Victims of their own success: two talented goalies vs. the cap and the expansion draft
Ben Bishop is in the last year of a $5.95 million cap hit contract and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season unless he receives an extension. He’s been one of the best goaltenders in the league for the last three seasons, twice being a Vezina Finalist for best goaltender. He’s likely due for a raise, but it seems impossible that the Lightning could give him one. The salary cap problems the Bolts face now will be exacerbated next year by the need to re-sign Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Andrej Sustr, and Slater Koekkoek as well as the already set raises for Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy kicking in. The cap crunch you keep hearing about is very real.
Possibly a bigger factor than money is the expansion draft coming up at the end of the 2016-17 season for the new Las Vegas franchise. The draft rules require clubs to protect one goaltender and only one goaltender. In addition to Bishop, the Lightning have Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis available for draft exposure due to their having signed new contracts this offseason. That means one of the league’s top goaltenders or the top goaltending prospect could be plucked away in a moment. Since the Lightning have just given the 22 year old Vasilevskiy a three year contract extension and since Bishop’s contract is expiring, it seems the Lightning have no choice but to attempt to get something in return for one of these goalies, rather than lose one for nothing.
The Lightning could choose to ride Bishop through this season and allow Vasilevskiy one more season at backup in order to gain more NHL experience. This would give the team a proven elite goaltender to ride into what hopefully would be another run to the Cup. But at the end of the season, Bishop would be gone, and the return would need to be etched on the Stanley Cup for it to have been worthwhile.
If the Lightning trade Bishop, they clear cap space to help with the current cap crunch and get some kind of a return for him, be it players, draft picks, or both. Unless the Lightning make other moves this season, whatever that return is can’t be another elite player with a hefty contract. Draft picks, prospects, and young players on Entry Level Contracts seem much more likely, particularly players that won’t be eligible for the expansion draft next summer.
So why all the rumors about Dallas?
Dallas needs an elite goaltender to go with their high end offensive talent and Bish is the best goaltender likely to be available. That’s the biggest single factor in the rumors.
Last season the Stars were tied with Boston for 19th in the league in Goals Allowed per Game, averaging 2.78. No team allowed more and made the playoffs. The poor goaltending was nearly hidden by Dallas scoring the most goals in the league and by their excellent power play. But any team allowing almost as many goals as it scored, particularly when it scores as many as Dallas, has either serious trouble on the blue line, the goal line, or both. While Dallas may not have superstar defensemen, they have a reasonably effective corps.
The Stars allowed an average of 28.9 shots per game. That’s good enough to tie them with the Bolts for 9th best in the league. But any good defensive stats are colored by the fact that the puck keeps going in their net. Last season’s second round exit against the St. Louis Blues showed how ineffective their goaltenders could be. Coach Lindy Ruff went back and forth between starters during the playoffs, only to have their Game 7 against St. Louis blow up in a 6-1 loss. St. Louis scored their 6 goals on only 19 shots.
But is there a deal to be had?
There’s always a deal, it’s just whether or not you want to make it. It doesn’t make sense for the Lightning to swap goalies with the Stars since Lehtonen and Niemi, besides being problematic in net, also have $5.9 million and $4.5 million cap hits respectively. Dallas would have to either retain salary or overpay in other players if they want the Bolts to take a goalie back.
Last season, there were some rumors that had the Lightning looking for right handed defensemen in a trade deadline scenario. Dallas has two of those, and anyone would love to have John Klingberg. But his $4.25M AAV contract would only provide the Lightning $1.7M of cap space. And Dallas is unlikely to part with their young defenseman as they look to shore up their defense and get younger on the blue line.
Julius Honka, a 20 year old who was selected 14th overall by the Stars in the 2014 draft, is a still developing offensive defenseman. He’s exactly the kind of player the Lightning hoped to have in Anthony DeAngelo, except without the character issues. It would likely prove difficult to pry him away for the same reasons as Klingberg.
Can’t we keep Bishop? He’s our first good goalie since Khabibulin!
Sure! But Vasilevskiy would be lost to expansion or a trade. And cap space will still have to be made in order to keep Bishop, and that likely means Filppula and his partial NTC and maybe Callahan and his full No Move Contract would have to be dealt if you want Bishop, Kucherov, and some of next year’s RFAs to stay. And that might not be the only cuts needed to get under the salary cap for 2017-18 if Bishop signs a $6 or $7 million contract.
Something’s got to give. Some of these contracts are more movable than others, and Bishop’s, disregarding his full NMC, is the easiest and has the most value of the players likely to be moved. Yzerman is able to work a lot of magic, but as he recently said, at some point you’ve got to be under the cap. The Lightning could keep Bishop, but the price for that might be higher than anyone is willing to pay.
In truth, Dallas isn’t the only trade candidate for Bishop. There are plenty of other teams who would love to have a goaltender of his caliber. But if the rumors that Bishop would be asking for $7M x 7 years from Calgary in a potential trade scenario earlier at the draft were true, there will certainly be teams willing to wait and see what happens with expansion before taking a shot at landing a new number one.