As the new GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Steve Yzerman has been presented with the daunting task of rebuilding a franchise that has been in a constant state of flux for the past several years.
But you know what? I think he’s got a pretty good base to work with.
The scary number is $40 million – that’s how much salary cap space has already been spent for next season and represents just 12 NHL players plus Vaclav Prospal’s bought-out contract.
So the Lightning need to find room for at least 10 more players and do so with only $16 million. Ouch.
Fortunately for GMY (GM Stevie Y? No? Fine, forget it), he already has four top-six forwards on the books. Two of them have already broken the 100-point barrier (Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis), one will (Steven Stamkos) and the other has a Stanley Cup final appearance (Ryan Malone).
The pre-Yzerman Bolts were high on 19-year-old power forward Carter Ashton and with a cap hit of just $1.1 million, he’d look good on Lecavalier’s wing next year. Another pleasant surprise in 2009-10 was the play of Steve Downie, who especially came alive when paired with Stamkos. Downie is a restricted free agent, but let’s say in a best-case scenario he re-signs for $1.5 million per season (after all, he must still prove that ‘effective Downie’ can keep ‘crazy Downie’ at bay for an extended period of time). Now you’ve got two pretty sick offensive lines. You also have 2009 mistake Alex Tanguay off the books.
From there, you re-sign fan favorite Zenon Konopka, character guy Stephane Veilleux and depth players like Paul Szczechura and Ted Purcell to go along with Todd Fedoruk, who is already signed. The four unsigned players can all be had for $1 million or less.
Another player the Bolts have been high on (though regime change may alter this) is Slovakian rookie Richard Panik, who has already played a few games in the American League after a successful major junior run with Belleville by way of Windsor. Panik has size and skill and would add some offensive bite to the third line, though he still needs to sign an entry-level deal.
On defense, the Bolts already have six NHL blueliners under contract, including last year’s No. 2 pick overall, Victor Hedman. Expect improvement from Hedman now that he has his NHL sea legs. Both Kurtis Foster and Mike Lundin are free agents and if Yzerman merely wants to stay the course on defense, it would cost only a couple million dollars more to keep them both.
If the new GM wants to bolster a corps that was, admittedly, one of the worst in the NHL this season, tack on another couple million. All told, that still leaves about $4 million for a starting goaltender to play alongside Mike Smith, who is signed for one more season.
Now this is where it gets serious. Tampa missed the playoffs this year largely because Smith couldn’t handle the starting role at the beginning of the season and the Bolts couldn’t hold on late in the season when injuries struck. Antero Niittymaki – a free agent now – was more successful at the beginning of the campaign, but only got the lion’s share of the starts in the second half of the season when Smith was injured.
Niittymaki had his own rough patches in that stretch and the Bolts were doomed. There are plenty of starting goaltenders available on the open market this summer and the name Marty Turco has popped up already. This will be the first key decision in Yzerman’s Tampa career and given the makeup of the rest of the roster, Tampa will easily be a playoff team next season if it is handled properly.
Yzerman’s not the type of guy used to missing the playoffs lately, anyway.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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