BRANDON — Eventually has arrived. Inevitable is finally here.
The door to the Lightning locker room has been left open long enough that one of the team’s core members has ventured outside. Ondrej Palat is gone, and there is no replacing that Lightning juju.
To be fair, this day has been coming for a long time. Some might argue the process began a year ago when Tyler Johnson was traded to Chicago. Or when Yanni Gourde was snatched in the expansion draft.
But there is an unmistakable sense of finality to Palat’s impending departure. Maybe it’s the totality of all the defections, or maybe it’s the proximity to Palat’s recent heroics in the postseason.
Whatever the cause, this is the new reality. Tampa Bay still has a playoff-worthy roster, it is still a Stanley Cup contender, but it is no longer the scourge of the NHL.
So, yeah, this is a sad day. A painful day.
And maybe — just maybe — a healthy day.
I’m not saying the Lightning are a better team today than they were a month ago. If the salary cap was not an issue, Palat, Ryan McDonagh, Blake Coleman and a few other players would still be around. The Lightning might even have three consecutive Stanley Cups with a very good chance at a fourth.
But if the salary cap meant disassembling a generational roster sooner than necessary, it has also kept the Lightning from living in the past for too long.
Moving the contracts of McDonagh, 33, Johnson, 31, and Yanni Gourde, 30, has allowed the Lightning to sign long-term deals with Mikhail Sergachev, 24, Anthony Cirelli, 24, and Erik Cernak, 25, this week. Allowing Palat, 31, to leave via free agency created enough space to re-sign Nick Paul, 27, and acquire Vladislav Namestnikov, 29.
So are the Lightning less imposing today? Yeah, I think they are. But they are also much younger, and maybe a little more versatile than in the past.
“This is just the reality of (the) situation,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said. “Not only do we have a hard salary cap, we have a salary cap that’s flat and we have other players that are just entering their primes and are going to be really good players for a really long time for us and we just ran out of cap space.”
They say if you want to dance, you must eventually pay the fiddler. In this case, if you want to have a boat parade, you’re eventually going to run aground on the salary cap.
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The Lightning have five players — Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy — who are among the very best in the world at their positions. They’re also making a combined $45 million or so. Throw in Alex Killorn and you’ve got six players eating up 60 percent of the entire salary cap next season.
That means BriseBois needs to assemble the other three-quarters of the roster with about 40 percent of his available funds.
“It’s just the reality of the competitive system that’s in place,” BriseBois said. “Some players, as much as you’d like to keep them and as much as they’d like to stay, eventually you just can’t fit everyone under the cap.”
One year and one week ago, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay used 20 skaters throughout that playoff run and exactly half of them are gone now.
Some were bit players — Mathieu Joseph and Luke Schenn. Some were complementary players — David Savard, Barclay Goodrow and Jan Rutta. And more than a handful were, at one time or another, key ingredients — Palat, McDonagh, Johnson, Coleman and Gourde.
No matter how you try to sugarcoat that, no matter how excited you might be about the arrivals of Namestnikov along with defensemen Ian Cole, Phillipe Myers and Haydn Fleury, it is not the same roster that came within two victories of the Stanley Cup last month .
That’s regrettable. And, as BriseBois said, it is not ideal.
But it’s not as if hope and optimism are following McDonagh and Palat out the door. The Lightning are still a formidable team. They still have a shot at glory a year from now.
It’s just that the Lightning will have a different look when they return to the ice. And maybe, as it turns out, that won’t be such a bad thing.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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