How a salary dump turned the Lightning into a Cup contender
It might be difficult for him to imagine with his team two wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup, but Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman faced some challenging decisions following his team's first-round exit from the 2014 playoffs.
The Lightning roster that advanced to the Eastern Conference Final in 2011 was a distant memory in 2014 beyond Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. A burgeoning youth movement on offense had masked glaring issues in an aging defensive lineup throughout the season, and repairing it would be tricky given Tampa Bay's lack of salary cap room.
Ryan Callahan would command a hefty price to re-sign as a pending unrestricted free agent, while restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were due for raises following their respective breakout seasons. All three forwards signed extensions for a cumulative cap hit around $12.5 million, leaving limited resources for the team's necessary blue-line overhaul.
Said overhaul began with a draft-day trade involving the Vancouver Canucks, Tampa Bay's second-round pick, and defenseman Jason Garrison - who carried a $4.6-million cap hit. The Lightning made some cap room by using a compliance buyout on Ryan Malone, but they still lacked a top-pairing option to skate with Hedman, which would require more spending.
One albatross left on Tampa Bay's roster was Teddy Purcell, who signed a three-year deal one offseason ago when he was a staple on the Lightning's scoring lines. After three productive seasons with Tampa Bay, Purcell's pace slowed in 2013-14 and he lost his spot among the top six forwards, leaving him in a role that did not match his $4.5-million cap hit.
Yzerman's best option was to deal Purcell for as little salary return as possible, but his list of suitors was limited. The Edmonton Oilers were interested, but they wanted to move Sam Gagner, who didn't offer substantial savings with his cap hit.
On June 29 2014, Tampa Bay dealt Purcell to the Oilers for Gagner, who was sent the same day to Arizona along with B.J. Crombeen's $1.15-million cap hit for a sixth-round draft pick. The Lightning retained $1.6 million of Gagner's cap hit, but Yzerman freed around $4 million in cap space in the deals, allowing him to sign the Lightning's missing pieces through free agency.
Anton Stralman - fresh off a Cup Final appearance with the New York Rangers - signed a five-year deal with the Lightning on July 1. Stralman's teammate from New York, Brian Boyle, also signed with Tampa Bay for three years, upgrading the depth that was lost with Crombeen's departure.
Stralman became Hedman's partner and the pair has been highly effective in tough minutes against the opposition's best forwards, while Boyle is one of the team's top faceoff and penalty kill contributors. Both players have played key roles on Tampa Bay's playoff run at a cap cost of $6.5 million, which would not have been possible without moving Purcell.
Dumping salary can often seen as an admission of defeat; a team minimizing an asset in order to cut its losses after a poor decision. But in the salary cap era, taking the right step backward is arguably as important as how a team moves forward.