The Tampa Bay Lightning of present day are essentially the Chicago Blackhawks of yesteryear. Minus the multiple Cup wins, of course.
My point is that the Bolts have an abundance of quality young talent on cost-controlled contracts. Steven Stamkos will have a very affordable cap hit of $7.5MM next season. Victor Hedman, who some are touting as a potential Norris winner, has a contract worth $4MM annually. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will only cost $3.33MM each for the next two seasons. And, best of all, 29-goal-man Nikita Kucherov is only on the books for $711,667 for 2015-16.
Like the Blackhawks, who iced their elite talent at very affordable rates last season, the Lightning will be able to ice a very, very talented roster next year without much cap trouble. The issue, though, is when those stunningly affordable deals expire.
Both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are slated to make a whopping $10.5MM against the cap next season. With his team in salary cap purgatory, Chicago GM Stan Bowman has had to make some difficult decisions. He dealt a phenomenal young player in Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier in the week, and there is still speculation that he will have to move out a name like Patrick Sharp before all is said and done. Big contracts eat a big chunk of the cap. That’s the reality in today’s NHL.
That reality is what makes winning with cost-controlled young players so important. If a team can squeeze tremendous value out of entry-level and second-contract deals, that team’s chances of contending skyrocket. It’s one of the big reasons the Lightning were so successful this past season.
But, like the Blackhawks, the Lightning are going to be faced with some serious salary cap realities in the coming years. As everyone in the hockey universe knows, Steven Stamkos is eligible to sign a new deal this summer. Expected to be in the ballpark of the Kane/Toews extensions, Stamkos’ contract will undoubtedly put pressure on Tampa’s cap situation. Things look even dicier when you consider that the Triplets and Victor Hedman will all need extensions within the next two years, as well.
And, that’s what makes cap management so important. The Lightning, like the Blackhawks, will have to identify their core pieces. For Chicago, it’s Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. There are arguments to be made for other players, but I think we can all agree that those are the three pillars of Chicago’s playoff success. Bowman has been willing to throw money and term at those guys, even at the expense of other talented pieces. Saad is a perfect example, just as Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd were after their 2010 run. Back in 2010, people didn’t think the Blackhawks would be able to rebound after gutting so much of their roster. But they proved that identifying core pieces and building around them with interchangeable (albeit talented) parts is a sustainable model; simply, three cups in six years highlights that.
Just like Saad was viewed as a budding and untouchable star in Chicago until this week, Player X is viewed like that in Tampa right now. In this hard-cap world, Bowman clearly didn’t see Saad as a ‘must have’ for his perennial Stanley Cup contender. Steve Yzerman is going to have to make the same decisions in Tampa. A fan favorite or two is likely going to be shown the door, simply because there is a bigger goal in mind.
The key, as Chicago has shown, is to have a revolving door of young, inexpensive talent coming through the ranks to surround those core guys. Before Saad it was Ladd, Byfuglien, and whoever else. With Saad gone, it will be someone new (e.g. Teuvo Teravainen). The constant is that core of Kane, Toews, and Keith. Yzerman’s task over the next season is to identify his core pieces for his perennial contender, while also picking out guys who can be replaced by the likes of Adam Erne, Anthony DeAngelo, and others. It’s easier said than done, but it has to happen. If this Tampa Bay Lightning squad wants to remain near the top of hockey’s food chain, there must be salary cap casualties. The only question left is… Who?
As always, thanks for reading.
Michael Stuart has been the Tampa Bay Lightning writer for HockeyBuzz since 2012. Visit his archive to read more or follow him on Twitter.