Lightning have work to do as they lock down the future

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The Lightning made extended Andrei Vasilevskiy a priority. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
The Lightning made extended Andrei Vasilevskiy a priority. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning re-signed Andrei Vasilevskiy this week in hopes of heading off the kind of summer-long drama they and the Toronto Maple Leafs are now going through with their young star forwards.

They paid dearly to do it, shelling out the maximum term of eight years to go along with a cap hit of $9.5 million. It’s really not a bad length of time for a goalie who will be 26 when the deal begins, but it’s a hell of a lot of money. (More on that later this week.)

With this deal locked in, the Lightning have now committed nearly $67.4 million to just 13 players in 2020-21, when this new deal begins, on top of whatever Brayden Point and Adam Erne — who was arbitration-eligible but did not seek a hearing because he probably won’t get a lot — get in restricted free agency this summer. Those two deals alone should put them well pretty close to the salary cap, if not over it, even allowing for Ryan Callahan’s upcoming LTIR flexibility. Something likely has to give.

And even if it doesn’t this coming season, it almost certainly will next summer. Very conservatively, new deals for Point and Erne put them up to $77 million in cap obligations for 15 guys, and they will have a number of other RFAs up next summer, including Anthony Cirelli (19 goals last season), Mathieu Joseph (13), and Mikhail Sergachev (the Lightning’s third-best defenseman). Those guys probably cost you a relatively modest amount individually — probably not more than $4.5 million per — but altogether you’re now talking about a 16-man roster that might cost $90 million. So something definitely has to give.

This is the price of excellence at the NHL level and in development, because the Lightning are very fortunate to constantly find guys who can come into their roster at the tail end of ELCs and contribute at 21 or 22 years old. The problem here is that you end up paying a lot of money for those guys when they turn 23, 24, and 25. Case in point: The middle of the Tampa lineup.

Let’s take it as duly considered that the following players are all considered “good” or better: Ondrej Palat makes $5.3 million against the cap. Yanni Gourde makes $5.167 million. Tyler Johnson’s at $5 million. Alex Killorn at $4.45 million.

Everyone else— McDonagh, Hedman, Kucherov, Stamkos, now Vasilevskiy, soon Point — is between $6.75 million and $9.5 million, or under $1.7 million.

So the question becomes who you ship out, because shipping someone out is going to be a necessity. The obvious answer is one of those middle-class guys, but there’s a complication: They all have no-trade clauses of some kind. Palat and Johnson have full no-trades until summer 2021, at which point they submit 20-team trade lists. Same for Gourde, but push the flexibility back a year to summer 2022. The one who provides the most give here is Killorn, whose no-trade drops from 31 teams to 16 in summer 2020. Unfortunately, he’s also the cheapest of that group.

What you’d probably say is that of these four guys, Johnson is the one you’d most like to move most. He’s 29, he costs $5 million against the cap and he’s good but not great. On a team as deep as the Lightning, a player who put up 29 goals last season becomes disposable. He’d probably be more attractive to another team as well.

On the other hand, Palat is coming off a frankly quite bad year (only eight goals in 64 games, and the worst WAR of the bunch) and has played more than 70 games in a season just once since 2015-16. Neither he nor Johnson has proven play drivers of late, either; they had a couple very good years, cashed in, and now might find themselves paying for it in a different way.

Gourde is the most reliably good of the bunch, the only one to finish with a WAR of 2.5 or better over each of the last two seasons. Seems like he’d be the one to keep even if he’s a shade more expensive than Johnson.

Killorn doesn’t provide much pop with his individual scoring totals, but is a very useful defensive forward in a world where that kind of thing still matters a bit. He takes too many penalties to be as useful as the contract he’s on, but he’ll help you out a bit.

But again: Those NTCs. They really complicate things. Even if you wanted to move someone like McDonagh instead of swapping someone out of Tampa’s great forward depth, well he’s now 30, signed until summer 2026, and has a full no-trade until January 16 of that year.

There’s probably no good answer to this situation on the surface. Any trade the Lightning make would likely result in a talent downgrade, as other teams know they’re going to be in tough to afford everyone and the pool of potential destinations is likely extremely limited. On the other hand, their talent development setup and Jon Cooper seem to do a pretty good job of cycling guys into the lineup so even if you lose a Johnson or Killorn, there might just be an overlooked 21-year-old who can fill in ably enough, and certainly provide more bang for the buck.

Much like the Maple Leafs, Tampa is well-equipped to go into the future with a galaxy of stars most other teams can’t match, and a roster of low-cost complementary players whose only job is to not-screw-up until the stars come back out. That’s not a bad way to be as long as you’re confident the high-end guys like Kucherov and Vasilevskiy will earn every dollar.

Which, well…

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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