A quote from the Carolina Hurricanes’ Dougie Hamilton became a big story last week. “We had a great season. We lost to a team that’s $18 million over the cap or whatever they are. They have an unbelievable goalie. I feel like we played them pretty close,” Hamilton told reporters during his exit interview. This, of course, got the Twitterverse going about how the Tampa Bay Lightning circumvented the salary cap to gain an unfair advantage in the playoffs.
Hamilton’s statement was undoubtedly aimed at Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning became cap-compliant by placing Kucherov and his $9.5 million annual salary on long-term injured reserve after he had hip surgery in December. However, he returned to the lineup just in time for the playoffs when the cap is no longer applicable.
Last offseason, the Bolts were unable to get rid of the Tyler Johnson contract via a trade or by placing him on waivers. That wedged the team right up against the cap threshold after signing Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev to new deals. Losing Kucherov for the entire season was the last thing that Tampa wanted, but it did allow the team to sign some needed extensions and make a move to improve the team at the deadline.
There’s no denying that Kucherov’s return invigorated the team. That said, If you look at last year’s squad, it barely changed the roster that won it all a season ago. The only “real” piece that was added for this year’s Cup run was David Savard from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Savard is a bottom pair, depth defenseman with no points in the playoffs and a combined minus-29 on the season. Way to “game” the system Tampa!
Hard Decisions on the Way for the Lightning
What Hamilton said may have been sour grapes, but he wasn’t wrong. The Lightning are way over the cap and will have to get creative this offseason. A handful of players who have played a vital role in the team’s recent success could be on the way out. Two of last season’s deadline acquisitions, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, are both UFAs, both solid additions that will be difficult to replace.
Johnson, despite the uptick in recent form, will probably be moved no matter what happens the rest of the way in these playoffs. Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois will initially look for a trade partner, but if he can’t find one, expect a buyout for the remaining portion of Ty-Jo’s deal. Then again, the problem may take care of itself if the new Seattle Kraken take him in the expansion draft.
Other players who might have to be sacrificed in a salary-cap purge are Alex Killorn or Ondrej Palat. Killorn has two years left on his contract at $4.45 million and has been a solid contributor during this season’s Cup run. In 11 games, he has six goals and six assists while playing a lot of closeout minutes. Palat has cooled off considerably compared to his production in last season’s bubble, with only five points in 11 games. He will also be a UFA after next season and has a bigger cap hit at $5.3 million.
There’s also Yanni Gourde, who had 14 points in 25 games, playing his usual pesky style in the 2020 Playoffs. Through the first two rounds this season, he has three points in 11 games, which is well below last year’s pace. His cap hit is $5,166,666 annually until the end of the 2024-25 season, when he’ll be well into his thirties.
The Remaining Games Will Dictate Who Stays and Who Goes
How the Lightning intend to become cap compliant is anyone’s guess. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played in this year’s playoffs with many twists and turns still to come. Could the strong play of a young player like Ross Colton make one of the veterans expendable? What happens if one of the players mentioned above suffers a debilitating injury? Has this version of the Bolts has run its course? Some of those questions could be answered by season’s end but to try and predict what will happen is a fool’s errand.
All of these variables will have a major impact, good or bad, on how the Lightning want to move forward with their roster. If the club does pull off the repeat, the last thing BriseBois will want is to lose key pieces of his team, even if he has little choice. Depth has been the driving force of the team’s success, and they were fortunate to have so many players step up in the absence of one of the best players in the game in Kucherov, who missed the entire regular season.
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Now they are reaping the benefits of their talented roster as they vie for their second consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. This, unfortunately, won’t be the case next season. As the Lightning look to shed salary, many other NHL squads will look to Tampa Bay to add depth to their roster, and whoever they lose will be a considerable loss. How BriseBois replace those players will be the key to keeping the team in Stanley Cup contention going forward.
Frank is a former competitive hockey player at the D3 college level. He’s what you’d call a hockey “lifer” having also worked as a hockey referee, time keeper and assistant youth coach, along with being a longtime member of USA Hockey. Frank comes to THW after contributing content on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Orlando Magic for BackSportsPage.com.