BRANDON — Even inside the Lightning locker room, players are wowed by how general manager Julien BriseBois has been able to maneuver through the restrictions of the salary cap to keep the Lightning a Stanley Cup contender year after year.
“I think we can all call him probably a wizard,” Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said Wednesday afternoon.
The cap is there to create parity. But the structure the Lightning front office creates in building its contracts and the trust it forms with its players to know their payday will come are key to fielding the best roster while staying under the cap.
There are certainly hard decisions along the way. The Lightning had to say goodbye to longtime fixture Ondrej Palat as free agency opened, and earlier this month traded away a veteran leader and top defender in Ryan McDonagh to create cap space.
But that allowed the team to keep their top 25-and-under core players — Sergachev, center Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Erik Cernak — in Lightning uniforms into the next decade as the team invested a total of nearly $160 million into eight-year extensions for all three players.
“It’s nice to be able to get a deal and sign for long term like this,” Cirelli said. “Obviously, they have a lot of trust in us so you’ve got to go out there and bring it and be better each and every single year.”
The three were scheduled to become restricted free agents after next season, but instead they will be signed through 2030-31.
The Lightning’s formula of keeping their star players long term through their prime years involves signing club-friendly three-year bridge deals with the understanding that they will cash in during their next negotiation.
Before this cycle that will pay Sergachev $68 million (on a $8.5 million average annual value that will make him the team’s highest-paid defenseman), Cirelli $50 million (a $6.25 million AAV) and Cernak $41.6 million (a $5.2 million AAV), the trio saw several of their veteran teammates go through the same process.
“The other guys have gone through it,” Cirelli said. “So I think it’s a process and it was nice to get to this point.”
Whether it was Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman or Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy or most recently Brayden Point (who signed an eight-year, $76 million extension last offseason that kicks in this coming season), they were all rewarded with hefty eight-year extensions following the bridge contracts.
Follow all the action on and off the ice
Subscribe to our free Lightning Strikes newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“There’s been kind of a progression,” BriseBois said. “And now it’s these guys’ turn. Everyone worked with us when we needed to get bridge deals to keep the cap number a little lower so we can keep as many good players as possible and give ourselves the best chance of winning a championship.”
“But also out of respect and appreciation for them working with us in the past, I want to go to them early and get it done,” BriseBois added. “It was the same thing with Brayden Point last summer and the same thing with Andrei Vasilevskiy the summer before that.”
The moves are a huge investment in the future. All three players have been important pieces to the team’s run to three straight Stanley Cup finals, which included back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021, while steadily growing their games with increased roles.
“They’re really good players. they play premium positions, they’re only getting better,” BriseBois said. “They’re entering their primes, and now they’re locked up for a long, long time. So they’re going to be there competing, helping us win for a long, long time.”
Sergachev, 24, has developed into an elite all-around defenseman, is coming off a tremendous playoff run and will move up to the second pair on the left side with McDonagh gone. Cirelli, 24, is one of the top two-way forwards in the game. Cernak, 25, has grown into one of the team’s top physical, shot-blocking defensemen and one half of the team’s top penalty-killing defenseman pair. All three players hold significant special teams roles.
“It’s great to see him keeping the boys together,” Sergachev said of BriseBois. “And it means a lot for me as a player because obviously I want to win and I want to play for the best team possible and he’s providing that every year so he’s a great GM.”
The salary cap is expected to go up by only $1 million for the 2023-24 season to $83.5 million. The Lightning entered Wednesday with just nine active players under contract for that season, but after investing nearly $20 million for the 2023-24 payroll, the salary cap number for that season is already at nearly $79 million, according to CapFriendly.
The Lightning can still utilize retired defenseman Brent Seabrook’s contract for $6.875 of long-term injured reserve relief, giving them $11.416 million of spending space to sign at least nine more players.
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.