Following their defeat in the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the most talked-about teams in the league. They’ve been compared to a younger Chicago Blackhawks team (think pre-trifecta-of-cups, so around the 2008-09 season) in the sense that they are a dominant group of mostly homegrown players with a core that still has yet to hit its prime.
However, what most people have not been talking about is the fact that, just like it did to the Hawks after each of their Stanley Cup victories, the salary cap may tear this young Lightning team apart before they win even one Stanley Cup.
It’s pretty well-known by now that the Lightning are very limited in cap flexibility; according to generalfanager.com, GM Steve Yzerman has only $3,112,027 in cap space for the upcoming offseason. It may appear that such a number is no problem considering the fact that he has just two RFAs (Vladislav Namestnikov and Andrej Sustr) to sign this summer, and a UFA in Brenden Morrow who is likely to be relieved of his services. But a closer look reveals the imminent situation that Yzerman got himself into.
Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were first key contributors with the Jon Cooper-led, Calder Cup-winning 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals before becoming rising stars in the NHL under the same coach. The latter two have excelled together on a line with Nikita Kucherov. However, all four are grossly underpaid for the kind of production they’ve brought to the Lightning — especially in the playoffs, where they all appeared in the top-five of team playoff scoring.
Johnson led the way with an incredible 23 points (13G, 10A) in 26 games, well-exceeding the worth of his $3,333,333 contract — a twin contract shared by No. 5 on the scoring list, Palat (8-8-16). They are both due for big raises two summers from now, and their roles as scoring leaders have only just begun.
But Nikita Kucherov – the third piece to the “Triplet Line” who makes only $711,666 – exceeded all expectations, scoring 22 points (10G, 12A) and finishing second in Lightning playoff scoring. Yzerman has him at a bargain for now, but with his deal expiring next summer, Kucherov will have earned himself a well-deserved multi-million dollar contract.
Killorn has been playing on the first line for quite some time and finished third in scoring (9-9-18), showing that he can be a very productive complementary player for a prolific scorer like Steven Stamkos. Coming in at just $2,550,000 this coming season, he too will be asking for a big raise in the 2016 offseason.
With young guys like Sustr, Namestnikov and Mark Barberio already in need of new contracts this summer, as well as Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Nesterov and Andrei Vasilevskiy not too far behind, there is already plenty of pressure on management to manage the cap with care. But with team captain Stamkos just a summer away from hitting free agency, they’ll need to re-sign the biggest piece of all — and it won’t be cheap. How will Yzerman find the cap space to pull it all off?
Stamkos could probably make something along the lines of the eight-year, $84 million deals Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed last summer. Stamkos said he isn’t too worried about it, believing the contract talks will ‘take care of itself.’
– Joe Smith, Tampa Bay Times
It doesn’t look too promising that he can.
There are many differing opinions about the worth of Ryan Callahan, but his $5,800,000 contract running through 2020 is essentially a dagger to the heart of Yzerman going forward. Earning that much after putting up just two goals and six assists in 25 playoff games does not exactly make sense when considering that the cap space Callahan’s contract takes up would be much better utilized in paying the young stars mentioned above.
Tampa's window is smaller than most think. They have way too many guys who will need huge raises soon and Callahan is eating away their cap
— Greg (@RealistSpeaking) June 16, 2015
But equally as glaring of an issue is the fact that $10.1 million is tied up into just two players, Matthew Carle and Jason Garrison — both way past their prime and soon to be serving much smaller roles than they are currently in — for three more seasons each. Braydon Coburn is on the books for another season at $4.5 million, and the Lightning will still be paying Mattias Ohlund $3,607,142 and the $1.6 million retained in the Sam Gagner trade — and those two players don’t even play for the Lightning anymore.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Yzerman makes any trades at the draft or at any other point this offseason to create some cap room that allows him to pay his young stars. The Blackhawks lost key players like Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland and potentially now Patrick Sharp as well, among others, due to cap constraints in the past. Yzerman is going to want to avoid being in that same situation to keep his group together, fresh off the success of a Stanley Cup Final appearance and hoping to make it back soon to finish the job.