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Lightning maneuvering around salary cap to secure future beyond next season

Trading defenseman Ryan McDonagh had to be done to keep Tampa Bay’s young core intact.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) scores against Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper (35) during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final last month in Tampa. Cirelli can become a restricted free agent after the 2022-23 season.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) scores against Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper (35) during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final last month in Tampa. Cirelli can become a restricted free agent after the 2022-23 season. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 4|Updated Jul. 5

TAMPA — While the trade of veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh this past weekend cleared much-needed salary-cap space for next season, the impetus behind the deal was preserving the Lightning’s future for the following year and beyond.

Yes, Tampa Bay will have most of its group back for another run at the Stanley Cup in 2022-23, but it is very much a team staring in the face of transition considering the way its roster shapes up after next season.

General manager Julien BriseBois, a master at performing the gymnastics necessary to get the team under the cap each offseason, had the forethought to see that moving McDonagh — and the four remaining years on his deal — was necessary to retaining the team’s younger core pieces for the long term.

Make no mistake, the trade was less about bringing back forward Ondrej Palat and defenseman Jan Rutta (who are unrestricted free agents) than about keeping center Anthony Cirelli and defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak in Lightning sweaters.

That’s why McDonagh — and not forward Alex Killorn, whose contract is up after next season — was the “odd man out,” as BriseBois said Sunday in explaining the deal.

“I think it allows us to make sure that we can extend (our window) beyond just one season, because now we’ve freed up some cap space for this coming year,” BriseBois said. “… but I think more importantly, we freed up some cap space for 2023-24.”

The Lightning will have 10 free agents following next season (six restricted and four unrestricted), which will be the most over the past several seasons.

Among that group, the priority is to re-sign restricted free agents Cirelli, Sergachev and Cernak, all of whom will receive significant raises from their current deals. Cirelli and Sergachev carry a $4.8 million cap hit in the final season of their contracts, Cernak $2.95 million.

BriseBois said the Lightning also want to retain forward Ross Colton, who is coming off a 22-goal season, and improving defenseman Cal Foote. Both also can become restricted free agents after 2022-23.

The Lightning have only 10 players signed for 2023-24 and plenty of cap space for that season — nearly $25 million if the cap increases another $1 million to $83.5 million next season, according to CapFriendly.

But the Lightning did not have any tagged payroll room (which is different from the cap number itself) for next season because retired defenseman Brent Seabrook’s contract, which was acquired in the Tyler Johnson trade last offseason, counts against it. In addition, Brayden Point’s extension ‚ which takes his annual cap hit from $6.75 million to $9.5 million — kicks in for 2022-23.

The Lightning acquired Seabrook’s contract to use as a long-term injured reserve exemption during the season, and it saves them $6.875 against the cap through 2023-24. But in the offseason, this payroll-room caveat of the collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from signing players under non-expiring contracts to extensions or even free agents to multi-year deals if they’re not under the threshold.

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So the Lightning had to move a sizable contract like McDonagh’s, which carries a $6.75 million cap hit, just to start negotiating with next year’s restricted free agents.

“That was always the plan,” BriseBois said of Cirelli, Sergachev and Cernak, “to eventually go to them and try to see if we can work something out. That remains the plan. I don’t have a timeline or timing specifically for you, but we’d love to be able to sign those players to extensions.

“They’re all just entering their prime. They’re really good players. They play premium positions. They’ve done a lot of winning, and they’ve been key contributors to those two Stanley Cups and the nice run we’ve been on here with three straight finals. Looking at age, position and contract, those are three players that we hope to be able to lock up for many years to come.”

After next season, the Lightning also will have decisions to make on Killorn, who will be 33 and carries a $4.45 million cap hit, as well as forwards Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and backup goaltender Brian Elliott (all will be 38 after next season). All four will be unrestricted free agents. Defenseman Philippe Myers, who was acquired in the McDonagh trade and carries a $2.55 million cap hit for next season, becomes a restricted free agency after next season.

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