Regardless of how they do in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs — if they even make it — the Tampa Bay Lightning will have a busy offseason. They have six restricted free agents (RFAs) and four unrestricted free agents (UFAs) heading into the 2020-21 season.
Tampa’s RFAs are arguably the more interesting group because, firstly, it’s their young core players. Forwards Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens and Carter Verhaeghe all need contracts, as do defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. Five of those players are 22 years old or younger, and Verhaeghe is the oldest at 24.
The Lightning will have just over $8 million in projected cap space next season, but that’s not enough to sign six players. So, let’s see what options general manager Julien BriseBois has, and what he should do with each player.
As of Dec. 24, Stephens has played in only seven games for the Lightning and hasn’t registered a point. He was drafted in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, and in parts of four seasons with the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League (AHL), he has 75 points in 126 games.
Unless he becomes something of a phenomenon for the rest of the year, I don’t see the Lightning re-signing Stephens. It’s unlikely he would want to go back to the Crunch, so the Lightning could let him walk. Given his production so far and with the players they have in place, it shouldn’t impact the Lightning. Stephens is a player who could fit in well on a rebuilding team, such as the Los Angeles Kings or Detroit Red Wings, who are willing to take a chance on a young player with potential.
Verhaeghe is a little more difficult to figure out than Stephens. He has just four points in 24 games this year, but he led the AHL in goals and scoring in 2018-19. That production hasn’t translated to the NHL game for a few reasons. Since he’s not a top-six forward with the Lightning, his ice time and scoring chances are much more limited than they were with the Crunch. But, even though he hasn’t scored much, he’s still a very reliable two-way forward, a common theme between a lot of the players on this list.
My first inclination is the Lightning will not re-sign Verhaeghe. He’s 24 and has yet to tap into the scoring potential he had in the AHL, but that’s mostly because he has a smaller role with the Lightning. Like Stephens, if he were to go to a team that wanted young talent with high upside, his scoring numbers could improve.
The Lightning would miss Verhaeghe’s two-way abilities, but I don’t see them taking a chance on a guy who will most likely be a third- or fourth-line center when they can give more money to players who have a higher impact.
In his second season with the Lightning, Joseph enjoyed a nice rookie year with 26 points in 70 games as a bottom-six forward. He’s a little behind that pace this year with seven points in 32 games, and he has been scratched and even sent down once this year. Again, he’s another solid two-way forward with explosive speed, but he hasn’t done much more this year than aggressive forechecking.
I feel the Lightning would be more open to re-signing Verhaeghe as opposed to Joseph, but that doesn’t mean Joseph can’t earn the contract. If he can get back to the NHL and get back to his scoring pace from last year, the front office might be willing to make an offer close to the league minimum. But, like Verhaeghe and Stephens, Joseph is a player that rebuilding teams could target as potential fixes for bottom-six and checking roles. It’s not out of the question for Joseph to re-sign with the Lightning, but it looks unlikely right now, especially since he’s in the AHL.
Cirelli is in his second full NHL season and has quickly become something of a household name for Lightning fans. He has 22 points in 34 games and is — in my opinion — the Bolts best two-way forward. He leads the team with 27 takeaways and is fifth among all forwards in the NHL in shorthanded ice time (101:35).
If I’m BriseBois, re-signing Cirelli is at the top of my “to-do list” for the upcoming offseason. Players and coaches on the Lightning — as well as from other teams — are comparing Cirelli to the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Sidney Crosby, and that’s when you know you’ve got something special (from ‘How Anthony Cirelli became the Lightning’s ‘engine’ and why that complicates their summer cap crunch’, The Athletic — 12/18/19). It would not be out of the question to see Cirelli get a contract with an average annual value of $5 million, but Lightning players have been known to take less money.
Whatever the case, the Lightning need to sign Cirelli — he has been arguably their most important player this season and will be extremely important in the future.
After what turned into a fairly impressive rookie season, Cernak has not been quite as good as he was last year. He’s been paired with Ryan McDonagh on the second defensive pairing and is a big body and shut-down defenseman. He was never going to be a big point producer, but he’s no stranger to throwing checks, blocking shots, defending his teammates and dropping the gloves.
I think Cernak will present the most difficulty when trying to re-sign him. He’s a valuable defenseman, but the Lightning have a few prospects that could be ready for the jump to the NHL next year, like Cal Foote, Oleg Sosunov and Dominik Masin. Rather than overpaying Cernak, the club might opt to give one of those players a chance, or move Luke Schenn into a full-time position. The Lightning would be fine with letting Cernak go, but if they decide to keep him, they can’t overpay for a player with generally limited abilities.
In his third full season with the Lightning, Sergachev is one of their best young defensemen. He had 40 points in his rookie season two years ago then 32 last year, but he’s on pace for about 45 points this year. While he bounces up and down the pairings due to some defensive liabilities, he’s a dynamic skater who is continuing to prove he can play in the NHL, especially on the second power-play unit.
Behind Cirelli, Sergachev should be BriseBois’s next main focus. The 21-year-old is a perfect example for younger defensemen of what they can become in the NHL, and he’s simply played his way to be an everyday NHLer. He’s still young, and that shows given his 28 penalty minutes this season, but a defenseman who scores 30 to 40 points in his teens and early 20s is encouraging.
What kind of contract he would get is another story. A five-year deal would take him through his age 27 season but the AAV would have to be relatively low assuming they re-sign one or two of the other players on this list. The Lightning could shorten that to a three-year deal to see if he pans out to be the player he was predicted to be. But, the Lightning should at least make an offer and try to keep him in blue and white.
This list doesn’t factor in any possible trades the Lightning may make or the UFA deals they could make. Those could have an impact on who and how many players are signed.