BRANDON — Tyler Motte is a player who can help a lot of NHL teams. As a bottom-six forward, he realizes that he’s probably one of the final puzzle pieces a team considers when building its roster. But for the past two years, the 28-year-old wing has had to wait until the end of the offseason to find a job.
And had the Lightning not had an 11th-hour forward spot open up when free-agent acquisition Josh Archibald decided he wasn’t going to play this season, Motte might have waited even longer for an opportunity to extend his career.
Motte signed a one-year, $800,000 deal with the Lightning on Sept. 9, more than two months after free agency opened and 11 days before training camp report day. But being forced to wait out and hope for an opportunity has become a way of life for many players because of the slow increase of the salary cap, which has gone up just $2 million over the past five seasons.
“It’s really a grind, more mentally than physically,” said Motte, who waited until Sept. 14 last year to sign a one-year deal with the Senators. “You attack the offseason the same way regardless of if you have a contract or not. But sometimes just waiting, the anxiety, it creeps up.
“Trying to get a move on for me and my wife and the dogs to get set up and just be comfortable when you go into the season … obviously the longer you wait, sometimes the harder that is to do. … It wasn’t a fun offseason for a lot of (free agents).”
The cap remained flat at $81.5 million through the pandemic, as part of a memorandum of understanding to the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players; it allowed a return to play with the players placing a percentage of their salary in escrow to offset league revenue losses from the pandemic. The cap went up $1 million last season and another $1 million this season, to $83.5 million.
And while the cap is projected to increase $8.5 million over the next two seasons, that doesn’t help players struggling to find jobs now.
The Lightning have had interest in Motte for a while. The past two seasons, they considered him at the trade deadline — he went to the Rangers both years — and they have had interest in free agency.
“Some teams are kind of handcuffed with what they can and can’t do, whether they’re interested or not,” Motte said. “So fortunately for me, something happened along the way again. When I got the call (from the Lightning), it was a pretty easy decision for me.”
It didn’t make the offseason wait easier, especially after two seasons in which he continued to show value as a forechecker who is strong on the puck and can kill penalties. Over the past two years, he has averaged 7.5 goals and 17 points while being plus-5.
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“It’s unfortunate around the league just the way that the salary caps moved, I think you see some guys that have to take discounts or guys that are signing (professional tryout contracts) that maybe you could say shouldn’t have to,” he said. “Hopefully it’s just the last summer of that.
“I think it’s important for organizations as well. They want to know who they have and what they’re dealing with capwise and personnelwise. It wasn’t an enjoyable process, but I like the way things were done, and I’m happy to be here.”
Another player affected is veteran forward Austin Watson, who had to settle for a personal tryout contract with the Lightning. A heavy-playing bottom-six forward who combined to score 19 goals and 27 points with the Senators the past two seasons, the 31-year-old knows he has an uphill climb to make the Lightning roster. He might have to settle for an AHL contract.
“Honestly, it’s been a struggle,” Watson said. “You see throughout the summer who gets deals and who doesn’t, and you can kind of call it both ways, and you can say, ‘Why not me?’ But as a bottom-six kind of role player, you’re fighting for your life. You’re fighting for your job every year.”
“Everybody’s ready to go, everyone’s in shape, but when you’re on a two-, three-year deal, you kind of can use the preseason to ramp up,” said Watson, who has played 482 NHL games, including 72 last season. “On a (professional tryout contract), you’ve got to be ready, raring to go every day. And we train for that. I’ve been doing it a long time.”
Lightning defenseman Calvin de Haan, 32, knows that experience. He went into the Hurricanes’ training camp last season on a professional tryout contract. He earned a spot, signing a one-year deal Oct. 1, just a few days before the season opened. Entering the offseason this year, de Haan didn’t want to wait through it to know where he’d play.
When the Lightning came calling, he quickly signed a $775,000, one-year contract. He is slotted to fill the third left-shot defenseman spot and kill penalties, a hole left open by the departure of Ian Cole in free agency.
“When we went into it, I told my agent I didn’t really want to wait too long,” de Haan said. “We kind of jumped on the first opportunity that we had, and I’m thankful it was this organization. Love or hate the cap, it is what it is at this time. There’s not much you can do if you’re a player of my stature and where I stand on the totem pole in the league.
“It seems a lot of teams go with a younger player to a certain extent for the same amount of money, but I think I can still play, and that’s why I’m still here. These guys believed in me, and I think I have the opportunity to play some important minutes for this team.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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