Lightning’s 3 Recent Extensions Will Impact Team’s Future

The Tampa Bay Lightning are no strangers to spending money. With four players on the books for over $7 million for 2022-23 prior to Wednesday, they have not been shy in spending money on their talent. Despite the influx they’ve been willing to spend, the amount that they did in just minutes shocked the hockey world. As part of the first day of free agency, general manager Julien Brisebois extended the trifecta of Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anthony Cirelli. Spending just under $160 million, over eight years, in about 15 minutes.

Sergachev Inks a Monster Deal

The first extension announced Wednesday afternoon came in the form of a monster 8-year $68 million extension for the 24-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. In terms of value, this one was easily the most controversial of the three deals. When it kicks in next year, he will be a $625,000 greater salary cap hit than legendary defenseman Victor Hedman. While he has shown flashes of greatness in his five-year career, the Lightning are counting on him to take the next step in his development in order to live up to the hefty contract. However, signing a defenseman to over $8 million per year who hasn’t had 40 points in a season, nor finished solidifying himself as an elite defensive threat in the NHL, warrants a bit of confusion.

Chris Kreider New York Rangers Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy and Mikhail Sergachev of the Tampa Bay Lightning defend as Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers follows the play (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Sergachev has been a constant throughout the Lighting’s playoff runs the past three years. While he is a quick twitch, dynamic defenseman with some offensive upside, turnovers at inopportune times have plagued his reputation throughout his young career. However, he’s only 24 years old and has proven he has all the intangibles of a number one defenseman. He’s also seemed to improve his game every year, meaning that at just 24, the sky is the limit for his potential. With the departure of Ryan McDonagh this offseason he’ll be relied upon to play a much larger role, and perform to the level of his new extension. Essentially, the Lightning have put their faith in him taking the step from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

Cernak Signs His Extension

Minutes later, Cernak inked his eight-year extension at $5.2 million per year. He is a lockdown defensive defenseman, acquired in 2017 from the Los Angeles Kings in the deal that sent star goaltender Ben Bishop to Hollywood. At just 25 years old he’s already proven himself to be a legitimate top-four defenseman who can stymy another team’s top offensive threats. While not the greatest offensively, his ability to make life tough for his offensive opponents through his physical presence makes the extension well deserving.

For now, Cernak slates to be paired up with Hedman on the Lightning’s top defensive pairing. The pairing makes for an intimidating threat, with Hedman standing at 6-foot-6 and Cernak 6-foot-3. His physical play along with Hedman’s offensive prowess makes them one of the best defensive pairings in the league.

Erik Cernak Tampa Bay Lightning
Erik Cernak, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Lighting made a statement with their pocketbook Wednesday, expressing their confidence in Cernak and Sergachev to be the long-term successors to veterans like Hedman and McDonagh through these extensions. Both will be under a microscope this year, with the increase in their roles due to the McDonagh loss. We’ll get to immediately see the impact that these two can have on the Lightning’s future as early as 2022-23.

Anthony Cirelli Extension

While he may not be in the lineup come the first game of the 2022-23 regular season, the Lighting did not forget about Cirelli on Wednesday. His extension, coming in at eight years and $6.25 million per year, made him a centerpiece of the future for the franchise. While the offensive numbers throughout his young career don’t exactly jump off the page, his two-way game has played a large role in the success it has had over his four-year career. The deal comes in at a very fair number due to his ability to shut down opponents’ top lines throughout the 2021-22 Playoffs.

Anthony Cirelli Tampa Bay Lightning
Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Cirelli, a third-round pick by the Lightning in 2015, came with a multitude of question marks when he was drafted. With just 36 points in 68 games with the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) during his draft year, many questioned his offensive ability even as a middle-round pick. However, his offensive numbers improved in the year following the draft increasing to 59 points in 62 games with the Generals in 2015-16. He continued to evolve his game, playing another year in the OHL, then most of the 2017-18 season with the Lightning’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Syracuse Crunch before being called up at the end of the year. He hasn’t looked back since the call-up, becoming an integral part of the nucleus in Tampa Bay.

Locking in the Future

The three extensions represent a commitment to the future by the Lightning’s front office. All three players are stepping into the prime of their careers and have already established themselves as invaluable to the Lightning’s success moving forward. With all the money spent on the current roster, the direction of the team is clear; win now. The Stanley Cup Final loss just a few weeks ago did little to deter the intentions of the franchise. Their window is still now, and with stars like Hedman and Steven Stamkos on the wrong side of 30, and a relatively weak prospect pool, the Lightning’s is in the early stages of fading.

For the Lightning to continue the success they’ve had the last three years, all of the players extended Wednesday will need to step up. The loss of Ondrej Palat to the New Jersey Devils will put a little more pressure on everyone in their top-six, including Cirelli, as he provided a veteran two-way game that will be hard for them to replace. Not to mention his many clutch playoff performances over the last three seasons. Cirelli will be one of a handful of players who will be relied upon to elevate their game in order to replace Palat’s production.

Ondrej Palat Tampa Bay Lightning
Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Cernak and Sergachev will also be relied upon to take the next step in their development. The defensive core is going to look a lot different in 2022-23 for the Lightning. On top of the aforementioned loss of McDonagh, they also lost Jan Rutta in free agency. While on paper, Phillipe Myers and Ian Cole will be their physical replacements, Cernak and Sergachev will have to play an elevated role to replace the losses from their production.

Related: Lightning Can Replace Palat, But it Won’t Be Easy

For Sergachev, he needs to continue to develop his 200-foot game. While his play in the defensive zone continues to get better, he’ll be relied upon to eat more minutes defensively, putting more emphasis on the continuation of his development in his own zone. He’ll also need to improve upon his play on the Lightning’s second power-play unit. Cernak, on the other hand, has a solid defensive game already. He just needs to continue to add some offense to his game, while maintaining the physical presence that makes him so valuable.

In short, Wednesday represented a commitment to the younger portion of the Lightning’s core. While a fair amount of the current one in Tampa Bay begins to age, they have now committed to the younger members to be their successors. For example, Sergachev’s extension represents their belief that he can possibly be the successor to Hedman as the number-one defenseman, as Hedman will be in his late 30s towards the latter years of his deal. Cernak and Cirelli will also be tasked with carrying the torch of the older members of the current forward core. With a smaller pool of prospects, BriseBois has decided to take care of the younger talent long-term, with the hopes that these extensions will help extend the window that the Lightning have to win another Cup with the group they have right now.