We don’t have to go back all that far to find some Steve Yzerman managerial magic.
Take a look at the trade deadline, where, with an eye towards this off-season, the Lightning GM managed to clear $5 million off the books by moving out center Valtteri Filppula. Before that, Yzerman managed to land a second-round pick for the expiring contract of Brian Boyle and a seventh-round pick and a backup goalie for Ben Bishop. This isn’t even to mention the signings of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, two cornerstone players, for a combined $13.27 million. A steal, no doubt.
But Yzerman heads into this off-season facing his toughest test yet. After a disappointing campaign, caused in large part by the season-ending injury Stamkos suffered, Yzerman faces an expansion draft, holes on the blueline and a free agency situation that sees three top-six forwards, each in or entering their prime, up for new contracts as restricted free agents. It’s that last part — the part where Yzerman wants to keep Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin in Tampa Bay — that could prove the most difficult.
Of course, that’s not to say Yzerman isn’t going to try to make it work. The Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith reported Thursday that Yzerman has had talks with the representation for each of the three pending RFAs, and, according to Smith, Yzerman “maintains (the) same confidence, optimism” that all three will be signed. Can Yzerman actually pull it off, though?
The biggest hurdle for Yzerman is the ever-present salary cap. But that’s the reason why a trade such as the Filppula one occurred. It was a cost-cutting measure, ensuring that there would be enough cap space for Yzerman to work with this summer. And making all of the moves he has over the past several months has left Yzerman with considerable cap space with which to work. At present, the Lightning enter the off-season roughly $17.5 million below the cap. However, there’s question whether that alone is going to be enough to sign Johnson, Palat and Drouin.
There’s no doubt that the two most expensive deals will be those for Johnson and Palat. That’s not just because the pair has put up 155 points each over the past three seasons, making them top-four scorers for the Lightning over that period. It’s also the case because both hold arbitration rights, and the chance to fight for more money will give Johnson and Palat a small bargaining chip that some RFAs don’t have. When it comes to where the salary lies, though, it’s hard to say.
Over the past year, several players have signed RFA contracts with a similar point total heading into free agency, including Marcus Johansson, Chris Kreider, Reilly Smith and Kyle Palmieri. The difference, however, is that none has accumulated quite the total of Johnson or Palat. Smith was the closest with 141 points, but he managed only .58 points per game. That’s significantly lower than the .73 points per game mark both Johnson and Palat boast. So, realistically, a better comparison might be Jaden Schwartz.
At .75 points per game, with 61 goals and 141 points in 188 contests with the St. Louis Blues, Schwartz landed himself a brand new deal this past off-season and signed on the dotted line for five years at $26.75 million. That makes for an annual cap hit of $5.35 million. And that seems like it could very well be the starting point for Johnson and Palat. Both have put up a similar points per game, both are heading into the off-season with arbitration rights, which is something Schwartz didn’t have, and Johnson and Palat have been key pieces on a Lightning team that has made two Eastern Conference finals in the past three seasons.
So, let’s say Johnson and Palat come in on $6 million deals, matching their contracts just as they did the last time they signed. Without knowing of any rise in the cap, let’s then assume that it stays at a flat $73 million. That means of the $17.5 million the Lightning have to spend, $12 million is wrapped up in Johnson and Palat. Done.
It’s the Drouin deal where things get interesting, though. This past summer, Yzerman showed he’s more than willing to flex his bargaining power on RFAs who don’t have arbitration rights. It’s how he managed to get Kucherov signed for a song at $4.77-million per season for three years. Many assumed the Lightning sniper would command well over $6 million on his deal, but Yzerman refused to blink, using his leverage to get Kucherov under contract and keep the cap situation in Tampa Bay all the more manageable.
That brings us to Drouin. While he's been impressive offensively, he hasn’t posted near the numbers Kucherov. In the two years prior to signing in October, Kucherov had scored 59 goals and 131 points in 159 games. Drouin has managed 29 goals and 95 points in 164 games over the course of his three-year career.
The likelihood here is that Drouin, who has had a rocky relationship with Tampa Bay in the past, may be in line for a short-term bridge deal, and it may not even come with a hefty price tag. Matter of fact, it wouldn’t be all too surprising if the deal Drouin got was half of what Johnson and Palat land. And if that's $3 million per season, even if only for one year, the Lightning can actually make the signing of all three players work next season while still being able to field an entire roster. There’s no real threat of Drouin forcing his way out of Tampa Bay, either. Teams will be interested, sure, but as Yzerman made clear in the past, he’s not going to deal the 22-year-old unless he gets a trade that is really going to benefit the Lightning.
If we assume the $6 million figure for Johnson and Palat, throw in a $3 million salary for Drouin and assume a flat salary cap of $73 million, it would leave Tampa Bay with roughly $2.5 million to maneuver throughout the rest of the summer. And it’s not as if that’s all Yzerman will have to work with. The expansion draft could see an additional $1 million-plus cleared when the Vegas Golden Knights come calling. Yzerman could move out veteran Jason Garrison’s $4.6 million deal to clear more space or maybe even ship out Braydon Coburn, who carries a $3.7 million cap hit. And then there is, of course, the possibility that we don’t see a flat cap at all. Any rise would give Yzerman that much more wiggle room.
The fact is, though, that what once seemed impossible appears somewhat probable now. Yzerman has proven time and time again at the helm of the Lightning that he can make seemingly any situation work in his favor, and this is another one of those scenarios where Yzerman is going to have to get creative if he wants to keep his three top RFAs in town. But there’s no reason to doubt that he can actually pull this off.
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