The New Jersey Devils may be able to once again capitalize on another organization’s cap crunch.
Take one look at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s salary situation and the club’s current predicament becomes immediately clear. After two years of postseason success and breakout seasons, the exceptionally deep Lightning have run into a key issue — they have so many talented names on the roster that it’s become unclear how exactly they plan to keep all of them.
The chief issue: Tampa Bay currently sits with just $6.6 million in cap space (per CapFriendly.com), while still having to sign star winger Nikita Kucherov.
With two strong goalscoring seasons under his belt (28 tallies in 2014-15 and 30 last season) and an established role as one of his club’s top snipers, Kucherov won’t come cheap. Finding comparable deals isn’t difficult. Nashville’s Filip Forsberg has posted very similar numbers over the past two seasons, and he was recently rewarded with a six-year deal paying him $6 million per season.
Factor in names like Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele and Vladimir Tarasenko and that annual cap hit could climb as high as $7.5 million. Even assuming Kucherov lands somewhere closer to Forsberg’s deal — which seems more likely given General Manager Steve Yzerman’s body of work thus far — that still leaves Tampa Bay in a bind.
Kucherov seems set to make at least $6.5 million per year, which will eat up nearly all of the team’s cap space. Aside from leaving them with zero flexibility, such a situation would also prevent them from re-signing defenseman Nikita Nesterov, who suited up for 57 games for the Lightning last season, as well as 26 playoff games over the past two years.
Yzerman plans to create a bit more room by potentially moving Ryan Callahan and his hip injury to the long-term injured reserve, but that’s hardly a legitimate solution considering the storm that’s coming next summer. While the club will have close to $18 million in cap space heading into 2017-18, they’ll lose a fair chunk of that with Kucherov’s pending deal, and will also have to extend three more crucially important names: Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin.
Johnson and Palat are already guaranteed significant money, and Drouin looks poised to break out in 2016-17 and earn a sizeable raise as well.
And so we find the Lightning with one or two too many talented scorers, and a genuine motivation to make some moves to free up room for themselves. The obvious solution for any club looking to part with decent forwards is New Jersey, who remains starved for offensive improvement.
The Devils finished with a league-worst 2.22 goals-for per game last season, even with a breakout effort from hometown hero Kyle Palmieri, who posted a career-best 30 goals.
Ray Shero already addressed the issue in a significant way when he managed to acquire elite winger Taylor Hall. But the former Oilers scoring leader won’t be enough to right the ship on his own.
Enter Tampa Bay.
There are two Lightning contracts in particular that stick out like sore thumbs: Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula. Both forwards are over 30 years old and yet both make at least $5 million per year (an even five for Filppula and just under $6 million for Callahan) despite the fact that neither are a part of the team’s core.
Yzerman has stated he wishes to keep that core together — a group that seems to consist of Steven Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Kucherov, Drouin, and recently re-signed Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman and the team’s netminding tandem. With all of that depth in tow, losing Filppula or Callahan likely wouldn’t cause the club too much pain. Regardless, the loss would be mitigated by the cap space which enabling them to bring back their key names.
There’s a deal to be made here, and both clubs could stand to benefit. From New Jersey’s perspective, either Filppula or Callahan would be excellent depth upgrades that would help boost the team’s offense (which finished as the league’s worst in 2015-16, posting the fewest goals and shots).
The Devils have some talented young names on the roster — mainstays like Hall and Henrique, and those still on the cusp, like Pavel Zacha and Reid Boucher. But with the two latter forwards still requiring some time to develop, bringing in a veteran forward could help hold the club over while that transition takes place, while also providing a veteran voice fresh off some extended postseason runs.
Filppula seems the more likely of the two to get traded. He’s signed for only two more years, unlike Callahan’s four. As well, Callahan also wears a letter for the team and was brought to town in a blockbuster trade (which sent Martin St. Louis to New York in 2014).
What exactly would a deal entail? It might not require much to pry Filppula away, simply because of the circumstances surrounding his role with the club at the moment. The decision to move Stamkos back to center lessened Filppula’s role among Tampa Bays’ pivots last season, bumping him down to the third line as opposed to his former top-six role.
Last season saw the veteran’s average ice-time drop by nearly a minute, down to 18:15, his lowest average since he came to the Lightning. He was also moved into a slightly more defensive role (likely the result of his bottom-six usage), as Filppula started more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone for the first time in his career.
At 32 years old, making over $5 million per year and having posted only 31 points last season, Filppula isn’t going to draw too many marquee offers from opposing NHL clubs. However, New Jersey is in a rare position in that they can afford to overpay him for a couple of seasons given their salary cap space. The Devils have over $13 million of space with nearly their entire team signed already — gambling on the fact that, if moved back to a primarily offensive, top-six role, Filppula can still be a meaningful contributor.
A trade wouldn’t necessarily look like an even swap, as Tampa Bay can’t take back any significant salary. Their main reward for the deal would be the cap space gained by getting Filppula’s contract off the books. Adding to that would be a package of prospects and draft picks.
New Jersey has some options to work with. They currently hold Boston’s 2017 second-round pick, Colorado’s 2017 third-round pick, Florida’s 2018 second-round pick and Toronto’s 2018 third-round pick, not to mention their own selections. While the Devils won’t be willing to give up their true young assets for a temporary veteran addition, there are some young players who they aren’t as invested in.
Devante Smith-Pelly could be one such name. The 24-year-old was a hit during his short stint in New Jersey, scoring 13 points in 18 games in 2015-16. But those 18 games were his only appearances for the Devils. He spent time in Montreal and Anaheim before that, meaning something about his game told two teams who could use the offensive help that going in another direction was the better option.
There’s little in Smith-Pelly’s history to suggest he’ll keep up his pace of .72 points per game next season (or come anywhere close to it), so selling high seems a reasonable plan of action. Yzerman certainly won’t be fooled into thinking Smith-Pelly is on the cusp of an offensively dominant season, but the young winger could become a serviceable piece among the Lightning’s bottom-six.
Whether such a deal could come to be would likely depend more on Filppula himself, as his contract carries some form of a modified no-trade clause (per CapFriendly.com). If the veteran is looking to stay on a competitive squad indefinitely, Tampa Bay is the clear option (though keep in mind, he isn’t seeking his first Stanley Cup, having won one in Detroit in 2008).
But a diminishing role might lead Filppula to be more open to a change, especially if that change comes with a shot at playing a key offensive role once again. New Jersey’s group of centremen currently consists of Henrique, Travis Zajac, Zacha and recently acquired veteran Vernon Fiddler – so the opportunity is there.
There’s no question Filppula would be an upgrade over the latter three names, and a few seasons in such a role would do much more in regards to allowing him to earn a new contract – if he seeks to keep playing after age 34 – than playing in Tampa Bay’s bottom-six would.
If he can be sold on a change of scenery, a move could benefit both teams greatly, improving New Jersey’s growing offensive presence, and providing Tampa Bay with some much-needed relief – and the flexibility to sign the players who are truly driving the Lightning forward.
The clock is ticking on Kucherov’s extension, and while Yzerman may be able to fit everything in under the ceiling this summer, something has to give before 2017-18, as there’s simply no way the Lightning can keep their core intact without moving out a high-priced player sometime in the next year.