I know that the topic of Nikita Kucherov’s contract has been beaten beyond recognition of there even being a dead horse on the ground. But the wheels are ever turning in trying to figure out where the Lightning are and where they could go. We recently saw the Florida Panthers create short term salary cap flexibility this past week, but they did so at a price of one of their top prospects from a farm that is already thin while getting back a couple picks in the deal to go with the salary cap relief.
For the Lightning, ever since Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov signed their contracts to avoid arbitration, it’s seemed like the Lightning would need to make a move to be able to fit in Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Nesterov before the start of the season. While most of the speculation around a Kucherov contract has focused on longer term deals that will eat up at least 1 to 2 years of free agency, the idea of a bridge contract has been tossed around as well.
A bridge contract for Kucherov may not represent a huge amount of savings over a longer term deal, especially when you consider that his next deal could be in the realm of Stamkos money. He would also have the leverage of arbitration the next time around. But the savings now could mean that Yzerman can put off making a big salary cap move until next offseason when everything will get sticky again with the raises due to Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy as well as RFA deals for Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin, Andrej Sustr, and Slater Koekkoek.
However, a bridge deal could be just what the Lightning need to get through 2016-17 without having to move a piece of salary in the process. For the beginning of the season, the Lightning can receive some relief by placing Ryan Callahan on Long Term Injured Reserve. This isn’t a permanent solution as the Lightning would still need to be cap compliant when Ryan Callahan comes off LTIR. It would mean that while he’s out the Lightning could exceed the cap in the event of injuries and recalls necessary to cover for those injuries.
Some of the following is going to be a bit technical, but follow along with me and we’ll get there. In this scenario, the Lightning have signed Nikita Kucherov for 3 years at $4.75 million AAV, Nikita Nesterov at $650,000 AAV, and James Wisniewski for $850,000. As an aside, I think Wisniewski is going to make the team as there is a definite need at right handed defense even though it will mean delaying Slater Koekkoek’s full time arrival in the NHL. Even if you put Koekkoek into the roster spot that Wisniewski is filling in this scenario, his cap hit is slightly less than $50,000 more and would still work.
For the opening night roster, which isn’t necessarily the roster they would have for the first game, but the legal roster they are required to set to start the year out, the Lightning could have the following players on the roster.
Forwards: Stamkos, Johnson, Filppula, Boyle, Palat, Killorn, Namestnikov, Paquette, Kucherov, Brown, Condra, Conacher, Ikonen, Callahan (IR)
Defense: Hedman, Stralman, Garrison, Coburn, Sustr, Nesterov, Wisniewski, Dotchin
Goaltenders: Bishop, Vasilevskiy
In this roster alignment, the Lightning are legal by having 23 players, plus 1 on the injured reserve (Callahan). The cap space to open the season would be $2,499. To maximize the relief that Callahan gives by going on LTIR, you want the team to get as close to the cap as possible. This means sending Drouin (who is still waiver exempt) to the minors as well as Koekkoek and leaving a couple of players that will be sent to the AHL on the roster to do this.
With the Lightning right at the salary cap, they can then put Callahan on LTIR and gain $5,797,501 in temporary cap space. Ikonen and Dotchin can then be sent to the minors and Drouin called up before the season’s first game. After those changes, the Lightning would have $6,139,167 in cap space. If there were injuries, there would be room to bring up pretty much any number of players while Callahan is out. Any thing extra over the salary cap gets credited back towards the cap for the Lightning while he’s out. I know this is a bit complicated, but trust me, it works.
Once Callahan comes back, the Lightning would have the ability to add at least $341,000 in cap space. The thing to remember though, is that as extra space goes unused, it’s effective size grows. When you have $341,000 in cap space, you can bring up a player that would be owed that much or less until the end of the season. With the season being roughly 175 days, $341,000 in cap space would allow you to bring up a player with a $575,000 cap hit when there’s about 100 days left in the season.
Obviously this can be a problem though if the Lightning were to suffer multiple injuries to a key position and needed to bring in players not already on the roster, particularly if there was more than 1 injury on the blue line while only carrying 7 defensemen. Or if there was an injury to a goaltender. It may mean that the team would have to move a player, perhaps Erik Condra’s $1.25 million cap hit, to allow the team to bring up 2 players that have $600,000 cap hits.
It would still be a sticky situation for the Lightning if they go this route with a bridge contract for Kucherov. They would need some good fortune on the injury front. Long Term Injured reserve can only be used if a player will be out for 30 days and 10 NHL games. That means an injury that might have an unknown time frame that could be 2 weeks or 6 weeks like a sprained ankle or knee, might leave the team being forced to LTIR a player that ends up being healthy before the end of their required LTIR stay if they’re even able to put them on LTIR.
It’s a risk. And Yzerman has shown that at times he’s willing to take a risk if it’s in the best interests of the team. There’s also a risk of having to pay Kucherov $8 million a year in his next contract. But at the very least, it would give Yzerman more time to wheel and deal and potentially deal from a position of better strength when another team suffers a severe injury that needs replacing early in the season.