As a team perennially pressed against the cap ceiling, the Tampa Bay Lightning have developed a reputation as a team that can get creative in order to retain their most important core players. This has included aggressively shedding salary, using draft picks to encourage teams to take on additional salary in trades, pulling unexpected starting gems from minor deals, and even skirting the line of the long-time injury reserve rule.
One aspect that can get overlooked in all of these cap shenanigans, however, is how efficient the Lightning have been when it comes to signing their players. Over the last decade, the team has had a remarkable hit rate with their contracts, as they often avoid overspending in free agency and instead opt to give their homegrown players deals that allow them to both secure the proverbial bag while still being team friendly.
This has resulted in a team that features a number of contracts that would be considered below market value. So, with these deals in mind, what are the Tampa Bay Lightning’s four best contracts heading into the 2022-23 season?
#4: Erik Cernak – $2.95 Million
At the start of the 2022 free agency, the Lightning made headlines by re-signing not just one or two but all three of their restricted free agents who had one year remaining on their current contracts to eight-year deals. This was unexpected, as you rarely see this kind of commitment to three players on the same day, but it was a sign that Tampa Bay fully believed in their core that brought them to three straight Stanley Cups Finals.
While Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli are the headliners from these deals, the one player that often gets overlooked is Erik Cernak. As a defensively focused defenseman, his game plan is more about laying down hits and blocking shots than racking up points.
However, when you watch the team on a nightly basis, you understand why the Lightning committed to him for eight more years. Every team needs a big top-4 defenseman who can play tough minutes on the penalty kill, throw down the gloves to fight, and eat around 20 minutes of ice time each night.
Cernak has been this player for the Lightning for years and given his paltry $2.95 million cap hit for the 2022-23 season, he is a bargain contract for what he brings to the ice each night.
#3: Brandon Hagel – $1.5 Million
Normally I wouldn’t consider a player on their introductory NHL contract for a list like this, because that feels a bit like cheating. Of course a young player who hasn’t reached free agency yet will carry a lower cost, as that is part of the very design of the sport. However, when you target one such player in a trade and pay a premium for their services, I think you then can claim their low-cost contract as an earned asset. So, this is why I can confidently put Brandon Hagel on this list.
Even if his scoring numbers post-trade weren’t exceptional, Hagel is still an incredibly talented player who will play a big role for the Lightning in 2022-23 in more ways than just on the scoresheet. For example, he led Tampa Bay with 12 penalties drawn throughout the 2022 postseason, despite playing with a fractured foot for most of it.
In reality, I’m placing a bit of a bet on Hagel when I put him on this list. While I don’t believe that he will be scoring at the same pace he was prior to his acquisition by the Lightning, I do fully expect him to find his stride again with the team this year, and with a $1.5 million contract, his stride is full of value.
#2: Corey Perry – $1.0 Million
One advantage to being a team competing for a championship every season is that you can leverage this success to attract veteran players who are focused more on winning a Stanley Cup than receiving a big payday. This is what the Lightning did when they signed Corey Perry to a two-year, $1 million per year contract back in the 2021 offseason.
Despite starting slowly with the Lightning, Perry eventually found his game as a bottom-six pest with scoring upside. He would go on to post 19 goals and 40 points in a full 82-game regular season and followed that up with six goals and 11 points in the playoffs. Also, he pulled down 66 penalty minutes in the regular season, which tied him for third-most on the team.
By all accounts that is massive production from a 37-year-old veteran making just $1 million per year. Perry has proven that he is still an impact player on the ice and that the Lightning were wise to sign him not just for one season, but two. By locking him down in 2021, they have a valuable low-cost forward who should continue to be a leader for the team in 2022-23.
#1: Victor Hedman – $7.875 Million
It may feel a bit blase to say it by this point, but as long as Victor Hedman is skating for the Lightning under his current contract, he is not only the best value for the team but one of the best values in the entire sport. In 2022, he continued this trend, as he posted his career highs in both goals and points while earning his sixth-straight Norris Trophy nomination.
To put it simply, Hedman is still one of the best defensemen in the entire NHL. If he were to hit the open market today as a free agent, he would easily garner a contract in the $9.5 to $11 million range given his history and production as an elite defender.
Fortunately for the Lightning, Hedman is under contract through 2025 at that incredible cap hit, and he has never seemed bothered that he isn’t the highest-paid player in the league or even on his own team. All he has done is go out, play some of the best hockey in the world, win championships, and put together a hall of fame worth career that still has a lot left to be written.
Lightning Rely Upon Value Contracts to Stay Competitive
In the salary cap world, all it takes is one bad contract to break a franchise, or one team-friendly deal to help set them up for success. For the Lightning, the production of these four players relative to their cap hit will be a major part of why they are able to continue finding success despite being a championship contender for years.
Every dollar counts in the NHL, and by saving a few million, it allows the Lightning to make enough space to sign or trade for one more impact player. Those players can go on to make the difference in a tight postseason game, where even one goal can decide if they move forward or get eleminated.
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.