The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs has given us two surprising first-round sweeps. The New York Islanders knocking out the Pittsburgh Penguins isn’t surprising, but it’s how they dispatched of them in four games that raised some eyebrows.
We all know what the other early surprise was. Perhaps it was the biggest first-round upset in the history of the NHL. The Columbus Blue Jackets swept the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning out of the playoffs. The best team in the NHL in the regular season rarely wins the Stanley Cup, but the Lightning entered the playoffs as the heavy favorite.
Now, they’ve been sent home early and have some questions to answer. Julien BriseBois inherited a good roster from Steve Yzerman as general manager, but he has some difficult decisions to make in the near future. In the next two years Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Andrei Vasilevskiy all need new deals.
The primary focus is on Point who is a restricted-free-agent this summer. He’s coming off a 41 goal and 92 point season as a 23-year-old. The Lightning always find a way to get deals lower than is expected, but he’s going to get a big pay day regardless.
As of now, the Lightning have a little under $10 million in projected cap space if the salary cap does indeed jump to $83 million. That leaves the Lightning with almost no room to do anything besides re-sign Point. They’ll need to find a way to shed some salary this summer.
Enter the Buffalo Sabres.
Once again, this summer the Sabres will have some cap space to weaponize in trades. We saw them do this in the Conor Sheary trade last summer by taking on Matt Hunwick; allowing them to only have to send a fourth-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Sabres and Lightning have been connected since around the trade deadline when we had rumors of their interest in defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Nothing materialized at the deadline, but the rumors haven’t gone away.
Elliotte Friedman brought up this very topic early in the ‘31 Thoughts’ podcast this week. He said, “I wonder if Tampa Bay is going to be one of the teams that takes a long look at Ristolainen from Buffalo.”
He and Jeff Marek then went on to discuss how the Lightning would make that work, which, we’ll get to shortly here. You can listen to the full episode via the link above on “31 Thoughts”.
The Lightning are losing Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Brayden Coburn to free agency this summer. They’ll need to find some help on their blue line going into next season and that’s where Ristolainen comes into play.
In order for this type of deal to work with the Sabres, they’re going to have to take on the money of some kind from the Lightning in the form of one and maybe two contracts.
The first choice is obviously forward Ryan Callahan. The Rochester native has one more year remaining on his contract that carries a $5.8 million cap hit. The 34-year-old carries a modified no-trade clause according to Cap Friendly that allows him to submit a list of 16 teams he would accept a trade to. Being from the area, it’s not a stretch to think the Sabres would be on his list.
Some other cap dumps that could still contribute at the NHL level for the next few years are forwards Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat. Killorn could be an interesting bottom-six add for the Sabres that could add some size, defense help, and secondary scoring. He’s 29-years-old and has four years remaining on a deal that carries a $4.45 million cap hit.
Of the two aforementioned players, Killorn seems preferable over Palat. While Palat is a year younger, he’s battled injuries throughout his career. He had a down year this season and carries a contract with three years remaining that carries a $5.3 million cap hit. Overall in the role that the Sabres are looking for Killorn will likely provide help in a wider range of areas within the game. Killorn has also scored more goals and points in each of the last two seasons.
Don’t forget about J.T. Miller as an option that could fall into this category as well. The 26-year-old has four-years left on a deal that carries a $5.25 million cap hit. He’s another play that has an NTC that does not kick in until July 1 of this year according to Cap Friendly. Miller is another player that can play all over your lineup.
The Lightning just signed him to a new deal after trading for him at the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline. He had a down year in goals scoring only 13 after scoring at least 20 goals in the three prior seasons. His isolated impact shown below on the chart from Micah McCurdy is pretty good. Miller could be a nice buy-low option for the Sabres in terms of a salary dump that could help the team for years to come.
The important part of any deal involving Ristolainen is that Jason Botterill can’t afford to miss on this one. He needs to get at least one NHL player back in that trade that can help them now. Acquiring Callahan and Killorn for Ristolainen isn’t going to do the Sabres any good. If the Lightning want help to shed salary to open space to sign some younger players they’re going to have to part with one of their young second-tier players.
Erik Cernak feels like a dream addition to the blue line, but his solid play over the last few months makes that an unlikely possibility. The next player the Sabres should target is forward Anthony Cirelli. The 21-year-old scored 19 goals and 39 points in his first full NHL season. He’s a speedy, two-way player that has some good skill. The 2015 third-round pick even found himself playing on the top line during the last few games of the Lightning season in the playoffs.
The most impressive part of Cirelli’s game may have been how impactful he was in his own end of the ice. He legitimately had a case for a Selke Trophy nomination this year. Our friends at Raw Charge wrote a very nice article about that very topic a month or so ago you can read here.
Cirelli had the 38th best xGA per 60 rating among all forwards according to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model. He can slot in on the wing throughout the lineup and even play center if needed to give the team depth. His position and lineup versatility provide the next Sabres head coach a lot of options in formulating his lineup with a player like that.
The next part of this is - why would the Lightning trade a young promising player like that? Well, there are a few reasons. First off, they can’t pay everyone. Secondly, the Lightning always seem to have a good flow of young talent coming in. Adam Erne and Mathieu Joseph are two players that could step into the role vacated by Cirelli. Also, Taylor Raddysh showed good signs as a rookie in the AHL and Alex Barre-Boulet looks like Point 2.0. He scored a lot in juniors and carried that over as a rookie in the AHL scoring 34 goals and 68 points in 74 games for the Syracuse Crunch.
You have to wonder if trading for Ristolainen possibly makes Sergachev available. The 20-year-old defenseman has had some struggles at times, but that’s expected for a player of his age. Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh are the top two left-shot defensemen on that team for the foreseeable future. Do the Lightning want pay over $5 million to what will be the third pair left shot defenseman for them?
Sergachev could use some work defensively, but that’s something a good coach can help fix. They can put him in better situations to alleviate those deficiencies in his game or put him with a strong defensive zone partner. The 2016 first-round pick is a solid puck mover and can add to the offense.
Yanni Gourde is another forward the Sabres could explore. The 27-year-old is a nice two-way winger that has scored at least 22 goals and 48 points in each of the last two seasons. He does carry a brand new six-year contract with a $5.166 million cap hit. The deal also carries a full no-trade clause, but it doesn’t kick in until July 1 of this year. He’s a guy the Lightning could look to move at the draft before that NTC comes into play.
Tyler Johnson is another interesting idea, but he carries a full no-move clause. He’s also going to be 29-years-old in July and has five-years with a $5 million cap hit on his contract.
There’s a lot of interesting avenues the Sabres could explore in a trade with the Lightning. That’s what makes this trade idea a good topic to discuss. It could go a lot of different ways and involve a handful of players. It could even involve more than Ristolainen going to the Lightning from the Sabres end of the deal.
If the Sabres for example traded Ristolainen and another piece (prospect or draft pick) to the Lightning for Callahan, Cirelli, and Killorn that would free up around $5.5 million in cap space for them. Also takes one of the contracts they have to worry about in the future off their list in Cirelli.
This will definitely be a situation to monitor throughout the offseason and leading up to the NHL Draft in June.