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Lightning have tough choices to make after Killorn inks seven-year, $31.15-million deal

The Tampa Bay Lightning avoided going to arbitration with Alex Killorn, signing the 26-year-old to a seven-year, $31.15-million deal. Locking up Killorn at $4.45 million per season means a trade might be on the horizon for Tampa Bay, though.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The Lightning had two salary arbitrations to worry about this off-season, but the biggest of the two is off their plate as Tampa Bay signed restricted free agent Alex Killorn to a seven-year deal Sunday.

Killorn’s new deal will reportedly pay the 26-year-old $4.45 million per season, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, which makes it a sizeable $31.15-million contract over the span of the next seven seasons. If that seems like a lot of money for Killorn, that would be because it’s quite the payday for the winger and a nearly $2 million raise over what he was making this past season.

The two-way element to Killorn’s game makes his signing most attractive, and he’s a consistent 15-goal, 40-point player. Killorn’s post-season performances no doubt also played a part in him earning such a hefty raise. In the past two playoffs, Killorn has notched 14 goals and 31 points in 43 games.

"We're very comfortable doing a long-term contract at the right cap number with Alex," Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said, via the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith. "He's been with us his entire career. He's a high-character young man, tremendously fit and part of the core of our team. We're trying to keep the core together as much as we can."

However, even if it has become increasingly difficult to question Yzerman over the past year — what with his handling of the Jonathan Drouin situation and his ability to keep Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay on a reasonable eight-year deal — it’s hard not to feel like the Killorn deal could be one that creates some issues for the Lightning going forward, and possibly as soon as this upcoming campaign.

According to Smith, Yzerman admitted the Killorn signing and the yet-to-be-completed RFA deals for Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Nesterov could mean the Lightning have to make a trade before the campaign begins. It’s not hard to see where the problem is, either.

The Lightning currently have $8.53-million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, and Kucherov especially is set for a significant raise. The 23-year-old Russian winger has scored 59 goals and 131 points in the past two seasons and is a legitimate top-line scorer for the Lightning. Keeping him in town isn’t going to be cheap and is likely to cost Tampa Bay upwards of $6 million per season, espcially with Kucherov being one of only 22 players to score 55-plus goals in the past two years. That would leave the Lightning with a scant $2.5 million — and possibly less — to ink Namestnikov and Nesterov and leave them with little wiggle room moving forward.

As if that’s not bad enough, though, Yzerman will have to also take into consideration what it’s going to cost to keep Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Andrej Sustr in town, as all four are due new contracts ahead of the 2017-18 campaign.

With contract extensions kicking in for Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning are projected to have roughly $20 million to work with in 2017-18. If Kucherov’s cap hit is an even $6 million, that leaves the Lightning with $14 million to sign Palat, Johnson and Drouin. That trio will almost certainly eat up that space, leaving the Lightning no room to sign a backup netminder or add depth pieces. That makes moving some players this coming season a near certainty, and the prime trade candidates all appear to be veteran players.

The most attractive trade piece the Lightning likely have is Valtteri Filppula, 32, who is locked up for two more seasons at $5 million per year.

Filppula had a tough season in 2015-16, scoring only eight goals and 31 points, making for his worst full-season point total since his rookie year. That Filppula has a no-movement clause will make it tricky, but may also make dealing him more enticing for Yzerman. If Filppula remains on the roster, the Lightning will be forced to protect him ahead of the expansion draft, eating up a spot that could be potentially be used to protect a younger player.

Outside of Filppula, the next most obvious trade candidates are a pair of 31-year-olds: Ryan Callahan and Jason Garrison. The tricky thing, though, will be finding a team willing to take on the cap hits for either player.

Garrison’s $4.6-million cap hit is far too high for the production and the role he plays on the Lightning. He’s a steady second-pairing blueliner, but he scored five goals and 11 points this past season and there’s no way he should be the highest-paid defenseman on the Tampa Bay blueline in 2016-17. Garrison out-earns Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Hedman, though the latter is set to start his big-money deal in 2017-18.

Garrison’s no-trade clause might limit Yzerman’s options, but dealing the veteran rearguard opens up a spot on the blueline and some much-needed salary space.

As for Callahan, his contract might make him impossible to move, as he’s signed to a six-year, $34.8-million deal that pays him $5.8 million per season until 2019-20.

He may have scored 24 goals in 2014-15, but Callahan’s game dropped off this past season as he scored just 10 goals and 28 points in 73 games. Trading Callahan would be the easiest way for the Lightning to get some much needed cap relief and he’s likely the player the Lightning would miss the least. Like Filppula, Callahan, too, has a no-movement clause. Yzerman being able to rid himself of that clause in favor of opening up a spot to protect another roster player would make a ton of sense.

No matter who Yzerman moves, though, the fact of the matter is that Killorn’s deal has the Lightning in a position where they’ll have to send someone packing. And with a talented core of players that are set to demand raises this season or next, the veteran players are the ones Yzerman will most likely be looking to deal.

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