With Nikita Kucherov finally signed, it gives us just a touch more clarity of what the Lightning’s cap situation looks like going into the summer of 2017. Not only will General Manager Steve Yzerman have to maneuver his way through major deals for restricted free agents Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Drouin, he’ll also have Andrej Sustr, Slater Koekkoek, and Nikita Nesterov to deal with. Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle are the only non-minor league unrestricted free agents and contract raises will kick in for Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

On top of that, Yzerman will have to figure out his protected list for the expansion draft. That adds a wrinkle on top of whatever else he plans to do and could also potentially open up some cap space depending on who Las Vegas selects. Throughout this article, I will be using information from GeneralFanager.com and CapFriendly.com. Both are great sites with their own strengths and provide a lot of helpful information.

Expansion Draft

The expansion draft requires each team in the NHL to submit a list of 11 players that they wish to protect. They can protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and 1 goalie or they can protect 8 total skaters and 1 goalie. Each team also most protect any player with a No Movement Clause (NMC) unless that player waives it and allows the team to leave them unprotected. There are also some requirements about exposing a certain number of players and a goalie that meet certain games played criteria. Since the Lightning haven’t had a lot of new players, those criteria will be easily met by whomever is left unprotected.

Assuming that no player on the Lightning makes that choice to waive their NMC, the protection list starts with Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula, and Victor Hedman. Add Andrei Vasilevskiy to that list as your one goalie since Ben Bishop is an unrestricted free agent that doesn’t need to be protected and is unlikely to be re-signed. You’re left with four forward spots and two defensemen spots.

Nikita Kucherov is surely on the list of forwards, but beyond that the list would be three more from Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Jonathan Drouin, and Vladislav Namestnikov. Out of this group, Tyler Johnson is the most likely to be traded before the expansion draft. With Brayden Point and Matthew Peca developing nicely, the center position is getting a bit crowded. On top of that, with a big bounce back season, Johnson could be seeking a contract north of $6 million a year. We’ll get into that a bit later though.

Palat and Drouin also look to be top choices to be protected. It’s possible that Yzerman would leave Killorn unprotected knowing that if he is taken, it might have relieved a little bit of cap pressure, or that his long contract may be a drawback that Las Vegas won’t want to take. In that case, the team can protect Namestnikov since he’s likely the new number two center with Tyler Johnson out of the picture. Moving Filppula before the expansion draft or getting him to waive his NMC would allow the team to protect Killorn, but I’m not betting on either just yet. I believe trades before the expansion draft will be tough to make, especially with players that have NMCs.

On the defensive side, Anton Stralman is a no brainer to protect. I think the other smart selection is Slater Koekkoek. Las Vegas taking Andrej Sustr would hurt, but wouldn’t be as big of a loss as letting go of Koekkoek. Las Vegas taking Jason Garrison or Braydon Coburn would be doing the Lightning a favor.

My protected list is Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Vladislav Namestnikov, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Slater Koekkoek, Andrei Vasilevskiy with Tyler Johnson being traded prior to the expansion draft.

The Salary Cap and Restricted Free Agents

The Lightning will have just under $8 million in cap hit coming off of the books between Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle. However, they have $6.45 million being added to the cap with Hedman and Vasilevski’s raises. Assuming no other moves, no bonus overages, no raise in the cap, and that Erik Condra remains on the roster in 2017, the team is left with $13.225 million in cap space for four forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender. If Condra ends up buried in the minors again, that number comes up to $14.175 million, but two-thirds of the cap space gained is eaten by a minor league player to take that roster spot.

That leaves an average of $1.65 million per player. Obviously that’s not enough to get the job done, not when Palat and Johnson should both be looking at $5 million or more each. Kristers Gudlevskis should remain a bargain as a back-up with a cap hit around $650,000. Write that in and you’re down to $12.575 million and $1.8 million per player for the remaining 7 skaters. Of the pending restricted free agents, only Jonathan Drouin, Andrej Sustr, Slater Koekkoek, and Nikita Nesterov are making less than that in 2016-17.

Nikita Nesterov could be replaced as the seventh defenseman with a player like Dylan Blujus who will come cheap. So let’s replace Nesterov with Blujus at $600,000 as well. I think that’s a fair trade off to make. That leaves us with $11.975 million and just under $2 million per player. From here, it gets a lot trickier to fill in the blanks.

If Tyler Johnson has a bounce back season and puts up over 70 points again, he’ll be in a position to command $6.5-$7 million or more on a long term deal. Even if he’s taking a discount to try to stay in Tampa he’d still be looking at a minimum of $6 million per year. He’ll also be arbitration eligible and have more leverage. Palat is probably looking at more like a $5.5-$6 million deal due to his lower offensive output, but is in a similar position of being arbitration eligible. The Lightning are also in a worse position with Palat because there is not a clear successor to him in the top six that plays the kind of game he does.

Jonathan Drouin’s next contract is going to depend a lot on how he performs this year. So far, he is under a half point per game production in the NHL. However, if he can continue the kind of scoring pace he had in the playoffs (14 points in 17 games), he’ll be able to command a decent salary as that would put him in the 65 to 70 point range for the season.

While the downside for him will be that he’s only managed that once, he can certainly point to how things went in his first two years in Tampa for why. At a minimum, I think you look at a 3 year bridge deal around $3.5 million per year. Not quite as much as Nikita Kucherov because he hasn’t accomplished quite as much, but it would be fitting. On the other side, he could look at a longer term deal around $6 million if he does hit the 70 point mark.

Drouin’s character is also a major wild card. Will he seek every last cent in his contract? Or will he content himself with taking a deal that helps the team? His past actions have painted him in a selfish light so it is easy to lean towards him seeking every bit of money he can grab.

Andrej Sustr is doing alright for himself. While he won’t command a giant contract, he has gotten to the point in his career where he has settled in as a reliable 4/5 defenseman. He won’t wow you with anything, but he’s playing a more well rounded game. $2.5 million on a 2-3 year deal is probably on the high end of what he might get on his next contract.

Slater Koekkoek’s contract will very much depend on how he does this year. If he makes his way on to the power play on the second unit and puts up points there, he’ll make a good case for himself. Even if he just puts up 20-25 points as a third pair defenseman he’ll make some money. Even better for him would be if an injury forced him into top four minutes for the Lightning and he proved he was capable of the spot now. I think the lowest you’d expect is a $1 million deal. I wouldn’t be surprised at a little longer term deal that pays him $2 or $2.5 million until he further proves himself depending on how his year goes.

I know there’s a lot of uncertainty there for how much each player might make. And we don’t know what kind of magic that Steve Yzerman might weave in getting it done. He could pull off a trade of Filppula and Garrison that would open up almost $10 million in cap space to hang on to every one else. Maybe he goes for the home run and trades Tyler Johnson for a young defenseman that can help strengthen the blue line and make it easier to swallow trading Garrison.

There’s a lot of variables in play, but as it stands, it does not seem like Yzerman can keep this group together. He is likely going to have to move two or three roster players while allowing Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle to walk next summer. For these restricted free agents, keep an eye on them this year. They should have extra incentive to play hard and perform so that they get paid next summer.