The Tampa Bay Lightning's priority coming off their Stanley Cup win is signing three pending restricted free agents: defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak, and forward Anthony Cirelli.
General manager Julien BriseBrois said Thursday that the Lightning need to sign the three players, though he acknowledged doing so would pose difficulties under the NHL salary cap and make it harder to keep the roster from this season intact. He said Sergachev, Cernak and Cirelli are "all good young players who have really entered their prime yet, and they're going to allow us to continue to be a good team going forward for many years.
"… But their salary increases, which are well deserved, are going to eat into our cap space. And we didn't have any cap space to start with."
The free agent market opens Oct. 9.
Sergachev, a 22-year-old who BriseBois said took the biggest step forward on Tampa Bay this season, had 34 points (10 goals, 24 assists) and averaged an NHL career-high 20:22 of ice time per game this season, then scored 10 points (three goals, seven assists) while playing 22:37 per game in the postseason. Cernak, 23, had 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 18:57 per game this season, and finished with four assists playing 20:43 per game in the postseason. Cirelli, 23, scored 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists) this season and had nine points (three goals, six assists) in the postseason.
Video: DAL@TBL, Gm5: Sergachev takes lead with one-timer
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup Final on Monday, defeating the Dallas Stars in six games in Edmonton, the hub city for the Final.
"Winning is a hard business at this level," BriseBois said. "For us to win the Cup, the players had to do a lot of hard work and the coaching staff had to make some hard decisions and now, if we want to win another Cup, it's my turn to make some hard decisions.
"My job -- my duty -- is to make decisions that increase the odds of the team being successful, and every decision I'm going to be making in the next couple of days is going to be based on trying to improve the odds that we will continue to be a Stanley Cup contender year in, year out, for the foreseeable future. And I believe that we have what it takes to be such a team."
The salary cap will remain $81.5 million for next season, and BriseBois said he expects it to be the case for the following two seasons as well. He said that prior to the coronavirus pandemic he had anticipated the cap rising to $84 million next season.
Part of the Lightning's cap issues is the significant raise due to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose salary cap charge will go from $3.5 million this season to $9.5 million next season, the beginning of the eight-year, $76 million contract extension he signed July 29, 2019. Vasilevskiy, voted the Vezina Trophy winner last season as the best goalie in the NHL, was a finalist for the award this season with a 35-14-3 record, 2.56 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. He was 18-7-0 with a 1.90 GAA and .927 save percentage in the postseason.
In addition to the three restricted free agents mentioned by BriseBois, forwards Mitchell Stephens, 23, and Carter Verhaeghe, 25, each can become a restricted free agent. The Lightning also have five pending unrestricted free agents: defensemen Jan Rutta, 30; Kevin Shattenkirk, 31; Luke Schenn, 30; and Zach Bogosian, 30; and forward Pat Maroon, 32.
Video: TBL@DAL, Gm4: Shattenkirk nets PPG, wins Game 4 in OT
Another issue is several players have no-trade clauses in their contracts, including forwards Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson, and defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Braydon Coburn. Forward Alex Killorn has a modified no-trade clause.
"Even though I would like to bring this whole group back together so we could try to defend our championship … the reality is, I can't do that," BriseBois said. "The cap just doesn't allow that to happen. It never does for any team.
"There's always some turnover, and this year the turnover is going to require that some of our players that have been here for a while and just helped us win a championship aren't going to be returning."
BriseBois said he does not expect to buy out any player contracts and that he has been in touch with the agents of all the players whose contracts are up.
"The longer we wait, the fewer options we may have because other teams might have done something else and taken themselves out of the opportunity to do business with us," BriseBois said.
"All I know is by the time the 2020-21 season starts we'll be cap compliant and we'll have a really competitive team."