Last summer, Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman faced the seemingly daunting task of re-signing free-agent forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov while carrying limited salary-cap room. He not only got the duo under contract but also to accept less than market value.
With this season having come to a disappointing end, Yzerman must re-sign restricted free agent forwards Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin. He believes he can re-sign the trio, but the Tampa Bay Times' Joe Smith is skeptical. Smith points out the Lightning GM must also add a backup goaltender and a top-four defenseman.
Like last year, cap space could be an issue. Yzerman enters the off-season with over $52 million invested in just 12 players. The cap ceiling might only increase $1-$2 million over the current level of $73 million. The expansion draft will free up an additional salary but it might not be a significant amount.
Smith speculates Yzerman could attempt to free up more cap room with trades before the expansion and amateur drafts in late-June. He feels Palat, 26, could be their surest signing. While Johnson's could be a little more difficult, Smith feels the Lightning will try to work something out with the 26-year-old.
Drouin had a breakout performance with 21 goals and 52 points, finishing third in team scoring. Despite the 22-year-old's impressive skills, Smith wouldn't be shocked if the left winger became trade bait in June.
Midway through the 2015-16 season, Drouin created a stir by refusing a demotion to the minors in hopes of forcing a trade. Yzerman opted to retain the young winger, who eventually reported to their AHL affiliate. An injury to Stamkos led to Drouin's return to the lineup in time for the 2016 playoffs, finishing third in team scoring with 14 points in 17 games.
Drouin's performance since last spring suggests a bright future with the Lightning. However, there were rumors in late-January listing him as part of a package offer to the St. Louis Blues for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was eventually dealt to Washington.
Smith doubts Drouin will accept a discount to re-sign with the Lightning. He cites TSN's Bob McKenzie speculating the winger could seek a five- or -six-year deal worth over $6 million annually.
Unlike Johnson and Palat, Drouin is completing his entry-level contract and lacks arbitration rights. Should contract talks get sticky, Lightning management hold all the leverage. Drouin could decide to play in Europe but his likely preference is to stay in the NHL.
Yzerman could try to persuade Drouin to accept a lesser deal now with the promise of a lucrative long-term extension in two or three years. But with Stamkos and Victor Hedman earning over $16 million combined annually on long-term deals, Palat and Johnson looking for lucrative new deals and Kucherov due a big raise in two years' time, a bigger deal down the road for Drouin seems unlikely.
If the Drouin camp opts for a bigger deal this summer, Yzerman could decide to avoid a possible contract standoff and put the youngster on the trade block. He would be the perfect trade bait to bring in a good, preferably young, top-four defenseman with upside.
Teams deep in defensemen, such as the Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators, could opt to trade one rather than lose them for nothing in the expansion draft. The Carolina Hurricanes are in need of scoring punch and also have depth to spare on the blueline. All could have varying degrees of interest in Drouin.
Drouin isn't the only bargaining chip at Yzerman's disposal in this summer's trade market.
Given the rise this season of promising center Brayden Point, Johnson could become a trade candidate if his contract talks stall. Despite his recent injury history, he's an established performer and a clutch player in the post-season.
Yzerman's proven to be quite savvy in dumping salary and re-signing stars to affordable deals. Signing Johnson, Drouin and Palat while addressing his other roster needs without losing a core player could be his biggest test yet.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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