Who will the Lightning sacrifice to sustain their NHL juggernaut?

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TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 23: Steven Stamkos #91, Mitchell Stephens #67, and Anthony Cirelli #71 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Florida Panthers during the second period at Amalie Arena on December 23, 2019 in Tampa, Florida (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Lightning have some dire salary cap issues to sort out if they hope to sustain their success for the foreseeable future. (Getty)

In what was another mostly quiet week in the NHL, we did finally hear a peep from the Stanley Cup winners.

Confirmation that Patrick Maroon and Luke Schenn had officially signed cheap deals to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning were the first signs of life from the cap-strapped champs — other than, of course, the earlier attempt to discard Tyler Johnson and his heavy price tag through the waiver system.

While the title holders have some excuse to kick their feet back after a two-month slog in isolation en route to their championship moment, their inaction isn’t in keeping with the rather serious position they find themselves in.

Tampa Bay has three highly desirable restricted free agents to sign — Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak — with just short of $3 million in cap space to work with at current moment, according to CapFriendly.

Tyler Johnson problems

As mentioned, the only real effort made toward losing necessary salary was the Lightning’s attempt to sacrifice Johnson. Even then, it’s possible that Julian BriseBois failed to correctly read the market, having offered the undersized forward only after the NHL’s buyout window had closed. Because they failed to find a taker on Johnson and his full $5 million freight, and no longer have the option to buy out the remaining four seasons on his deal to open up some cap space, the Lightning are now at the mercy of both the asset and the potential buyer.

It’s expected that they will continue working with Johnson, who has no-trade assurances, on a deal out of Tampa Bay, but it will not likely have to include a sweetener to accomplish. Still, with every other franchise facing unexpected economic realities, and therefore not awarding handouts, there’s no promise that the Lightning will be able to slip out from underneath a contract that they simply cannot afford to have on their books any longer.

Offer sheets are a myth

What is the saving grace right now for the Lightning is the league’s inexplicable resistance to using the offer sheet. Perhaps the league’s top executives have agreed to shelf the lesser-used function in response to the COVID-19 curveball and its impact on the salary cap — if they hadn’t even before that.

But in Cirelli, Sergachev and Cernak, we’re not just talking about three players that are crucial to the Lightning’s success. These are legitimate, universally useful assets that have the ability to provide plus, or even elite, contributions from their correct slots. Cirelli, in particular, is the perfect compliment to perform behind a No. 1 centre, and would solve a key issue facing many clubs. Meanwhile Sergachev is growing into his top-pairing, power-play quarterback potential, while Cernak is the exact defenseman that every team needs to fill out their pairings with steady, unspectacular contributions.

If only to establish the price, and therefore intensifying the salary squeeze on BriseBois and his staff, it would be beneficial for pretty much any team to use the offer sheet to try to take advantage of the Lightning’s current plight.

Though for reasons many will never understand, the expectation shouldn’t be that the Lightning will be held over the barrel as a result of an outside threat.

Instead, the Lightning are likely to have clearance to carry on with this measured approach, waiting on a buyer for their lesser important clientele. However, despite openly trying to move Johnson, and already losing Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian and Carter Verhaeghe through free agency, it’s inherently possible that the Lightning will have to shed even more salary to retain the trio of restricted free agents still waiting on a deal.

Cirelli and Sergachev should command at least $4 million on the shortest-term agreements possible, while Cernak is earmarked for close to $3 million. Between their current cap space and the $5 million owed to Johnson, the Lightning would still be several million dollars short — this is without prioritizing cost control.

Perhaps Tampa Bay can slightly improve on these rough estimates at the expense of term, but either way it seems at least one more key asset will have to be moved out for the Lightning to remain compliant after striking agreements with their three key restricted free agents.

Stamkos’ future in Tampa

This is the main reason why Steven Stamkos’s name surfaced in the early days of the offseason, with reports suggesting that the Lightning spoke to their captain about the possibility of waiving the no-trade condition in his contract. While that would be a gutting decision for the franchise, the fan base, and certainly for Stamkos himself — and it illustrates just how delicate the situation is with the Lightning — it actually might be the best move for the team.

The Lightning have just proven that they can succeed without Stamkos, winning the Stanley Cup with their captain logging a total of five shifts, and the $8.5 million he’s owed annually would serve as an escape route from their current financial bind.

Speculation around Stamkos has cooled, which may have meant that the captain quickly put his foot down. Taking less to stay with the Lighting several years ago in unrestricted free agency, Stamkos would have had been well within his right to nix the idea.

If that’s the case, the eventual recourse for an already-diminished squad will involve a different asset the Lightning would have preferred to hold onto if the situation were different. And even that won’t be easy despite the amount of high-end talent in Tampa Bay.

Because as tight as the squeeze is on the Lightning, it’s being felt by every other team to varying degrees, too.

Besides, who wants to help the champs?

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