Lightning a masterpiece of roster construction and salary cap management, but they can't hold on to everybody

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This morning the Tampa Bay Lightning stand on the cusp of a couple of rare feats. The Bolts lead the Montreal Canadiens 3 games to 0 in the Stanley Cup Finals and with a win tonight, they could become the first team in 23 years to win the final series in the minimum four games. They would also become just the second repeat champion over that same span.

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The last team to sweep the Stanley Cup Finals was the 1998 Detroit Red Wings, way back in Ken Holland;s first season as a General Manager in this league. Even though Holland was himself technically a “rookie” GM, his Red Wings were themselves a repeat champion, a feat which has only grown more difficult over the years as the NHL has continued to expand to the current 31 teams.

Not only are the Bolts leading the series, they are dominating it. Through 3 games they have outscored the Habs by 14 goals to 5, the biggest goal differential to this point in a SCF since the 1997 Red Wings gained a stranglehold on the Philadelphia Flyers by an identical goal count of 14-5. They would go on to clinch the Cup with a 2-1 win in Game 4.

Inevitable references to the 1942 Maple Leafs notwithstanding, it seems a virtual certainty that the Lightning will soon clinch the Cup, whether at the first opportunity or in a subsequent game. It’s a crackerjack team that GM Julien BriseBois and his predecessor Steve Yzerman have put together, a master class of building from within with just the right amount of tinkering around the edges. And while this may be a sore point with many fans (including this one) this particular season, perhaps the best example of salary cap management to date.

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Needs to be said there is a large, smelly elephant in that particular room. That the Bolts were able to power up their playoff roster with the now-presumptive Conn Smythe Trophy winner in Nikita Kucherov after writing off his entire regular season cap hit — a substantial $9.5 million — to Long Term Injured Reserve, was either clever cap circumvention or old-fashioned cheating, depending on one’s point of view.

Let’s settle here on “gaming the system”. Kucherov did have a legitimate injury stemming from last season’s successful playoff run here in the Edmonton Bubble, but the timing of both his surgery and his subsequent convalescence “just happened” to cover the entire duration of the regular season, during which time the Bolts employed a cap team even in his absence. Come playoff time, with the cap no longer in force, the Bolts were free to activate Kucherov, who was a fair ways over 100% by the time he hit the ice in Game 1 of the playoffs. He’s been lighting it up ever since.

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It’s dicey, but it’s legal. At least it is until the NHL does something to fix a loophole wide enough to drive an 18-wheeler through. Not the first time a team has taken advantage of it — Patrick Kane and the 2015 Blackhawks come to mind — but Kane only missed a quarter of the season. This episode is unique in that the player in question had an official cap hit of $0 for the entire season with a subsequent post-season Return On Investment that is, effectively, infinite.

So too is it legal to take on existing LTIR contracts as Tampa did with Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson in an attempt to maximize available cap. The complex machinations which ensued are beyond the scope of this post, but here for the interested reader.

The net result was that the Bolts were able to endure a $6 million raise to their superstar goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, along with significant boosts on the order of $4 and $2 million respectively to emerging young defencemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak on bridge contracts, without being forced to unload key pieces from elsewhere on the roster as many had gleefully anticipated last summer. A tidy piece of work by BriseBois and company.

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But here’s the thing about Tampa’s salary management: they pay their players, and pay them well, at all the key positions on the roster. There’s scarcely a trace of waste elsewhere; just a single example of a big contract playing down the roster on a depth line, and no dead cap whatsoever. No lingering buyouts or cap retention from eras past, not a Milan Lucic or Andrej Sekera or Benoit Pouliot cap hole to be seen, nor even overspill from a James Neal or Kyle Turris pact buried on the taxi squad or minor leagues.  Imagine.

Last year as Tampa Bay advanced into the Edmonton bubble we took detailed looks at how their roster was built compared to the Oilers, and at how the the two clubs managed their salary cap. While there have been enough changes on both clubs to perhaps warrant an update, much of the research done at that time largely applies today. So let’s take a different tack this time around.

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Let’s consider just the playoff roster of the defending champs. That’s the one that includes Kucherov, a clear upgrade on the team that cruised to third place in (the 2021 version of) the Central Division. Since the playoffs began, the Lightning have dressed just 22 players through 21 games — 2 fewer than the Oilers deployed in their paltry 4 games. Obviously that speaks to good fortune on the health front; the Bolts have lost a guy for a game or two on occasion, but never a spate of injuries at any one position. Here’s the full list, sorted by average ice time in the playoffs:

  • Note: for mobile device users who accessed this post through Twitter, you may need to click the “View on Edmonton Journal” tab at the bottom of this post to see the graphics, which are a central element of this article. 

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Goalies shown in green, defencemen in blue, forwards in red. Note the “perfect” distribution, the goalie leading the way, then the top 4 d-men all playing 20-25 minutes a night, then the top 9 forwards in a narrow range between ~16-19 minutes a game. All are bolded. They are followed in regular font by the 3rd pairing, the 4th line, then the spare d-man and forward along with the backup goalie. The ice time numbers are not inflated by lengthy overtimes; the Bolts have only played about 13 minutes of extra time all spring.

