The blessing and curse of having a team filled with great players: those great players earn big piles of money, and the contract years keep coming like crashing waves in the ocean. You dodge one and immediately start bracing for the next.
Steve Yzerman did a masterful job finding ways to re-sign Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh. The only major casualties of the current Bolts regime were Jonathan Drouin, who returned a potentially more valuable asset anyway in Mikhail Sergachev, and Ben Bishop, for whom the Bolts had a ready replacement as a stud starting goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy. As Lightning GM, Yzerman took the torch from Chicago’s Stan Bowman as the league’s best salary-cap disaster dodger.
So would new GM Julien BriseBois, considered one of the smartest emerging minds in the game, replicate the magic after Yzerman stepped down from the job in September? BriseBois made his first big move Friday, though it’s too early to know whether he’s created a problem or fixed one. The Lightning announced a six-year extension for Swiss Army Knife forward Yanni Gourde, who was set for UFA status summer. Gourde, 26, will carry a $5.17-million cap hit on his new deal when it kicks in next season.
Maybe there’s a bit of projection in the contract, as Gourde has commenced his second full NHL campaign and thus only has one effective full season under his belt. But that type of pact is en vogue these days as GMs overpay a bit in the present for players they think will be worth far more a few years into their deal. The best example is Predators defenseman Roman Josi. Nashville bypassed a bridge contract to give him a seven-year pact at a $4-million cap hit despite what was a small sample size at the time. Now it’s arguably the league’s most brilliant contract.
So the guess here is BriseBois is doing the same with Gourde, realizing $5.17 million looks like a lot for an undrafted, late-blooming scorer but that he’ll soon be considered a strong value. The Lightning have learned a lot from Martin St-Louis and Johnson. They don’t judge players on their draft status. Gourde has great speed, can play all three forward positions, is effective anywhere in the top nine and, really, has scored at every level, from major junior to the AHL to the NHL. Since the start of his rookie year, 2017-18, Gourde ranks second on the Lightning only to Steven Stamkos in assists per 60 minutes and second only to Nikita Kucherov in points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Gourde doesn’t shoot the puck much compared to his teammates, and he ranks middle of the pack in Corsi relative to his teammates over that span, suggesting he isn’t the driving force on his lines, but it’s hard to be the dominant one when you’re playing with Kucherov or Stamkos or Brayden Point. At the very least, Gourde has proven an effective and versatile complementary piece.
So there’s a good chance Gourde will justify his cap hit. But Tampa now has a projected 14-player group eating up $72.4 million of cap space for 2019-20, with half its top-six blueliners, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi, becoming UFAs. Even if the cap goes up again, and BriseBois finds some bargain replacements on ‘D,’ there sure isn’t much money left to sign Point, is there?
Gulp. Point, 22, has emerged as an absolutely crucial component of this Cup-contending team, showing front-line offensive skill, as his 14 points through 12 games this season suggest, but also valuable two-way ability. It was his line, after all, that smothered hockey’s most dominant trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak to help Tampa knock Boston out of the 2018 playoffs.
Contract comparables suggest Point’s efforts to date already price him into at least the $6-million stratosphere as a 2019 RFA but, similar to what we’re seeing with Toronto’s Mitch Marner, Point will likely increase his value every month this season based on how he looks early on. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising if Point’s camp can justifiably ask for Leon Draisaitl money, a.k.a something north of the $8-million AAV range, by the summer if the Bolts don’t get a mid-season extension done. And they likely won’t, based on a recent report from The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun that the Point camp wants to focus on hockey and worry about a contract in the summer instead. Point’s agent: Gerry Johannson, who also represents Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey, who wound up an 11th-hour signing as an RFA this September.
It remains to be seen if the cap will be able to fit Point. If it doesn’t, what if BriseBois and the Bolts find themselves in the same situation the Leafs do with William Nylander today, banking on him taking a discount in the name of winning and creating a negotiation stalemate? There’s a case to be made for trying to reopen talks with Point now, getting him signed and worrying about shipping someone else out in the off-season to make room for him. Miller, for instance, doesn’t have any movement restrictions on his contract aside from an eight-team no-trade list. Picking which support piece must go is a better problem to have than one of your core stars opening next season unsigned, as the Leafs can attest. Worse yet for the Lightning: they have Vasilevskiy’s next contract to worry about a year from now, too.