With the moves that Tampa Bay Lightning general manager (GM) Julien BriseBois has made this offseason, money is tighter than ever. Despite trading Ryan McDonagh to increase cap space and letting Ondrej Palat and Jan Rutta go in free agency, the additions of Ian Cole, Hayden Fleury and Vladislav Namestnikov in free agency have his team still testing the limits of the salary cap. The additions have put them over $7 million over the salary cap for 2022-23, with little relief in sight for future seasons. With BriseBois also assigning hefty extensions to Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Anthony Cirelli, they will be hovering near the cap for the foreseeable future.
While BriseBois has been able to finagle the Lightning out of cap issues in the past, the long-term effects may prove detrimental to the franchise. While the current core has been taken care of by the organization through long-term, market-level contracts, the ability to sign quality players around them has decreased with each year. For example, in 2020 they were able to bring in Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, both of whom provided the necessary depth for the team to win its first Stanley Cup since 2004. Yet after winning the Cup again in 2021, they were unable to afford to sign both players once they hit free agency.
As the Lightning continue to add expensive contracts to the books, this trend will likely continue. Brandon Hagel could potentially become the latest victim as he will be eligible for an extension after the 2022-23 season, becoming a restricted free agent (RFA) after the 2023-24 season. Regardless of how the Lightning feel about him, the extensions they inked this summer could handcuff them from making an appropriate decision on his future with the organization.
Hagel Finds New Role with Lightning in 2022
Acquired at the trade deadline this past year, the Lightning gave up two first-round picks as well as Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk in exchange for Hagel and a pair of fourth-round picks. At the time of the deal, he had 21 goals in just 55 games with the Chicago Blackhawks, averaging over 17 minutes of ice time. Playing in their top-six, he was severely outplaying his meagre $1.5 million salary, making him an affordable addition to the expensive Lightning roster.
While many felt the Lightning paid a bit too much for Hagel, adding him made sense given their needs. The hope was that he could come in and provide secondary scoring while on a cost-effective deal for the team. However, he struggled to keep remotely close offensive numbers to that of his tenure in Chicago. In 22 regular season games with the Lightning, he had just four goals and seven total points, playing mostly with fellow trade deadline acquisition Nick Paul and Ross Colton on the third line. While his role definitely decreased on the Lightning, playing four fewer minutes per game on average, his low offensive numbers were cause for alarm.
In the 2022 Playoffs, Hagel found a new role within the team, making him a significant contributor to their run to the Cup Final. While not the scoring threat the Lightning may have intended him to be when they traded for him, he played a hard, defensive game while playing through a foot fracture for a large portion of the playoffs. After Brayden Point went down with a leg injury in Game 7 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Hagel became a Swiss Army knife for head coach Jon Cooper, as he was able to rely on him to play up and down the lineup throughout the rest of the playoffs. He also became a huge contributor in the later rounds on the second line with Alex Killorn and Cirelli. Together the three did an excellent job defensively, shutting down opponents’ top lines.
Hagel’s Expected Increase in Role for 2022-23
While the Lightning may have mixed emotions about what Hagel provided in 2022, their recent moves leave them stuck with him for the short-term future. With two more years at $1.5 million average annual value (AAV), he’s an affordable piece of the puzzle for the franchise. However, his future in Tampa Bay beyond 2023-24 is questionable at best.
In 2022-23, Hagel will be one of a number of current Lightning that will be relied upon to have an increased role. With the loss of Ondrej Palat this offseason, he is the top candidate to replace him on the team’s first line. However, playing with two future Hall of Famers in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, there will be an expectation for his offensive numbers to more closely resemble the 0.67 point-per-game pace he had with the Blackhawks in 2021-22.
Even if Jon Cooper opts for someone else to replace Palat on the top line, Hagel will be counted on to play a similar top-six role to his days with Chicago. With Anthony Cirelli recovering from offseason shoulder surgery for the beginning portions of the 2022-23 season, the Lightning will have just four of their top-six from the previous season in uniform come the season opener. Meaning that regardless of what line he plays on to start the season, they will be relying on the 23-year-old to step up into a similar role that he played with the Blackhawks.
Lightning May Struggle to Keep Hagel Long-Term
Hagel will be eligible for an extension after this upcoming season. The chances of one actually getting done next summer will be dictated by two main factors; his play in 2022-23, and the availability of cap space once the Cirelli, Cernak, and Sergachev extensions kick in for 2023-24.
If Hagel can be a viable successor to Palat this upcoming season, increasing his offensive numbers, the Lightning will have a tough situation on their hands. While deserving of an extension, if this condition plays out, he’ll have likely played himself out of one that the Lighting would be able to afford. When accounting for the extensions the team gave out last week, they have invested over $59 million in just eight players for 2024-25. Meaning that the Lightning, using the $82.5 million salary cap for 2022-23, have about $23 million to fill the remaining 15 roster spots. Needless to say, the recent extensions will severely hinder their ability to get a deal done with Hagel next summer.
In no way does this mean that a big 2022-23 season from Hagel completely eliminates his chances of sticking with the Lightning beyond the next two seasons. Instead, the situation highlights a continued side effect of the franchise’s success, players playing themselves out of their budget. With the team in ‘win now’ mode for the next couple of years, the two years left on Hagel’s team-friendly deal make him a cost-effective asset to continuing that success. However, the lack of cap space they have moving forward may make him another victim of their commitment to the core for the long-term future.