BRANDON — Once the Lightning realized in the days leading up to free agency that they wouldn’t be able to retain forward Ondrej Palat and defenseman Jan Rutta, the team worked quickly to reshape its roster.
But by the end of the first day of free agency, it had signed three free agents — defenseman Ian Cole, forward Vladislav Namestnikov (both one-year deals) and defenseman Haydn Fleury (two-year deal) — for the upcoming season.
Those moves alone put the Lightning right up against the $82.5 million flat cap for next season, even with the $6.875 million of long-term injury exemption relief from retired defenseman Brent Seabrook’s contract. After trading defenseman Ryan McDonagh earlier this month, general manager Julien BriseBois said he has no interest in trading away another veteran contract for salary-cap space.
All in all, barring a change there, the Lightning are essentially finished making moves.
“Our phones are never off,” BriseBois said. “Something else might pop up.”
Palat’s reported five-year, $30 million deal with the New Jersey Devils was announced Thursday afternoon. Rutta signed a three-year, $8.25 million deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, getting an average annual value that more than doubled the salary he was making with Tampa Bay.
“Some players, as much as you’d like to keep them and as much as they’d like to stay, eventually you can’t fit everyone. You just can’t fit everyone under the cap,” BriseBois said.
The priority turned to locking up the team’s 25-and-under core — defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, center Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Erik Cernak — all of whom were entering the final year of three-year bridge deals before becoming restricted free agents after this season. The groundwork was well laid, and eight-year extensions for all three players came together quickly, BriseBois said.
“There was a strong willingness on both parts to get something done and there’s value in it for the organization and for me to know what I had to work with going forward,” BriseBois said Wednesday.
“So I had asked all their agents to try to get something done before noon (Wednesday), and we were able to get a good idea of what that would be before noon (Wednesday). So I knew what I had to work with going forward.”
While the Lightning kept most of their core intact, the departures of three key pieces of the back-to-back championship teams over the past few weeks, particularly Palat and McDonagh and the contributions they made on and off the ice, will leave holes to fill.
“Obviously it sucks losing guys that I’ve played with since I got here and have built friendships with and won championships together,” Cirelli said.
“Obviously that side of it sucks, but you know, it’s a business at the end of day, this is kind of what we sign up for. … We never want to see a guy go, but over the years, this kind of had to happen.”
The team’s roster will have a different look, especially when the season opens Oct. 11.
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Both Cirelli and defenseman Zach Bogosian had shoulder surgery that will require a four- to six-month recovery timetable, so both will miss the beginning of the season. BriseBois estimated a “late-November, December-ish” return.
Without McDonagh, Rutta and now Bogosian, the Lightning’s defenseman depth will be tested, though it opens an opportunity for former first-round pick Cal Foote to emerge as an everyday player after going in and out of the lineup his past two seasons. It also opens a spot for Philippe Myers, who was acquired from Nashville in the McDonagh trade and is under control for one season.
“I expect him to come in and have a strong training camp and earn a spot on the team and earn a spot somewhere in our regular lineup,” BriseBois said. “Time will tell, the tools are there.”
The Lightning will have to fill Cirelli’s spot for the first several weeks of the season, but BriseBois said Namestnikov can play center and be a contributor up front on the penalty kill, and players like Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul can also help fill those roles.
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