As the dust cleared and the pucks dropped on the first games of an abbreviated 2021 NHL season, all that stood between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the salary cap limit was $334. General manager Julien BriseBois had the equivalent of just a little more than one personalized Lightning jersey in money left over.
BriseBois, a general manager renowned as a “capologist” for handling player contracts and keeping teams compliant with the league’s salary cap, had his work cut out for him. After the Lightning won last season’s Stanley Cup, they entered the offseason with a little over $5 million to play with and a number of restricted free agents to sign.
It’s hard enough under normal circumstances for a defending champion team to keep its roster intact. NHL teams are subjected to a hard salary cap limit, meaning they don’t even have the option to go over the limit and pay a luxury tax. The Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017 remain the lone team to repeat as champs since the 2004-05 lockout brought us the salary cap. Those Penguins could count on a salary cap rise from $71.4 million during the 2015-16 season to $73 million the next, and they managed to run it back, or skate it back in this case, with little roster turnover.
The Lightning last offseason had a core of pricy stars plus a handful of young players in need of new contracts, including Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak, both defensemen, and forwards Anthony Cirelli, Carter Verhaeghe, Mathieu Joseph, Alexander Volkov and Mitchell Stephens. What they didn’t have, however, is any extra cash.
Though BriseBois had expected the salary cap to hit at least $84 million, it stayed flat at $81.5 million, unmoved from the previous season due to constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHL will play a 56-game season — instead of the normal 82 — and without as many fans as it would normally expect, resulting in much less gate revenue. “The system and the effect of the pandemic merged together to control the upper limit and keep it down,” said Mike Liut, a former goaltender turned managing director of the Octagon Hockey management firm.
BriseBois had just eight days between his team’s Cup win over the Dallas Stars until the NHL draft to enjoy the calm before the offseason storm. Two days after the draft ended, he put forward Tyler Johnson on waivers. The 30-year old center who scored 14 goals and 31 points in 65 games in 2020 was on the trading block last offseason, but nobody bit on his contract worth $5 million annually.
Would the Lightning have to part ways with Steven Stamkos’s contract, with an annual cap hit of $8.5 million? His no-movement clause complicated things. Brayden Point’s contract had a $6.75 million cap hit, but he was likely considered untouchable after his bubble playoff heroics, not to mention that he’s part of the team’s efforts to keep their Cup window open going forward. He and past Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov were non-starters for trade talks. Perhaps someone wanted to take a flier on Ondrej Palat or Alex Killorn at their salaries (2020-21 cap hits of $5.3 million and 4.45 million, respectively)?
Fortunately for the Lightning, it didn’t have to come to any of these options, regardless of whether BriseBois ever genuinely considered them.
Sergachev, Cernak, Cirelli, Stephens, Joseph, Volkov and Verhaeghe were all restricted free agents, meaning opposing general managers could have used an offer sheet in the hopes of luring at least one of them away. Verhaeghe was not given a qualifying offer and later signed with the Florida Panthers. But the remaining players all reached new deals with the Lightning.
Why didn’t other teams take advantage? There is a history of NHL teams just matching competing offer sheets, leading to restricted free agents staying with their original club, and teams may have been gun-shy. But the flat salary cap that hindered Tampa Bay was hindering the rest of the league, too. And Liut thought the Lightning’s cap problems weren’t as severe as those of other teams.
“They were in a position like many clubs this summer where they had serious cap concerns,” Liut said. “Generally speaking [with] NHL general managers, if a club finds themselves in a position where they are clearly capped out, then that’s a bit of an ‘it’s on you.’ If I’m not rating your player, you’ve left yourself vulnerable, and if it’s not me, it’ll be somebody else. I don’t think that they were ever in that predicament to that degree.”
The Lightning’s most eye-raising but most helpful move involved their best and highest-paid skater. When it was announced that Kucherov would miss the 2021 regular season after hip surgery, the team placed him on long-term injured reserve. His $9.5 million salary would instead be stashed away while he wasn’t on the roster, giving the team a chance at signing restricted free agents and remaining under the cap.
The Lightning also sent defenseman Braydon Coburn and forward Cedric Paquette — with a combined cap hit of $3.35 million — to the Ottawa Senators in a trade for the injured Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson. Tampa then similarly stashed those two, giving the team a total of $16,975,000 in salary going toward players on its long-term injured list. The moves saved the Lightning almost $13 million, and though their cap hit is approaching $100 million, the relief afforded by the injured reserve brought it down to $81,499,666.
The Lightning squeezed in just under the cap
Tampa Bay Lightning salaries by position group on opening day of the 2020-21 season, including contracts moved to Long-Term Injury Reserve
|Long-Term Injured Reserve||Kucherov||$9,500,000||-$16,975,000|
|Leaguewide salary cap||$81,500,000|
|Amount under cap||$334|
Tampa Bay isn’t the only team to take advantage of this cap workaround — nine other teams also stashed players on long-term injured reserve prior to the start of the season.1 Some pundits, though, aren’t necessarily in favor of teams using the long-term injured reserve list as a way of staying under the cap.
But agents like Liut see the long-term injured reserve tactic as one of the only ways general managers can deal with mounting salaries in the salary cap era. “There’s very little flexibility for clubs and agents to negotiate contracts,” Liut said. “There’s no renegotiations. You can’t go in and reconfigure your team and save cap space like you can in football. I mean, there’s literally nothing.”
Within days of the NHL’s start of its season, the Lightning found themselves $8,334 from the cap ceiling. Johnson, along with defenseman Luke Schenn, was placed on waivers again, with the intention of having him on his team’s “taxi squad.” That meant he would travel with the team as an extra body just in case the team needed him, and his full salary wouldn’t count against the cap until he returned to the lineup, which he did on Jan. 15.2 A late signing of Cristoval “Boo” Nieves — who was subsequently placed on waivers and then assigned to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse — pushed the Lightning to a mere $334 from the upper limit.
Despite Kucherov’s absence, the Lightning are still a talent-laden team, with many of the same players who helped them to the Stanley Cup last September. They have favorable odds to repeat as champions, and they’ve started the season with 11 points on a 5-1-1 record.
There will be other tricks that BriseBois will need to try out over the course of the season to remain cap-compliant, like rotating players in and out of the taxi squad to save money on their daily cap hit. Considering the stakes and the flat cap, the Lightning will need every trick in the book.