Note that every skater on the team is between 22-32 years of age, with the lone “greybeard” being the backup goalie who hasn’t played a minute. Every player on the entire team is within 5 or so years of his peak.

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Now let’s consider the same group of 22 players, sorted this time by cap hit:

(Note, contract expiry dates marked with an “r” indicate the club will still hold Restricted Free Agent rights.)

Kucherov’s cap hit shown here at its true value of $9.5 million, even as it was effectively $0 for 2021. No coincidence that the combined payroll of the 22 players shown is very nearly the full $9.5 mil over and beyond the NHL’s official cap ceiling of $81.5 million.

Note also that David Savard’s cap hit is that amount which applies to Tampa Bay; in acquiring him at the trade deadline, BriseBois spent draft capital to convince two other clubs to eat 75% of his $4.25 million AAV. In that manner the wily GM could use the last morsels of space from the Kucherov Caper to add yet another experienced defender for his third pairing.

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The result is a clear stratification of the Bolts’ payroll:

  • 6 high end players — 1 goalie, 2 defencemen, 3 forwards — earning between $6.75 and $9.5 million.
  • 6 mid-range players — 1 defenceman, 5 forwards — all within a few hundred grand of $5 million.
  • 1 player, #4 d-man Erik Cernak, in the zone between $2 – 4 million.
  • The rest all earning something between the NHL minimum to $1.8 million.

Note how every player in that top 13 through Cernak, is already signed for anywhere between 1-7 more seasons. All the free agents are clustered near the bottom.

In fact, all but 1 of those 13 make up Tampa’s version of the “Core 12”:

  • Every single guy, a returning member from last year’s Stanley Cup champions and from 2019’s Presidents’ Trophy winners.
  • Every single guy, under contract for next year, and all but 2 for at least 2 more years.
  • Every single guy, well compensated but not ridiculously so given his contribution to a championship team.
  • Every guy but 2 developed within the Tampa system, having played every last game of his NHL career as a Bolt. An 11th, Mikhail Sergachev, acquired by trade at age 18 with all of 4 games under his belt. Only Ryan McDonagh was a true NHL veteran added via the trade route to fill a hole.

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Get good players, keep good players, pay good players. That describes all of Tampa’s Core 12.

Compare and contrast to Edmonton’s Core 12, of which in a recent post we identified 8 (now 7) free agents. Meanwhile, the Oilers have a lot of cap hit tied up in depth players, not to mention in dead cap. It is not a flattering contrast.

The depths of the Tampa Bay roster, on the other hand, have been deftly massaged by management. Sensing his club’s time was at hand last spring, BriseBois traded a pair of 2020 first round picks for quality grinders to fill out his checking line. Both Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow were established players on excellent contracts, each which had a further year to run when the Bolts acquired them at the 2020 deadline. As a result both are still around to help with this year’s title bid.

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No expensive free agents to be found, either. There are only 3 former UFA’s on the roster, all originally signed in the summer of 2019, in the form of backup goalie Curtis McElhinney, depth defender Luke Schenn, and 4th-line winger Pat Maroon, who cost just $3 million as a group. Maroon, the former Oiler, is poised to become the first NHLer in 6 decades to win 3 consecutive Cups with 2 different teams. Last to do it was Ed Litzenberger with Chicago and Toronto in the early 1960’s.

But even with the important players on his powerhouse crew all locked up for the foreseeable future, BriseBois isn’t out of the woods (pardon the pun). His commitments for the 2021-22 are well in excess of the salary cap, even before he re-signs those free agents or finds new ones to replace them. Just the 13 top players collectively will charge $81.34 million against the salary cap next season, leaving him about $150,000 to fill out the other 10 spots on his roster. Even a wizard like Julien BriseBois will struggle to sign 10 players for $150k. So at the risk of repeating ourselves from last summer, this time he surely is going to have to move out some real NHL talent via the trade route.

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BriseBois did try one gambit toward this end when he twice waived veteran forward Tyler Johnson, last October at the beginning of free agency and again in January just before the start of the season. No coincidence that Johnson is the 1 man among his 13 highest paid players who doesn’t have a role in the Core 12. He was twice made available to all takers… of which there were none. So he remains on the team in a depth role, from which he managed to score 2 goals including the game winner in Tampa’s most recent outing in Montreal. Go figure.

All of which suggests Johnson might be among those available at a cheap acquisition cost this summer. Others might be forced to market by the sheer math of the salary cap, even as both team and players would likely prefer they stayed. Somewhere in the NHL, an alert GM might be able to grab an established player like Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde or Alex Killorn with term and cost certainty as part of the deal, much as Vancouver Canucks were able to snag J.T. Miller for a pick the last time the Lightning were up against the cap. The Bolts are also unlikely to re-sign expiring free agents like Coleman or Goodrow who will have priced themselves out. BriseBois also faces a very thorny decision of who to expose to Seattle in the expansion draft.

Under the right circumstances, every one of those players might help a up-and-coming team like the Edmonton Oilers. We’ll take a deeper dive on the individual level in a future post.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

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Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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