When Jon Cooper describes this Tampa Bay Lightning playoff run taking on the feel of the last day of school, it’s a reflection that he paid attention in math class.
The Lightning have a shade more than $86.5 million in cap commitments on the 19 NHL players under contract for next season. And the league’s cap ceiling will remain flat at $81.5 million.
So the front office will need to cut $5 million from the payroll by opening night in October while also filling some roster holes. They’ll lose one player in the Seattle expansion draft process later this month and they’ll be challenged to retain their unrestricted free agents, which means the forward line Cooper calls on to set the tone at the start of each game could disappear entirely — with Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow both pending UFA’s, and Yanni Gourde a potential expansion pick.
Discomforting as that reality may be, it’s also been a source of motivation for a Lightning team trying to win its second straight Stanley Cup on Monday night in Montreal. The organization was under extreme cap pressure after last year’s championship run and only got kept together to this degree by Nikita Kucherov’s eligibility for long-term injured relief after hip surgery and some deft maneuvering by general manager Julien BriseBois.
They’ve basically been on borrowed time ever since and made tremendous use of it.
“The players are aware of it. It’s almost player driven,” said Cooper of the Lightning’s Last Dance mentality.
“It’s not that we make a big deal of it, I think we all know the realities of the sport. Our team has been well documented: Getting over the hump last year and remarkably being able to stick together for one more crack at it.
“I don’t see the circumstances of what happened last year happening again.”
This is certainly not meant to suggest the end of the Lightning as an elite team is imminent. There are lots of ways to build a winner around a core that features Kucherov, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
But it was the additions of Coleman and Goodrow that helped push that group to the top in 2020 and have them one step away again now. As much as those players love Tampa — and who wouldn’t? — they’re now in position to enter the free-agent market with a considerable amount of shine and command raises on the $1.8 million and $925,000 they’ve been earning, respectively.
This season’s trade deadline acquisition, David Savard, is also a pending UFA.
Replacing any of their roster spots with a player of similar quality while remaining cap compliant is hard to envision. A flat-cap environment particularly stresses your middle tier because you have to pay the stars and continually give raises to your emerging talents.
And Seattle expansion adds an extra wrinkle, too.
If the Lightning go the 7-3-1 protection route, they’d likely leave McDonagh and at least one of Gourde, Alex Killorn or Mathieu Joseph exposed. In the event they choose to protect four defencemen, it’s unlikely any of Gourde, Killorn or Ondrej Palat would be protected.
This organization has amassed a lot of high quality players and handed out almost no poor contracts over the years, and the cap system demands that a price be paid for that kind of efficiency.
In the meantime, they’d best leave nothing on the table now.
“I think it’s one of those things that you understand the situation, so let’s go out and do as best as we can as a group because most likely, in a cap world, this group probably isn’t going to play together (again),” said Stamkos.
“Just like the group from last year, not everyone could come back. Every year it’s tough, but we realize the reality.”
At this time next year, they’ll be fighting a similar battle.
Point will be in line for a raise on his $6.75-million contract. Palat is an unrestricted free agent in July 2022 as well.
BriseBois was asked generally about the challenges of roster building at the outset of this Stanley Cup Final and provided a very “live for the moment” response.
“I’m very much focused on getting our team ready for Game 1, working with the coaches and our support staff to make sure that we can eliminate distractions,” he said. “We’re one of two teams that can still accomplish more this year, and that’s where our focus is at right now: Trying to make sure that we take advantage of this opportunity that is still available to us to accomplish more this season.”
Whenever the Cup is handed out, the questions will begin anew.