Pausing the Stanley Cup celebration and with his voice still hoarse from partying, Alex Killorn acknowledged the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning will not be back together on the ice when the NHL returns in the fall.
“We’re all grown men, and we understand that in a salary-cap system, the team is definitely going to look different now than it will next season," Killorn said. “Whatever happens, happens.”
Whatever happens is going to happen quickly. Before the Lightning even enjoy their second Stanley Cup boat parade, the rest of the league is already deep in preparations for next season as part of a frantic offseason that could see NBA or NFL-level player movement of big names to new places.
"There’s a number of teams that — there’s just really big decisions to be made," former Lightning general manager Brian Lawton said. “Now it’s fast and furious trying to figure out what they can get done.”
And not much time to do it. Lawton, now an NHL Network analyst, said it's going to feel like the shortest offseason in league history.
It will soon be a far cry from a team president joking to Lawton, “This is like the Not Happening League: nothing happening.” The buyout window opened Friday, teams must submit expansion draft protected lists by next Saturday, the Seattle Kraken reveal their picks July 21, the entry draft starts July 23 and free agency opens July 28.
The entire hockey landscape will look very different, all in the next three weeks.
By the time the calendar flips to August, the list of players traded could include Columbus defenseman Seth Jones, St. Louis winger Vladimir Tarasenko, Buffalo captain Jack Eichel and teammate Sam Reinhart, Washington center Evgeny Kuznetsov, Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton and Philadelphia winger Jakub Voracek.
“It’s huge names,” Lawton said. “It’ll be pretty much unprecedented if it all were to happen.”
And that's even before considering the free agents who could hit the market: wingers Taylor Hall, Gabriel Landeskog and Mike Hoffman, Hamilton and fellow defensemen Alec Martinez and Tyson Barrie as well as goaltenders Philipp Grubauer, Frederik Andersen, Petr Mrazek and Chris Driedger.
The salary cap remaining flat at $81.5 million because of pandemic revenue losses could hurt those players and hamstring some movement. Lawton estimated a better than 70% chance of Jones getting traded before training camps open in September but was less bullish on other big moves of players with hefty contracts.
No extra cap room definitely hurts Tampa Bay, a team that needed extraordinary circumstances to stay together this year. Knowing the band is getting broken up, players are savoring their final few days together before dispersing rather than worrying about next season just yet.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the Cup and winning and being around that group and whatever’s next is going to come in the next few weeks and I’ll have time to think about it when I get home,” pending free agent defenseman David Savard said. “Right now I think it’s just about enjoying the moment, enjoying the last few days I have with the whole group before everybody starts kind of going back home.”
At least one Lightning player could take a detour to Seattle for the expansion draft and could become the face of the NHL's 32nd franchise. Maybe it's forward Tyler Johnson, who has three years left on his contract at a $5 million price tag Tampa Bay can ill afford and just happens to be from Spokane, Washington, where the Kraken will play their inaugural exhibition game.
The Lightning like every other team except the Vegas Golden Knights — which is exempt from the expansion draft four years after theirs — will lose at least one player to Seattle. But there could be an upside for teams willing to give up something extra for the Kraken to take a big contract.
So, while the cap isn't going up, at least $60 million of room is coming with Seattle.
“That might open up some opportunity,” Lawton said.
This offseason is a big opportunity for teams to chart a course to attempt to follow the Lightning as Stanley Cup champions. Playoff disappointments by Edmonton, Toronto and Washington could prompt change; Buffalo needs another overhaul and Philadelphia would like to shake up a roster that just wasn't working.
Tampa Bay would love to run it back, but change is inevitable, and Killorn said players have embraced that.
“That’s part of being a professional: You know that can happen,” he said. “Everyone understands the reality.”
For the Lightning and 31 other NHL teams, the reality is everything will happen fast. Then the puck drops on an 82-game season in October.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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