Lightning splurge on free agents and contract extensions to begin free agency

ST PAUL, MN - JUNE 24: 27th overall pick Vladislav Namestnikov of the Tampa Bay Lightning poses for a portrait during day one of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center on June 24, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
ST PAUL, MN - JUNE 24: 27th overall pick Vladislav Namestnikov of the Tampa Bay Lightning poses for a portrait during day one of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center on June 24, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images) /

There were multiple short and long-term signings in the first day of free agency and seemingly nothing in-between for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In addition to welcoming Ian Cole and Haydn Fleury, and former Bolt Vladislav Namestnikov, into the Lightning family for the upcoming season on one or two-year contracts, general manager Julien BriseBois committed 8-year contract extensions to each of Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev a year before they were set to become restricted free agents.

However, the addition of new faces did not come without saying goodbyes as Ryan McDonagh was previously traded and Jan Rutta and Ondrej Palat will not be returning to the team. Rutta signed a three-year contract at a $2,750,000 AAV with the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Ondrej Palat signed a five-year contract at a $6,000,000 AAV with the New Jersey Devils.

For Palat, the last few days had indicated that there was not going to be a deal to keep him in Tampa Bay after his 11-goal playoff effort caught the attention of general managers needing an experienced winger to solidify their rosters. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort from both sides, just at the end of the day there is only so much cap space to build a roster with and the gap between what BriseBois could afford to give Palat and what he got on the open market was too wide of a gap to overcome. We wish Pally the best in New Jersey and thank him for ten memorable seasons in Tampa.

The Lightning’s biggest free agent news of the day was the announcement of Vladislav Namestnikov‘s return to the team on a 1-year deal at a $2,500,000 AAV. After being sent to the New York Rangers in the trade that brought McDonagh to Tampa in 2018, Namestnikov now finds himself back with the Lightning thanks to cap space freed up by McDonagh’s trade to Nashville.

Namestnikov last filled a prominent role in the Lightning’s forward group but has since seen his usage fall into middle of the lineup roles during his time away. While it’s unclear if being surrounded by familiar faces will lift his offensive production back to where it was in 2018, he should be a solid two-way force that is also capable of chipping in on the penalty kill as needed.

As for the new additions, Ian Cole and Haydn Fleury look like our direct replacements for Ryan McDonagh and Fredrik Claesson. Cole, 33, signed 1-year at $3,000,000, is a 12-year veteran of the league who led the Carolina Hurricanes defense in hits and shots blocked/60 last season. One potentially troublesome aspect of his game is his propensity to take penalties as he also led the Canes defense with 1.57 minor penalties/60 and 83 total PIM for the regular season. After the Lightning struggled to stay out of the penalty box at times in the playoffs, we’ll need a more disciplined season from the veteran.

Fleury, 26, a former 7th overall draft pick, signed a 2-year contract at a $762,500 AAV. This sets him up to replace Fredrik Claesson in Syracuse as the Crunch’s top LHD (if he can clear waivers), but that is not before he spends at least the opening month or two of the season in Tampa with Zach Bogosian and Anthony Cirelli set to miss time due to shoulder surgeries.

In five seasons spent between the Hurricanes and the Seattle Kraken, Fleury played 215 games but has yet to emerge from more than a depth role. Should he find his footing in the Lightning organization, it’s possible he could become the leading candidate to play on the left side of the third pairing for the 2023-24 season after Cole’s one-year deal ends.

Free agents are fun and all, but today the real money was handed out to what was to be next year’s pending RFA group of Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli, and Mikhail Sergachev. All three signed 8-year extensions, beginning at the start of the 2023-24 season, that will carry them all the way through till the end of the 2030-31 season. Their contract AAVs are as follows:

  • Cernak: $5,200,000
  • Cirelli: $6,250,000
  • Sergachev: $8,500,000

Looking at the terms, I do have concerns about whether Cernak will be able to play his puck-eating style of defense and stay healthy for all eight years of his contract. Cirelli’s numbers are probably the best value of the three. And while Sergachev is a great player, and greatly needed to step-up in McDonagh’s absence, it is possible to make the case that his AAV was a bit rich for what he a shown so far.

However, I think that any point concerning possible overpay is moot since Sergachev is still just 24 years old and has proven himself capable of playing big minutes. Even though he hasn’t scored at a rate of a true #1 defenseman yet, I would say there’s fair reason to give his contract the benefit of the doubt here. But time will tell.

Contract terms aside, BriseBois getting all three under eight-year contracts is a major success as it removes a lot of uncertainty from the team’s future. Although at the same time it places a lot of weight onto the shoulders of the three players to continue to keep the team’s contention window open. With all three either 24 or 25, and in the early stages of their prime years, the future success of the team will greatly depend on them living up to their contracts.

As for now though, the spending spree is over.