Mailbag: Lightning salary cap issues, playoff chances for Sabres



I’ve been watching the Tampa Bay Lightning and their NHL salary cap issues, specifically with their restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. With Sergachev signed and the Lightning needing to make moves, do you think that the San Jose Sharks have a shot at Cirelli or Cernak? If no, where do these players end up? — @NeufeldBlake

The Lightning look ripe for a giveaway, I’ll give you that. By that I mean losing a valuable player like Cirelli or Cernak, who each is a restricted free agent, because of the salary cap issues. They have to move players out to sign them. Are the Sharks a team that can swoop in and make something happen? Sure. It comes down to who or what they’re willing to part with. But they wouldn’t be alone as a suitor for either Cirelli, a forward, or Cernak, a defenseman. They are two of the most valuable remaining RFAs, so as much as the Lightning might be in a bind when it comes to the cap, if they are eventually resigned to having to move one or both of these players, they likely could drum up a pretty good bidding war and stock their draft capital in a meaningful way. Remember, Tampa Bay’s only first-round pick in the past three years was forward Nolan Foote (No. 27 in the 2019 NHL Draft), but he was traded to the New Jersey Devils along with the Lightning’s first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft for forward Blake Coleman on Feb. 26. Of the Lightning’s 10 first-round picks since 2010, only goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (No. 19 in the 2012 NHL Draft) and defenseman Cal Foote (No. 14 in the 2017 NHL Draft) are still with the team. 

All that said, the Lightning have to figure out a way to keep at least Cirelli, a future Selke Trophy winner as the League’s best defensive forward and potential future captain (although Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos is certainly not going anywhere). He’s the perfect third-line center in the NHL today, especially playing behind Stamkos and Brayden Point. He has breakaway speed, a high hockey IQ, strength in the middle of the ice and the versatility to move up the lineup if necessary (if, for example, Tampa Bay wants to play Stamkos at right wing). You win in the NHL today with strength down the middle, and the Lightning have that. If they can’t keep Cirelli, they could have a difficult time replacing him without having to rob from another area.

Cernak is more expendable because the Lightning already have Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh anchoring their top two defense pairs. Sergachev, who signed a three-year, $14.4 million contract ($4.8 average annual value) on Nov. 25, or McDonagh could move to the right side if the Lightning had to replace Cernak, but they could also turn to Foote, who they have been grooming with Syracuse of the American Hockey League the past two seasons. Foote, a right-shot defenseman, is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds (Cernak is 6-3, 230), so he could be ready to graduate to the NHL and would benefit from playing alongside Hedman or McDonagh. 

San Jose, by the way, would likely love to have a player like Cernak to play on the right side behind Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns

But the Lightning will try to trade players like forward Tyler Johnson ($5.0 million cap charge) and/or forward Alex Killorn ($4.45 million) before they go down the road of potentially moving out Cirelli and/or Cernak.


Will the Buffalo Sabres make the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season? — @SamRitter8

If this were going to be a normal season, my answer would be a hard no because the Sabres still have questions about their goaltending, depth and ability to maintain success. They’ve started strong the past two seasons only to eventually fall down the standings. But this isn’t going to be a normal season, so let’s analyze it and go over their chances.

The Sabres should be better, especially with the addition of left wing Taylor Hall, who will play with center Jack Eichel, and Eric Staal, who will be their No. 2 center. However, can Linus Ullmark be a legitimate No. 1 goalie? Is Carter Hutton going to deliver in a backup role? Of those two, Ullmark is the key. He showed a lot of promise last season, when he was 17-14-3 with a 2.69 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 34 starts. If he builds on that, the Sabres might just have enough, but that’s still a big if because it’s betting on potential, not experience.

A hot start from Eichel and Hall, a strong run by Ullmark and a red-hot power play could all make the difference in the Sabres qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the longest current drought in the NHL at nine seasons. But I’m not ready to go there yet. I’m still held up by their goaltending and the uncertainty of it.

Video: 31 in 31: Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 season preview


Why doesn’t Ivan Provorov get enough attention? He plays in a large market and is one of the best in the League, and yet no one talks about him. Why? — @theashcity

The why here is a good question as it pertains to the national perspective. The 23-year-old Philadelphia Flyers defenseman gets plenty of attention in his local market. The Flyers and their fans know his value. Based on some of the local coverage and responses on social media, there was a bit of an uproar in Philadelphia last month when NHL Network did not include Provorov on its list of the top 20 defensemen in the NHL. 

I can see the argument for Provorov to be on that list, but it’s hard to overlook how his improvement last season from 2018-19 (when he scored 26 points in 82 games and was minus-16) was affected by Matt Niskanen. Niskanen’s steady, stay-at-home presence helped give Provorov the confidence to push his game to another level. He averaged an NHL career-high 0.52 points per game (36 points in 69 games), was plus-11 and had a shot-attempts percentage of 51.7 percent (47.5 in 2018-19) while averaging 24:51 of ice time per game. 

But as much as we can credit Niskanen, it’s also a disservice to Provorov to ignore the fact that his success last season was proof of a young NHL defenseman taking the next step in his career, becoming a consistent No. 1 on a strong team. That’s why Provorov is a top 20 defenseman. He’s the most impactful defenseman on a team that finished sixth in the NHL with a .645 points percentage (41-21-7), producing offensively while providing a strong two-way presence. 

Provorov did receive two fifth-place votes last season for the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the best defenseman in the NHL, so if he stays consistent and helps the Flyers remain one of the top teams in the League, he’ll start to get more attention nationally. 

Video: Top plays of the Postseason: Ivan Provorov


Which team is more built for a deep playoff run after this bizarre yet exciting offseason, the Boston Bruins or the Toronto Maple Leafs? — @DCorgs05

It’s a difficult question to answer without having the details of the schedule, such how many games they will play. But if we go by the theory that both are playoff teams, I think the Bruins have a better chance at a long run. I’m banking on their experience and the fact that some of their core veteran players, including centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, and goalies Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, will benefit from a shorter regular season with less travel. A short season with limited travel could extend the window to win for teams like the Bruins, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins because it will be less taxing, keeping them fresher for the playoffs. The Maple Leafs are in the show-me stage of their development. The pieces are in place, but they haven’t proven anything yet. It’s only fair to say they need to win a round in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 before we believe they’re capable of a long run.


Sorry if this is off topic, but I’m curious if you know what the policies are with American Hockey League players signing with active ECHL teams seeing as some are set to begin their seasons in the coming weeks. Will AHLers be sent down to stay active? — @LacesOutFinkle

Players on AHL contracts are eligible to be assigned to ECHL teams. The ECHL is scheduled to begin its regular season Dec. 11. For example, the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL assigned four players on AHL contracts to the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL on Monday. Those players will be in Orlando’s training camp. Players on NHL contracts, even if they’re expected to play in the AHL, are not eligible to be assigned to ECHL teams. It’s possible that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association could come to an agreement that allows players on NHL contracts to play in the ECHL. The AHL does not have authority regarding movement of players who are on NHL contracts.

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