Trade blitz Mikhail Sergachev, Tanner Geno before free agency

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TAMPA — The Lightning said a surprise goodbye to another core piece of their championship game Saturday, one that was expected to be a Bolt for the next decade, giving general manager Julien Brisbois the salary cap flexibility he’s craved for years to keep the Lightning a contender.

But for now, that freed-up money hasn’t been allocated to Steven Stamkos, and the Lightning captain appears headed to the open market when free agency begins at noon on Monday.

BriseBois made a shock move, trading 26-year-old star defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to the Utah Hockey Club during the second day of the NHL Draft in Las Vegas.

Later in the day, there was an even bigger shock. Brisbois said that even after gaining $11.15 million in cap space by trading Sergachev and forward Tanner Gano, he had reconnected with Stamkos’ agent, Don Meehan, but he had not made Stamkos a better offer.

“Our positions haven’t changed after the trades (on Saturday),” Brisbois said by phone after the draft. “So far, we’ve agreed to get to July 1. That doesn’t mean we can’t get back together. But we’ll move forward and see what we can do and see what works best.”

“My reaction was to figure out what’s best for the Lightning organization. Steven’s got to do what’s best for himself, his career and his family. So unless something changes between now and July 1, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change, we’ll get to (free agency).” “.

The roster could look very different in the next few days without two of the team’s fan-favorite players, Sergachev and Stamkos.

The Lightning may not be the best team today, but they are younger. For Sergachev, they got 24-year-old top-four defenseman JJ Moser, who averaged 20:34 on the ice last season for Arizona, and 20-year-old forward Conor Geekie, a former No. 11 pick who instantly became the Lightning’s top prospect.

Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev celebrates his goal against the Maple Leafs during the 2023 playoffs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Brisbois is now a major player in the free agent market. The Lightning’s salary cap space has increased to $16.5 million, so they can try to sign some of the best free agents this year, or explore trade offers from teams with an $88 million salary cap need to shake up their payroll.

“We now have a war chest of salary cap space to go out and improve our team in the free agency period,” Brisebois said. “We are hopeful that the new salary cap space, our favorable tax situation, and the opportunity to be on a competitive team and play with some great players, will make us an attractive destination when the need arises.” Free agents to make decisions on where to sign on July 1.”

Brisbois wasn’t necessarily willing to move Sergachev, describing him as a “26-year-old No. 1 defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup winner,” but he saw strength on the left side of the Lightning’s blue line after reacquiring defenseman Ryan McDonagh last month and decided to improve the depth of the forward group after that.

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However, it was surprising that Sergachev was the player who had to be moved on. The Lightning viewed him as part of their long-term future, signing him to an eight-year contract during the 2022 trade to keep him under team control through 2030-31, making him the team’s highest-paid defenseman. He won his second Stanley Cup a few days after his 23rd birthday, learning under the tutelage of Hedman and McDonagh.

“Looking at what we had on our backfield, I felt like you would end up with a better collective group if we reallocated some of our wealth from the backfield to improve our depth at the forward position,” BriseBois said. “And this time of year, during the draft and the opening of free agency, is one of those times, and what we try to do, it’s always about the collective group. It’s always about trying to build the strongest possible group.”

Besides parting ways with Sergachev, the Lightning decided to sign 27-year-old Jano, whom they paid a hefty price to acquire at the 2023 trade deadline. He didn’t live up to expectations, and they found a suitor in the Kings who would take on his $2.665 million salary cap hit. dollars for next season before he hits free agency.

Shortly after Saturday’s trade, Sergachev posted on Instagram, thanking the Lightning and their fans:

“I am grateful to the Lightning for everything we have together, all the ups and downs, from losing 4-0 in the first round to winning the Stanley Cup! Thank you to the organization for providing me with everything I need to perform at my best! Thanks to the coaches, I learned so much from you. Thanks to the medical staff, I love you guys and a big thank you to the players I played with, you made it really special!”

“I was proud to call myself Bolt and I gave my all for this team! Tampa will always be home to me and my family! And thank you to the fans and the city of Tampa! I felt the love and support from you and it made me better! Everything has an end but we are champions forever and I love you Tampa!”

Mikhail Sergachev (98) learned from one of the best defenders in the league, Victor Hedman (77).
Mikhail Sergachev (98) learned from one of the best defenders in the league, Victor Hedman (77). [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Coming into the offseason, Brisbois said his mission — in addition to re-signing Stamkos — was to improve the Lightning’s defensive performance after they ranked 22nd in goals conceded. He traded players to bring back McDonagh, and boasted a top-four lineup consisting of Victor Hedman, McDonagh, Sergachev and Erik Cernak.

But Brisebois said that earlier this month — when negotiations with Stamkos reached an impasse — his staff began sending out trade probes and taking a closer look at a free-agent market they hadn’t been able to delve into before. They have decided to tackle upgrading their forward pool, likely focusing on the best forwards available in both directions.

The Lightning could also pursue an extension for Hedman, who is entering the final year of his contract, in the coming days.

Besides Moser and Geeke, the latest trades give the Lightning four more draft picks, including two in Saturday’s draft.

Moser was a second-round pick by Arizona in 2021. Another left-handed defender, he scored five goals and 26 points in 80 games last season for the Coyotes. He will get a big salary bump from the $886,667 he was originally scheduled to receive.

Geekie is coming off his third full season in the WHL, where he recorded 43 goals and 56 assists in 55 games between the Wenatchee Wild and Swift Current Broncos. His +51 rating was the second-highest among WHL players. Geekie also represented Team Canada at this year’s World Junior Championships, where he scored two goals and had an assist in five games.

Geekie, whose entry-level contract runs through 2026-27, is expected to start the season at AHL Syracuse after making his professional debut last season with the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate in Tucson.

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