Why Lightning repeat attempt gives Cooper ‘last day of school’ feelings

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Whether the Lightning end their Stanley Cup repeat push with a sweep of the Canadiens in Game 4 on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC / Peacock), the series goes longer, or the Habs even make a miraculous comeback, the truth is that the Lightning will look different in 2021-22.

Between the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, players hitting 2021 NHL Free Agency, and additional flat salary cap challenges, the Lightning will say goodbye to some prominent players. Even if they somehow work LTIR and salary cap “loopholes” again.

It’s something that Lightning coach Jon Cooper mentioned during the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Even the Lightning’s website posted a story with “enjoy this while it lasts” vibes.

“We don’t know what our team is going to look like next year and if we’re all going to be together again,” Cooper said, via Bryan Burns. “There’s some crazy circumstances that had to happen for this team to stay together. I know these guys understand that. They know that. And they’re well aware of what they can cement to themselves if they can somehow get one more win. It’s been unbelievable to be a part of.”

While Alice Cooper captured the joy of school being out for summer, Jon Cooper touched at the sadder side. Some friends never seeing each other again, or certainly not as often as every day.

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Here’s why it feels like “the last day of school” for Jon Cooper and the 2020-21 Lightning.

To start, noteworthy players are hitting free agency

Cap Friendly currently estimates the Lightning’s 2021-22 cap expenses at about $86.57 million, with 19 roster spots covered. That would not account for whoever will back up Andrei Vasilevskiy next season. So, as it stands, the Lightning would a bit more than $5M over the $81.5M salary cap.

Naturally, they’ll need to do some moving and shaking (or, some will grumble, circumventing) to get at or under $81.5M. We’ll get to that in a minute.

At minimum, it’s difficult to imagine the following pending Lightning free agents returning:

  • Blake Coleman, 29, UFA: Part of the reason the Lightning paid a significant trade price for Coleman was that they’d get him not only for a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, but also this 2021 Stanley Cup Final. And Coleman fetched an extremely team-friendly $1.8M. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some serious interest in a very nice supporting cast forward with at least one iconic playoff goal on his resume.

  • Some of that Kucherov/LTIR/salary cap angst came from the Lightning being able to squeeze David Savard under the cap. The 30-year-old could get a healthy upgrade from his $4.25M AAV.

  • Along similar lines to Coleman, the Lightning traded substantial assets for two cheap runs with Barclay Goodrow (28, $925K cap hit expiring).

  • There are veterans who may or may not be back on new contracts, from Curtis McElhinney to Luke Schenn.

  • Also, some interesting RFAs might be tricky. Maybe someone will view 24-year-olds Ross Colton and/or Alex Barre-Boulet as “the next Jonathan Marchessault/Carter Verhaeghe?” If the Lightning want to wiggle out of trouble, it might involve packaging their RFA rights. Those RFA rights definitely give the Lightning some leverage to keep one or both of Barre-Boulet/Colton, though.

Why Lightning repeat attempt gives Cooper 'last day of school' feelings team photo
Class photo equivalent? (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Expansion Draft intrigue for Lightning, flat cap concerns

In mid-June, staffers at The Athletic identified Seattle Kraken expansion draft targets for all teams involved (sub required). Three Lightning players were tabbed:

  • Cal Foote, an intriguing 22-year-old defenseman who played 35 regular season games with the Lightning. He’s an RFA.

  • Alex Killorn, 31, carries a $4.45M AAV through 2022-23.

  • Yanni Gourde, 29, has a $5.17M AAV through 2024-25.

Those three players would sting in different ways. It’s also possible that the Kraken might value someone else, or may be willing to take a bribe from the Lightning to not select Gourde, or maybe to absorb a salary.

The Kraken selecting Killorn or Gourde would get the Lightning closer to that $81.5M threshold, although it obviously wouldn’t take care of all of their work.

Lightning challenges, core questions, and other salary cap concerns

Let’s zoom in a bit and consider a variety of hurdles for the Lightning.

  • They’ve sold off quite a bit of draft capital in landing Coleman, Goodrow, and Savard over the years.

2021: The Lightning traded away their first, second, and fourth-round picks. They own two extra seventh-rounders.

2022: Tampa Bay has its first-rounder, but not a second or third. (They also have their normal run from the fourth through the seventh round.)

So, that gives the Lightning a bit less ammunition to bribe the Kraken or a rebuilding team to ease some salary cap concerns.

For some players, a trade would be foolish. But it makes things a little trickier. Ideas about trading Stamkos floated around last offseason, but would Stamkos wave? Especially after he took what was viewed as a team-friendly contract instead of exploring free agency like John Tavares did?

Such clauses can make trades more challenging, and also sometimes present some expansion draft headaches.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

  • Teams aren’t exactly eager to help the Lightning get under the salary cap.

Yes, there could be some real benefit to exploiting the Lightning’s cap crunch to improve your own team. Especially for rebuilders who can absorb some short-term pain for long-term gains.

But considering all of the LTIR/Kucherov salary cap angst from fans and executives, and the mere fact that the Lightning are one win away from repeating as Stanley Cup champions, teams might not be too interested in helping the Lightning. Even if maybe they should look at this as an opportunity.

All of that said, the Lightning keep pulling this off

So, yeah, it’s easy to see why Jon Cooper views this as “the last day of school.” Maybe this time, the Lightning will graduate to a class of salary cap challenges that finally give them a failing grade.

But if you know your recent salary cap history, you might find it hard to believe that the Lightning won’t just conjure more magic.

Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli should’ve been tougher to keep. Maybe they should have been offer sheet targets.

People understandably wondered if the Lightning could keep Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point over the years. In just about every case, the Lightning didn’t just pass those tests; they did so with flying colors. Credit winning and state tax breaks all you want, yet few front offices age tests like this, especially so often.

(Every other GM should feel insulted by Brayden Point’s $6.75M AAV, even if it looms as a threat, being that it expires after next season.)

Chances are, the Lightning will feel some salary cap strain this offseason. If nothing else, they might not be as versatile after the smoke clears. Ponder this article that praises the combination of Gourde, Goodrow, and Coleman: a trio that could be cleared away thanks to the expansion draft and free agency.

But while the electrons might move out, the nucleus is likely to remain intact. Kucherov, Point, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy are all under contract for 2021-22.

If any team can pull this off — over and over again — it’s the Lightning. But it’s fair to expect fresh faces (or supporting actors taking more prominent roles) after this “last day of school.”

CANADIENS VS. LIGHTNING (TB leads series 3-0)

Game 1: Lightning 5, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Lightning 3, Canadiens 1
Game 3: Lightning 6, Canadiens 3
Game 4: Mon. July 5: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock) – livestream
*Game 5: Wed. July 7: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 6: Fri. July 9: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sun. July 11: Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)

*if necessary

More NHL news

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Why Lightning repeat attempt gives Cooper ‘last day of school’ feelings originally appeared on NBCSports.com