Only days removed from being crowned 2019-20 Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning have no shortage of work to do in a very short period of time. As the smell and taste of champagne fade, Tampa general manager Julien BriseBois will face the sobering fact that he will have to move on from key pieces of that championship team and get to work on re-signing two of his future cornerstone players.
With the NHL’s salary cap frozen for next season, Tampa has $4.595 million in cap space at their disposal but will need to re-sign or replace eight players who are set to become either unrestricted (UFA)or restricted free agents (RFA). Upfront, BriseBois will have to make a decision on both Patrick Maroon (UFA) and Anthony Cirelli (RFA). The Lightning would welcome back Maroon’s services on a short-term deal under $1 million average annual value (AAV) but there is a good chance that another team will offer more money or more term, thus the 32-year-old winger is likely out.
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Cirelli is a much different story as he is, and will continue to be, a key piece for Tampa down the middle. The 23-year-old two-way centre will likely fetch a long-term deal in the range of $4.5-5.5 million per year and the Lightning will look to lock up the Etobicoke native quickly to avoid the possibility of offer sheets.
BriseBois To Make Tough Decisions On Defense
On the backend, BriseBois and his staff will have their hands full. They will have to make decisions on Erik Cernak, Jan Rutta, Mikhail Sergachev, Luke Schenn, Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian. Priority number one will be re-signing their young stud defenseman Sergachev. Since coming over in the Jonathan Drouin trade, the 22-year-old rearguard has developed into one of the best young defensemen in the NHL and will be a huge piece for the Lightning moving forward. Similar to Cirelli, look for Sergachev to command a long-term deal at around $6 million per year.
BriseBois should be able to re-sign Cernak and Rutta to reasonable deals ($2 million per year or less) but will have to part ways with Shattenkirk, Bogosian and Schenn as they will likely price themselves out of Tampa. This will provide a significant opportunity for the Lightning’s top defensive prospect, Cal Foote, to jump into the lineup next season. The highly-touted 21-year-old defenseman finished last season with six goals and 28 points with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.
Trade Bait: Who’s On Their Way Out?
Once BriseBois has made his decisions on the pending free agents, he will have to immediately switch gears and shed some significant salary in order to stay under the $81.5 million cap. He will be looking directly at his forward group to address this with Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, and Cedric Paquette near the top of the list. The rumblings are already out there that Johnson is being shopped by BriseBois and it seems like the Johnson camp is open to waiving his no-trade clause for a new opportunity.
Gourde is another moveable piece that BriseBois could be shopping. The gritty 28-year-old centre has a significant cap hit of $5.166 million but plays in a bottom-six role. What is interesting about the Gourde situation is that his actual salary for next season will be $1 million less than his cap hit. This could be very attractive for teams with cap space that are looking for contracts with lower “real dollar” values. In addition, BriseBois has a Gourde clone waiting in the wings.
One of Tampa’s top prospects, Alex Barré-Boulet is coming off of his second pro season with the Crunch where he led the team in goals both seasons, captured the AHL Rookie of the Year honours in 2018-19 and was named as a Second Team All-Star this past season. The 23-year-old centre would be the perfect successor to Gourde and would fit nicely at centre on the Lightning’s third line.
Paquette is another trade chip that BriseBois could use to shed salary. The veteran fourth-line centre enters the final year of his deal in Tampa that carries a cap hit of $1.65 million. Having produced just 18 points in 61 contests during the regular season and adding a mere three assists in 25 playoff games, Paquette is easily replaceable and will likely be succeeded by young centre Mitchell Stephens who is four years younger and significantly cheaper.
On defense, BriseBois may have to look at moving 35-year-old defenseman Braydon Coburn and find a cheaper alternative on the free-agent market. Coburn is entering the final year of his deal that carries a cap hit of $1.6 million. Last season, he missed significant time due to injury and finished with a measly one goal and four points in 40 games. The veteran defender has a no-trade clause in his contract which could complicate matters, however, Tampa could send him down to the minors to alleviate the cap hit if they can’t get a deal done.
Bargain Hunting In the Buyout Bin
Look for BriseBois to sprinkle in some cheap veteran players to help fill the two roster holes up front and one on the backend. Recent buyouts, Justin Abdelkader and Michael Grabner would be two great options upfront and Michael Stone would fit in nicely in a seventh defenseman role. All three players should sign at the league minimum of $700,000 per season.
Based on the above discussion, here is what the Lightning roster could look like come next season:
Projection: 2020-21 Tampa Lightning Depth Chart
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While this is one strategy that BriseBois could implement in order to get his team under the salary cap without sacrificing core players, there are many other avenues that he can and should explore. Now that he has had a whopping ten days to celebrate his recent Stanley Cup victory, it’s time to get back to work. This offseason, however, he will have a new member on his staff that he can lean on for support…Lord Stanley.