Cap Comparables: Sergachev's bridge deal and what's next for Lightning

Watch as Mikhail Sergachev rifles a one-timer from the point, beating Dallas Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin in the third period of Game 5.

If you're at all familiar with Tampa Bay's current cap situation, the next press release you might have expected from the team would have been about a salary-cutting trade instead of a multi-year contract extension to one of their top young defencemen.

Mikhail Sergachev's three-year deal with a $4.8 million cap hit officially pushed the Lightning over the regular season salary cap by nearly $2 million. Of course, teams are allowed to exceed that limit by 10 per cent in the off-season, and since we don't yet know when 2020-21 will begin, there is time for GM Julien BriseBois to figure out those financials.

But back to Sergachev's contract for a moment: is this another steal of a deal for the Lightning, who have built a star-studded team on largely value contracts? It's key to note that it's not unusual for defencemen to get bridge contracts before long-term commitments, so in that sense, this is not necessarily a symptom of the flat cap or pandemic year. As a team, the Lightning signed a number of their own top players at all positions to bridge deals first, then followed with long-term commitments, and Sergachev, acknowledging the Lightning's cap predicament as another variable this year, had no quarrels with the three-year term.

"We didn't know what to expect with the whole situation -- the coronavirus, cap situation, we were just waiting for our turn," Sergachev told Joe Smith of The Athletic.

"I've said I want to retire in Tampa. That's the place I want to be. I'm really happy and it was an easy decision for me to sign, a perfect place to play hockey."

The key for the Lightning was keeping it to three years, and thus maintaining a one season barrier to him becoming UFA eligible when the current deal expires.

As for comparables, here is how Sergachev's extension stacks up to other notable bridges to defencemen coming off their ELC in recent years. It's a deal that works for the Lightning now, but more or less falls in line with the market:

PLAYER TERM AAV YEAR
Charlie McAvoy 3 $4.9 million 2019
Darnell Nurse 2 $3.2 million 2018
Josh Morrissey 2 $3.15 million 2018
Zach Werenski 3 $5 million 2019

For added context, a few defencemen who did sign long-term deals out of their ELCs in recent years include Seth Jones (six years, $5.4 million AAV), Jaccob Slavin (seven years, $5.3 million AAV) and Ivan Provorov (six years, $6.75 million). Maybe in an ideal world, the Lightning could have explored something similar with Sergachev, who grew into an all-situations role with the team at 21 years old last season (he had turned 22 by the start of the playoffs). But the same difficult financial reality that is affecting the whole league is especially pinching the Lightning, who would have been dealing with a crunch even if the salary cap rose another couple million dollars, as originally projected before the pandemic hit.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE LIGHTNING?

With the 2020-21 season start still unclear, it's not exactly crunch time for Tampa Bay, but they still have a lot of business to conduct to become cap compliant. They are one of 10 teams currently over the cap and still have RFAs Erik Cernak and Anthony Cirelli to sign. The latter is the most important piece still to figure out, following a breakout season for the 23-year-old with new offensive highs and an emerging defensive game that led to important penalty-kill minutes, shutdown assignments and a fourth-place finish in Selke Trophy voting.

To still fit in Cirelli -- something BriseBois has said is the priority -- the only way to work around the cap is to find trades, and dumping salary amidst a flat cap is no small task. Given about half the league is either over the cap or within $2 million of it, the market will be tight and so the Lightning likely won't "win" any of those deals. The Vegas Golden Knights had to trade Nate Schmidt to make Alex Pietrangelo's dollars work, and all they got for the top-four defender was a third-round pick two years from now.

The Lightning had previously put Tyler Johnson's $5 million AAV on waivers, but he went unclaimed. He has a full no-trade clause and so will have some say on destination -- but what, really, is the market for a 30-year-old with declining numbers and such a high cap hit for another four years, when not many teams have room to spare? They all already passed on the opportunity to get him (at full contract value) for nothing.

Alex Killorn is a name we've been watching through this because he only has a modified no-trade clause where most of the Lightning's other $4 million-plus contracts have full protection. Ondrej Palat's $5.3 million deal is another possible one to move, though it also comes with full trade protection. Even Steven Stamkos' name has been floated out there, but again, he has a no-movement clause.

Business has ground to a halt right now as the league and players' association figure out a plan forward, but BriseBois mentioned to The Athletic that it maybe wasn't as quiet as it seemed and that "there's a lot of progress being made" toward figuring out their cap picture.

A trade is inevitable here at some point, and it likely won't favour the Lightning. When that time comes, though, it'll be important to remember that Tampa's motivation is to make all the dollars fit and keep as much of the core as it can.

Just how much they need to shed will depend entirely on what Cirelli's next deal looks like. He's coming off an entry-level contract as well, and we'd imagine a new deal would start in the $3-4 million range, depending on term. Outside of placing someone on LTIR, that would mean the Lightning still would have to trade out two players to make all of this work.

Just how they get all this done, and which trade partner they can find to save them, is the biggest question in Tampa Bay right now. And this is why, if a serious offer sheet ever were to happen, this year's uncertainty creates optimal conditions for one, and Cirelli would be a terrific target.

But we won't hold our breath for it.

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