We’re less than a month away from the 2022-23 NHL season opener. Training camp starts today. We are nearly there. Hockey is almost back!
So let’s celebrate with a look at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s salary cap situation to open the season, some options they will have early in the season, and how their trade deadline situation regarding adding players to the squad might look like.
Review of the off-season
One of the biggest shocks of the offseason was general manager Julien BriseBois’ decision to leave Ryan McDonagh and trade him to the Nashville Predators. While that trade had a major impact on the depth of the Blitz’s blue line, it also paved the way for BriseBois to secure restricted free-agent deals a year in advance for center Anthony Cirelli, as well as defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. He’s left with just Ross Colton and Cal Foote as the only major restricted free agents to contend with next summer.
In the McDonagh deal, BriseBois added big right-handed defender Philippe Myers to the backend as a small recovery project. Myers had a good couple of years with the Philadelphia Flyers but fell down with the Nashville Predators last season and also ended up in the AHL for part of the season with the Toronto Marlies. BriseBois signed Myers to a one-year extension with a lower cap hit for 2023-24, dropping him from $2.55 million this year to $1.4 million next year.
Unfortunately, the team had to give Ondrej Palat a free hand because it just couldn’t work out with him. I expected this to happen but had a tiny bit of hope that they would find a way forward. It sounded like Palat was willing to listen, but they couldn’t get it to work. However, The Lightning re-signed Nick Paul, giving him a long-term contract capped at $3.15 million per year.
On the free-agent front, the team brought back a former organization first-round pick in Vladislav Namestnikov to level the loss to Ondrej Palat up front. At the back end, the Lightning signed defenseman Ian Cole to take over the third pairing at left on the blue line for a year. Additionally, the Lightning brought Haydn Fleury to the league on a minimum two-year contract to add some depth to the organization and fill a gap early in the season while Zach Bogosian recovers from an offseason shoulder injury.
Speaking of shoulder surgery, Zach Bogosian and Anthony Cirelli will be on the shelf for the first month or two of the season after both undergoing shoulder surgery over the summer. Both will return to action early enough in the season that I’m not overly concerned about their absence and their impact on the team over the course of the season. The length of their absence will be long enough for the team to use the long-term injury reserve for both players as well, which will lessen the impact of the salary cap from their early absences in the season.
Okay, now for the part you probably want to read about here. The salary cap. At least I hope you’re here to read about that part.
The salary cap for the 2022-23 season is $82.5 million. With Cirelli and Bogosian set to start the season at Long Term Injured Reserve, the first step is to look at the roster you want to be on when they both return. Since LTIR only grants salary cap relief for the duration that the player is on LTIR and neither misses the entire regular season, the salary Lightning adds in his place must be removed upon his return.
To start, we add up the players that I expect will be on the roster later in the season when everyone is fully healthy.
- Forward – Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Steven Stamkos, Nick Paul, Brandon Hagel, Ross Colton, Vladislav Namestnikov, Pat Maroon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Corey Perry
- defense – Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Ian Cole, Erik Cernak, Philippe Myers, Cal Foote, Zach Bogosian
- goalkeeper – Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brian Elliott
In this configuration, the Lightning have 12 forwards, 7 defenders, and 2 goalies with $1.2 million in cap space remaining. That means the Lightning have a spot for an extra Forward, but can only have two extra Skaters on the roster total (a Forward and a Defender).
That gives us a vacancy in the squad for a forward who can be in the squad all season and would be the 13th forward after Cirelli’s return. Once we get Cirelli and Bogosian out, there’s a little more leeway because of Cirelli’s $4.8 million cap hit. The Lightning would then be able to carry three additional skaters for a full roster of 23 players.
For Bogosian, that’s Haydn Fleury. This is a pretty easy one-to-one replacement and you don’t have to worry about it much more. If Bogosian is back, Fleury can be dispensed with to make room for Bogosian as long as no one is injured on the blue line. As an aside, I expect the early season to be a big rehearsal session for Cal Foote and Philippe Myers. If one of them struggles and Fleury shows he’s reliable, it could be one of those two that ends up on the trading block to make room for Bogosian instead. Abandoning Fleury is the most likely scenario, but I can’t rule out that possibility, so keep that in mind for later.
