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The Lightning have to make a few players cap casualties – and they have to do it soon

With potential for a lower cap and money spent retaining some depth pieces, cap space is getting tighter by the day in Tampa Bay. And with the Lightning yet to lock up Brayden Point – and with Andrei Vasilevskiy a future free agent – the Bolts need to start making sacrifices.

At a time when Erik Karlsson is signing for gargantuan dollars, Kevin Hayes is helping to highlight the lunacy of signing season and their two respective squads – the Sharks and Flyers – are completing a swap that sends Justin Braun from San Jose to Philadelphia for a pair of draft picks, the minor moves aren’t going to be making many headlines. Thus, when Braydon Coburn signed a two-year, $3.4-million extension Tuesday to remain with the Tampa Bay Lightning, it got somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Fair enough, too. Coburn, for all he did well this past season in a third-pairing role with the Bolts, wasn’t really front-and-center when it came to this summer’s free-agent crop. In colleague Matt Larkin’s ranking of the top 30 unrestricted free agents, for instance, Coburn, 34, was tucked deep into the list of honorable mentions. That he took a significant pay cut – from $3.7-million per season on his last three-year pact to $1.7-million per campaign on his new two-year deal – tells us two things, too: that he didn’t have much desire to leave Tampa Bay in the first place and that the market likely wasn’t going to be too hot for a veteran defender whose best years are behind him.

Don’t take that to mean Coburn’s deal is of little interest or impact, however. There is a fair amount of intrigue that comes in the aftermath of his re-signing, if only because of the salary cap implications his contract has for the Lightning as they enter the off-season facing less of a cap crunch and more of a potential cap crisis.

Consider Tampa Bay’s situation. With Coburn signed, the Lightning enter the less-than-two-week period before the opening of free agency with slightly more than $76.1 million committed to its roster for next season. And considering the forecast for the spending limit has gone from somewhat bright and sunny to fairly dark and cloudy over the past several days, that puts the Bolts in an ever-increasing bind. To wit, given early salary cap projections, which were set at $83 million, Tampa Bay’s combined spend for next season leaves them roughly $6.9 million with which to work next summer. It has been speculated recently, though, that the cap may not rise beyond $82 million. The math here is simple enough, and what it tells us is that the Lightning could be set to enter the summer ahead with less than $6 million at their disposal. That’s worrisome given restricted free agent Brayden Point is still in need of his payday.

While we don’t know Point’s asking price and we don’t know if the bridge option is on the table, what we do know with some level of certainty is the money available is not going to be enough to get the 23-year-old restricted free agent locked up without a corresponding move. Point scored 41 goals and 92 points last season in 79 games. He has scored 73 goals and 158 points across his past 161 games. He finished top-10 in Selke Trophy voting last season and almost certainly received similar consideration this season. If he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can rest assured that he’d be receiving Mitch Marner-amounts of attention heading into this summer.

The best estimates for Point’s next contract don’t improve the Lightning’s outlook, either. On a max-term deal, he’s likely looking at a cap hit at or above $9 million. Even on a short-term deal, Point’s salary still probably creeps over $7-million per season. And basically any way you slice it, the Lightning don’t have the requisite cap space to get Point’s deal done today and fill the remaining spots on their roster, of which there will still be at least a few. They will have even less money with which to sign Point if the cap doesn’t meet the $83-million projection. And that means someone has to go, and someone has to go sooner rather than later if the Lightning want to avoid the potential of Point inking an offer sheet that throws them into scramble mode.

The obvious candidate, of course, is Ryan Callahan. It’s been theorized for some time now that the veteran winger is the prime candidate to get the axe and that a buyout is the most likely course of action given his 16-team no-trade clause. There is some immediate value in buying out Callahan, too, as it frees up $3.1 million in cap space, though it does come with an additional $1.6 million against the cap next season. But while that may be just enough to take care of business in the immediate, it doesn’t fix the problem entirely. With Andrei Vasilevskiy due a substantial raise next summer, Mikhail Sergachev set for restricted free agency and up-and-comers Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph also becoming RFAs, there’s going to be a need for cap space that goes above and beyond what’s required to sign Point.

And that might just be where J.T. Miller comes in.

Signed last June to a five-year deal that carries a $5.25-million cap hit, the 26-year-old registered 13 goals and 47 points last season, and while a cost-controlled asset with legitimate 55- to 65-point potential might not seem the prime candidate to be moved along, there’s likely no one who more fits the bill. Not only is Miller an attractive trade asset because he is locked up at a fairly cap-friendly rate for the next four seasons and because he can be a quality middle-six producer, but he has limited trade protection, which no other potential trade chips does.

Run down the list. Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh all possess either full no-trade clauses or no-movement clauses. Miller, however, is limited to an eight-team no-trade list. That gives Lightning GM Julien BriseBois flexibility in the trade market that he doesn’t have with any of his trade-protected players, every one of which earns upwards of $4.45 million. For that reason, Miller seems the likeliest trade chip for a Tampa Bay team that is in need of cap space, and in a dollars-and-cents sense, Miller, the Bolts’ fifth-highest paid player, makes the most sense to move.

So, is the Coburn pact big news? In a vacuum, not one bit. But it’s what it means for an already cap-strapped Lightning team that makes the signing notable. It was already assumed that someone was going to have to move out in order for Point to be retained, but with every additional dollar spent, it’s increasingly likely that someone of value will be sent packing in order for Tampa Bay to take care of its off-season to-do list.

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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