When it came to dealing with Tyler Johnson, the Tampa Bay Lightning could have gone any number of routes. They could have gone through the arbitration process and had a one-year deal imposed on them, then risked losing him for nothing next summer as an unrestricted free agent. They probably could have signed him for a shorter term for more money per season. They could have kept Jonathan Drouin and traded Johnson. Or they could have signed Johnson to a good deal for a good player that may or may not be a good deal a couple of years from now.
Each one of them has potential pitfalls and rewards. But what it ultimately comes down to was, did the Lightning feel better about a future that included Johnson for seven years at $5 million per season and Mikhail Sergachev or one that would have included Drouin and whatever they might have been able to get for Johnson, likely a prospect or a second-round pick? They chose the former and only time will tell how wise that choice was.
Johnson’s number in arbitration likely would have been somewhere in the $5 million range. And if you look at last summer’s contracts for the likes of Loui Eriksson, David Backes, Milan Lucic and Andrew Ladd, it’s a given that Johnson almost certainly would have been able to secure a $6 million per year deal for five or six years as a free agent, with the amount likely going down to about $5.5 million if he took a seven-year deal. So when you measure that against what the Lightning are actually paying Johnson, you could argue they got themselves a deal.
But on the flip side, Johnson has been neither as healthy nor as productive in the past two years than he was in 2014-15 when he scored 29 goals and 72 points playing on a line with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, although he was a point-per-game player in Tampa’s playoff run in 2016. (Actually, Johnson is far, far more productive in the playoffs than he is in the regular season, a factor that should not be minimized for a team that could find itself right back among the serious playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference the next couple of seasons.)
One of the red flags is that in his first two full seasons, playing a lot with Kucherov and Palat, Johnson scored 122 points. In his past two seasons he has been injured and been shuffled around and has scored only 83 points. After signing Johnson, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman delighted in the fact that “(Johnson) is in the prime of his career, and we’re pleased to lock him up for a significant period of time.”
But does Johnson’s body of work over the past couple of seasons actually indicate he’s in the prime of his career? There are a lot of people out there who would say no.
If Johnson can return to the form that he showed three years ago even for a couple of seasons, the Lighting will have a steal on their hands. If he can be a consistent 50-60-point player, they will have signed a good deal. But if Johnson regresses further, particularly if Drouin blossoms and becomes an offensive star in Montreal, Yzerman will have to cross his fingers (and his toes) in the hopes that Sergachev turns out to be worth moving Drouin.
There’s a fair bit of evidence to prove that Johnson doesn’t actually drive the play and that his production is more dependent on the quality of his linemates than it should be. But he’s also a good No. 2 center who has averaged almost 53 points in his four full seasons in the NHL. What Johnson got is pretty much the going rate for 50-60-point scorers. And on the plus side, the market has been pretty much set for Palat, who has his own arbitration scheduled for July 25. Palat has been at least as good as, if not better than, Johnson over the past couple of seasons. It’s hard to imagine Palat, who’s eight months younger than Johnson, would command any less, either in money or term.
This is also a clear indication that the Lightning feel their future lies with the players who were brought along by coach Jon Cooper through the minors and into the NHL. The alliance between Cooper and Drouin always seemed tentative, with Cooper seeming to have a much better comfort level with the players he mentored along the way. In any event, the Lightning have definitively set their course for the foreseeable future.
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