TAMPA — Little by little, player by player, time has nibbled away at the heart of the Lightning’s back-to-back championship teams.
And the rest of the NHL has applauded.
There’s nothing malicious about that. It’s just the nature of sports. Everyone wants to win, and the Lightning have been buzzing around the throne a lot longer than most. It was inevitable that the salary cap and expansion drafts would eventually take a toll.
And so now fans in New Jersey are cheering for Ondrej Palat in the playoffs.
And Yanni Gourde in Seattle. And Carter Verhaeghe in Florida. And Luke Schenn in Toronto.
The Lightning, meanwhile, are looking at a post-bully role in the NHL.
General manager Julien BriseBois said Tuesday morning that 2023 was a missed opportunity for Tampa Bay. The Lightning, he said, had all the ingredients needed to win a Stanley Cup, but just came up short. And he thinks the Lightning will still be Cup contenders in 2024 and will proceed accordingly this offseason.
All that sounds accurate, but it’s not the entire story.
The Lightning may still be contenders, but they are no longer the scourge of the NHL. They are no longer the team that hopefuls are shooting for, and bottom dwellers fear. Ultimately, the price the Lightning have paid for all their success is that the margin for error is smaller than it has been in years.
That’s what you lose when you no longer have Palat making the kind of hustle play he did in Game 7 Monday night that gave New Jersey an early lead against the Rangers. That’s what you lose when you no longer have a Gourde, who had assists on both goals in a Game 7 victory against defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado.
“Can you sit here and lament that some guys aren’t here (anymore)? Yes, but that happens to everybody in the league,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s different with us because, I feel, we have won. And a group that wins together, there’s a reason they win together and it’s because they’re super close.
“And so watching the departures is really hard, whether you played six minutes a night or you played 26. Everybody is a part of this team. So every year, somebody leaves and it’s tough.”
This year, that somebody will almost certainly be left wing Alex Killorn. And probably defenseman Ian Cole, too. There’s not enough room in the salary cap to accommodate new contracts for every free-agent veteran, so hard decisions will be made in the coming weeks. Just as the Lightning have made in the past.
“I would say this is probably the worst (salary cap situation) we’ve had,” BriseBois said Tuesday.
“Will we be able to retain all the players that are up, and need new contracts? Realistically, we won’t be able to. We’re going to try to keep as many as we can.”
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A year ago, the Lightning traded defensive stalwart Ryan McDonagh to free up enough salary cap space to sign some of their younger players to long-term deals. BriseBois said he does not expect such a drastic move this summer, but he’s not exaggerating about the lack of maneuverability with the cap.
If you take for granted that Killorn and Cole will not be back, that’s $7.45 million you can lop off the payroll. Except there’s no overall savings because Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak are due a combined $7.375 million in raises. So, basically, you’re still in the same salary cap situation, except you’re missing a second-line forward and a top-six defenseman.
This is where Tampa Bay’s trade deadline gambles need to pay off. BriseBois has been sacrificing draft picks in deals each spring to help with the playoff push, but also to acquire younger, salary-controlled players to replace impending departures. A year ago, it was Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul. Now, it’s Tanner Jeannot and Mikey Eyssimont. Maybe one of them will step up to become a reasonable facsimile of Killorn but, again, the margin for error is thin.
Because the Lightning have traded so many draft picks and younger players to maximize their chance at winning the Cup the past few seasons, they cannot count on the usual influx of talent from the minor league system. Defensemen Darren Raddysh and Nick Perbix were pleasant, and crucial, surprises last season on the blue line but counting on something similar in 2024 might be wishful thinking.
Tampa Bay spent a total of $3 million on the fourth line in 2023 with veterans Pat Maroon, Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare taking undervalued contracts. Perry and Bellemare are unrestricted free agents and will presumably be looking for their best opportunity to contend for the Stanley Cup. If they do not re-sign in Tampa Bay, the Lightning will need to find similar players willing to work for close to the NHL minimum salary.
“We need to make decisions as to how to make the most out of whatever’s available,” BriseBois said. “How do we move different pieces of that puzzle to end up creating the best team possible.”
It’s not impossible for Tampa Bay to be a Cup contender in 2024.
It’s just not as realistic as it has been in the past.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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