With Cirelli’s higher salary cap, he gives the Lightning room to replace him with two forwards. For the training camp, this means that there should be good competition for the three open striker spots. It also means those three players can compete while Cirelli is not in the line-up for that long-term spot, with two of them returning to Syracuse (if they make it through waivers) if Cirelli returns and the winner of the competition remains on the list.
Looking ahead to mid-season, Lightning’s trading prospects aren’t particularly good. As I mentioned above, with the players expected on 12/7/2 ahead of the 13th forward, the Lightning have $1.2M in cap space. Because of Brent Seabrook’s LTIR, that total won’t grow. What it does mean, however, is that the Blitz can trade (or forego) a roster player for a lease. The exact cap hit the Lightning can pick up depends on the player being moved and the 13th forward (which can be the same player).
Let’s just take a few examples to illustrate. If the 13th forward was Cole Koepke with a cap hit of $842,500, the Lightning would have a cap place of $357,500. If the Lightning Koepke traded or waived him, they could add a player with a $1.2 million cap hit or up to $2.4 million with salary withholding by the other team. If Koepke was the 13th forward but the Blitz traded Philippe Myers with his $2.55 million cap hit for another defender, then that defender could have a $2,907,500 cap hit with no paycheck or have up to $5.815 million cap hit with salary cap withholding.
While it’s not exactly what it was like last year for the Lightning, money in, money out, it’s pretty close as the team will have between $350,000 and $450,000 in salary caps beyond the player it is moved to allow a trade.
The three forward points
While not exactly related to the salary cap, I wanted to take a quick look at the candidates for the three forward spots that will be open at the start of the season.
- Alex Barre-Boulet – Barre-Boulet had his chance in the NHL before but didn’t make it. He failed to show that his high-end offensive performance in the AHL translated to the NHL level. His skating and speed are not high end and as a small player you usually need that. I reckon he has a good chance of securing one of the three spots, although his actual playing performance early in the season will determine whether he can stay in the squad after Cirelli’s return. Barre-Boulet needs waivers to go to Syracuse, although he was claimed by Seattle last year, played a game and a half and then completed waivers, so there’s little chance he’ll be claimed.
- Gemel Smith – Smith is a veteran. He’s a safe bet. He plays center and wing in a fourth line role. He’s a useful striker. He asks for waivers, but is unlikely to be enforced. He’s also well-suited to being in the press box, but organization might be better served by just taking him to Syracuse and playing hockey since he missed quite a bit of time last year through injury.
- Cole Koepke – Since Ross Colton’s promotion to the NHL, Koepke has been the player I’ve been eyeing as a possible next Colton. He also walked the NCAA route and is a senior prospect as he is already 24 years old. He plays a style quite similar to Colton’s, but has only a year of professional experience under his belt. He’s exempt from the waiver, so he’s also a good option to start the season, and if he doesn’t earn the permanent spot, he’ll have an easy time returning to Syracuse.
- Gabriel Fortier – Fortier got a taste of the NHL last season as the Lightning struggled with a series of injuries up front. He’s something of a Swiss Army Knife player who plays with a lot of energy and pace. He doesn’t always show that in his cup of coffee, but with a little more experience and confidence under his belt he could be an advantage. He also has the advantage of being a capable penalty killer, which would help with Cirelli’s absence. In addition, it is free of charge.
- Simon Ryfors – Ryfors joined Lightning last year as a free agent from Sweden. It took him some time to adjust to the North American game but started turning it on later in the year when he felt comfortable, posting 11 goals and 35 points in 72 games for the crunch. I think Ryfors is more of a dark horse here and we’ll have to see how he fares in training camp and how far he’s taken his game. In addition, it is free of charge.
- Gage Goncalves – I would also consider Goncalves a very long-term dark horse, but he’s closer to the NHL than any of the other prospects I’ve already named. He scored 17 goals and 32 points in 70 games as a rookie for The Crunch last year. I think he needs more development time before he gets an NHL shot. He’s a player who could still end up being a tweener similar to Barre-Boulet, where he has the ability to make it work in the AHL but may not have enough to make it over the hump in the NHL create.
Roster questions will be answered over the next few weeks, but BriseBois will still have to take time off work to lead the roster throughout the season.