Things move fast in the world of sports. Less than one calendar year ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning went all-in on defense at the Seattle Kraken Expansion draft, protecting four defensemen which exposed much of their offensive core to the Kraken. At the time, this was a commitment to the team’s three-time championship aspirations, as they could replace a forward easier than a top-four defenseman.
One year later, things are a bit different for the Lightning. After reaching a third-straight Stanley Cup final, the team finds themselves at an impasse with their forward corps. While the majority of their players are locked down for at least one more season, both Ondrej Palat and Nick Paul are unrestricted free agents (UFA’s), meaning that these key playoff contributors could be leaving the franchise for greener pastures when free agency starts on July 13th. So, as a team pushed firmly against the cap ceiling, they would need to find a way to clear out some money in order to sign these players.
This means that if the Lightning want to keep either of these players or go out and make a splash in free agency, they will need to make a trade to get some money off the books. However, unlike in recent years, Tampa Bay are lacking in resources to entice a team to take on a player with a bad contract, meaning they may have to get creative and trade a core player who has value on than market.
Lightning Have Decision With McDonagh
The tone of this quote says it all. Every season that they are up against the cap, the Lightning will have to make incredibly difficult decisions to get compliant. While McDonagh is an important top-four defenseman for the team and a leader both on and off the ice, those qualities also make him attractive on the trade market. As a top-four, right-shot defenseman with a championship pedigree, there will be a lot of teams interested in acquiring his services, even with his $6.75 million contract lasting through 2025-26.
For the Lightning, selling McDonagh when he is still a valuable asset is appealing. In recent years, the franchise has been forced to give up future assets to get the final years of a contract off their books. This is a double loss, as you’re not only giving up assets but also have to replace said player’s ice-time.
In this case, Tampa Bay already has a worthy successor for McDonagh’s role. Over the last two seasons, Mikhail Sergachev has taken strides in his development, and he now looks more than ready to take on consistent top-four ice time for years to come. This would force McDonagh down the line-up, which isn’t a bad thing but also wouldn’t be an ideal use of his cap hit, especially as Sergachev will be due a raise in the 2023 offseason.
So, if they can trade McDonagh this offseason, they may be able to recoup some needed future assets while clearing out a spot on the roster for Sergachev and opening up enough cap space to re-sign Palat and Paul. This would kill three birds with one move, which are all positives for Tampa Bay.
Lightning Don’t Want to Lose McDonagh
No general manager wants to trade a player like McDonagh while their team is competing for Stanley Cup Championships, as he makes you objectively better. Sure, he may not be the dominant force that he once was, but even at age 32, he is still a strong defenseman who can take on 20-plus minutes of ice time each night, block shots and help you win in the playoffs.
If not for a stagnant salary cap, this trade would never be considered. However, when former Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman signed McDonagh to his seven-year, $47.25 million contract, the league was in a different place. That contract was always going to be a long-term risk, but years of a flat cap has made it even more difficult for Tampa Bay to manage.
This is the nature of sports sometimes, and the teams that can navigate these difficult decisions best are the ones who succeed long-term. Ultimately, the Lightning will be forced to give up talent sometime during the 2022 offseason, and if trading McDonagh allows them to keep Palat and/or Paul, then it is a move they may have to make.
Is this ideal? No. However, with the likes of Sergachev waiting in the wings, it isn’t the worst-case scenario either. Depending on the return, a move like this could help the Lightning extend their Cup window a little bit further, which is something incredibly difficult to do in the cap era.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.