Timing is everything while discussing a topic as constantly in-flux as restricted free agent (RFA) signings this summer. This article is being written directly after Mitch Marner signed his six-year, $65.3-million contract extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sept. 13th. Every idea presented in this article could look completely ridiculous in a matter of weeks, days or even hours.
With that caveat out of the way, here’s one thing we can all agree on. For a certain caliber of NHL player, the RFA bridge deal is dead. It has slowly eroded over the years, as teams became more desperate to lock down their young core players at the peak of their careers
No longer will a two or three-year, $15-million bridge deal suffice before signing a massive extension. With stars like Auston Matthews and Marner receiving $10-plus million a year, there’s no reason to believe that other RFAs of their caliber are not looking for a similar contract.
This leads us to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Brayden Point. Heading into the 2019 offseason, signing Point was arguably the franchises’ top-priority, with Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois clearing cap-space in order to make room for their budding RFA star.
However, what seemed like a sure signing even a few days ago has now become a massive question mark. Whether it is Point asking more than the Lightning are willing to give, or that BriseBois is being a bit too dedicated to the bridge deal, contract negotiations have seemingly stalled between the two parties.
With the Lightning starting training camp without Point, the question should now be raised… when do the Bolts decide to pull the ripcord and trade their All-Star center if they cannot reach a deal?
Lightning’s Cap Nightmare Could Cost Point
As mentioned earlier, timing is everything in the NHL. Over the course of the last three seasons, the Lightning have locked down core veteran players to long-term deals. This led the franchise to have the majority of their cap-space tied up in players that are either vital to Tampa Bay’s success or untradeable due to their contracts.
This meant that by the time Point reached RFA status, the Lightning were already in a tough spot against the salary cap. Due to this, BriseBois was likely hoping to sign him to a relatively smaller bridge deal, similar to what Nikita Kucherov received before signing his eight-year, $76 million contract.
If Point rightfully believes that he is worth more than a bridge deal, the Lightning may simply not be able to afford what his market value dictates. Even if they decided to break the bank and give him a $9-10 million extension, it would put the team into a new cap-hell for the 2020 offseason.
Lightning’s 2020 RFA Class Vital to Future Success
See, the Lightning’s 2020 RFA class is one of the most important in franchise history. In this class, you had Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy (who already signed an eight-year extension) forwards Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph along with defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak.
So, in one offseason, the Lightning would have their starting goaltender, two top-nine forwards and two of their top-four defensemen all due for a significant raise.
Under the best of circumstances, those contracts would have been difficult to navigate for the franchise. Even if the Lightning had been able to sign Point to a $6 million bridge deal, they likely would have been forced to trade at least one of those RFAs to fit under the cap.
If Point ends up needing closer to $9-10 million to re-sign, then the Lightning may not be able to afford two or even three of these players. While the franchise has enough depth to absorb the loss of Joseph, players with skillsets like Sergachev, Cernak, and Cirelli are much more difficult to replace.
So, if the Lightning are able to make enough cap space to sign Point, BriseBois will find himself back against the negotiating wall in the 2020 offseason as he tries to make room for the next RFA class.
Should Lightning Trade Point?
Under normal circumstances, trading a player like Point would be blasphemy, as 90-point scorers under the age of 25 are a rare commodity in the NHL. However, if the Lightning simply can’t reach a deal with him, then a trade may be their only course of action.
The problem is, projecting the value of an RFA likely demanding a high-cost contract is difficult. The number of teams who could afford to take on a $10 million extension is limited, and the ones that could may not be willing to part with significant assets to do so.
If the best-case trade scenario were to occur for Point, the Lightning would receive a package of draft picks, prospects and the ability to clear an expensive long-term contract. Given how star forwards like Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin were traded for relatively lackluster returns in recent years, though, the actual offers on Point may be significantly lower than this best-case scenario.
Lightning Shouldn’t Trade Point for Peanuts
Until Point is signed to a long-term contract, speculation will continue to swirl about his future in Tampa Bay. Despite the fact that this is a highly volatile situation, the Lightning shouldn’t panic and trade their All-Star forward for anything lower than a perfect offer.
However, being too patient may cost the Lightning the services of one of their key forwards for most of the 2019-20 season, similar to what happened in Toronto last season. Even if they were able to reach a deal in November or December, it could take Point weeks to get back into regular-season form.
So, it really is imperative for the Lightning to sort this out before the start of the season. If they can’t, then it may be in their best interest to trade him for future assets instead of prolonging contract talks throughout the season.
Would this be ideal? No. But sometimes teams and players find themselves in bad situations. Hopefully, this situation will be resolved by the start of the 2019-20 season, and this article will look foolhardy in retrospect.
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.