavirus.
That means some teams don’t have a lot of cash on hand. Many owners' nonhockey businesses may have lost money as well. So teams might not be eager to spend real money, not just consider a cap hit (the cap hit is largely a yearly salary average over a contract’s span, not necessarily the amount paid in a year).
That’s where Johnson is a better trade option for some teams. His actual salary next season is $3.75 million after being at $5.5 million last season, but it goes back up to $5.5 million in 2021-22. There’s an idea that Johnson, who is from Spokane, Wash., may be an attractive target for Seattle in next offseason’s expansion draft. So he could be more of a rental for a team.
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Given that the Lightning won the Stanley Cup this year, teams aren’t especially eager to work with them in a way that might line them up for another championship.
General manager Julien BriseBois said before the league calendar turned to the 2020-21 season that he didn’t have a timeline for deals but the “longer we wait, the fewer options we may have.”
Free agency opened slowly, and since then, as many around the league predicted, the trade market has mostly stalled.
Technically, the Lightning have until the start of next season — targeted for Jan. 1 — to figure everything out. Teams can exceed the cap by 10 percent until then.
The Lightning have to account for qualifying offers made to five players they need the cap space to sign, but they do not yet have to include the contracts that wing Pat Maroon and defenseman Luke Schenn agreed to but haven’t signed to give them some flexibility.
The Lightning aren’t alone in reckoning with the cap. Arizona, St. Louis, Vegas, Anaheim, Washington and Toronto are all above $81.5 million.
So though BriseBois isn’t alone, he’s among those in one of the most difficult situations.
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