TAMPA — Think of the team as a masterpiece, for that is as fitting a description as any.
The Lightning were built to win high-scoring games, and they were built to win 1-0. They could be flashy and they could be brutal. They have won more regular-season games than any team in the NHL in the past seven seasons and more postseason games, too.
They have won two Stanley Cups and were within shouting distance of winning three more.
No matter the vantage point or the criteria, this current Lightning roster is akin to an athletic work of art. And now it’s about to be defaced.
That’s neither a criticism, nor a lament. It’s just the reality of time, contracts and the salary cap. The Lightning kept this group of players together longer than we had a right to expect, and the bill is unfortunately coming due.
Free agents will leave, and veterans will be traded away. The question is whether hope will remain in abundance.
“Going forward, I expect us to remain a Stanley Cup contender,” general manager Julien BriseBois said Tuesday. “If I look at our roster right now, we have elite players at all the key positions. And they are either in their prime or just entering their prime.
“So, I have a lot of reason to believe we are going to remain a Stanley Cup contender and hopefully the stars align again for us, just as they did the past two years, and we can go on another magical run and bring back the Cup one more time.”
That is not wishful thinking. BriseBois is absolutely correct when he says the Lightning will still be a contender next season. The difference is the margin of error will tighten dramatically. The Lightning can expect to compete for the Cup, as opposed to being expected to win the Cup.
So how will the team change? At the moment, that’s impossible to say.
It’s going to depend on how much interest there is around the league in trading for some of Tampa Bay’s veterans, and how willing some players will be to waiving no-trade clauses. The Lightning can’t begin to negotiate with unrestricted free agents such as Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and David Savard until they first know how much salary they can shed.
Because, at the moment, Tampa Bay is already over the salary cap. And that’s even before signing restricted free agents such as Ross Colton, Cal Foote or Alex Barre-Boulet.
Essentially, BriseBois has more players than space on a bus. And he can’t just pick and choose the best 25 players because some contracts are ironclad and others are still to be determined.
And the Lightning need to make decisions quickly. In the next week, the NHL will hold an expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken, which means every team (except Vegas) will lose one player off its current roster.
“In determining which players are likely to not return — other than if Seattle just claims a player — we’re going to be looking at the expected contribution to the team’s success going forward,” BriseBois said. “How hard are you to play against? What do you bring to our team on the ice, but also off the ice? What is your age? What is your contract status, meaning cap hit, term, trade restrictions?
“So, we’re looking at all of those factors and making those decisions. There isn’t one that is overriding. Ultimately we’re trying to keep the strongest group possible.”
What that means is the Lightning might make decisions that, on the surface, do not make sense.
For instance, coach Jon Cooper made a plea for defenseman Ryan McDonagh as a Conn Smythe trophy contender in the waning days of the postseason. And McDonagh, indeed, was far and away the top postseason player in plus/minus rating with a plus-18.
But McDonagh is also 32 and has five years remaining on his contract at $6.75 million a year. While he’s one of the most talented defensemen in the NHL, let alone in the Lightning lineup, does he have a higher value than Erik Cernak who is 24 and will make $7.6 million less than McDonagh during the next two seasons?
Similarly, are young forwards such as Colton and Mathieu Joseph more valuable than Ondrej Palat or Yanni Gourde because they make a fraction of their salaries? Are you willing to give up some skill on the ice in order to create room in the salary cap to sign other players?
The Lightning have made shrewd moves in recent seasons to be cap compliant. They have traded valuable, but expendable, veterans simply to reduce salary commitments. They haven’t cared about the players they get in return as much as the amount of salary going out the door.
With that in mind, they might be willing to throw additional assets into deals in order to get teams to take Tyler Johnson’s contract ($5 million a year for the next three years) or Alex Killorn’s ($4.45 million a year for two years) off their books, if it means being able to re-sign Colton or Goodrow or Cal Foote or a backup goaltender.
It took years and years to build and perfect this Lightning roster, and, no, it will not be pleasant to watch what happens in the coming weeks.
Just consider it the price of admission for watching a masterpiece come alive before your eyes.
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