After falling short in their quest to return to the Stanley Cup final, changes could be coming for the Tampa Bay Lightning. With limited salary-cap space and several key players to re-sign both this summer and next, GM Steve Yzerman faces some difficult decisions.
Assuming a $74-million salary-cap ceiling for 2016-17, Yzerman has over $21 million in cap space to work with. Captain Steven Stamkos is due to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, while forwards Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn are restricted free agents.
Yzerman also has to look ahead to next summer, when goaltender Ben Bishop and top defenseman Victor Hedman become eligible for UFA status. Notable RFAs include netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy and forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin.
The pressing decision, of course, is whether to re-sign Stamkos or let him walk. The 26-year-old's status was a source of season-long media speculation.
Following the Lightning's playoff elimination, Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times reported Stamkos reiterated his desire to stay and Yzerman repeated his intent to re-sign him. Smith's colleague Martin Fennelly, however, is pessimistic. With the two sides having gone nearly a year without a deal, Fennelly doubts they'll hammer out an agreement in a month's time.
Earlier this season, it was reported the Bolts offered Stamkos a multiyear deal worth $8.5-million annually. However, it's assumed his camp seeks something comparable to the eight-year, $84-million deals signed by Chicago Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. If Stamkos hopes to remain with the Lightning, ESPN.com's Craig Custance believes he must accept less than market value.
Should Stamkos test the free-agent market, he won't lack for suitors. Over the course of this season, rumors linked him to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, New York Islanders, New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens. Some of them could be willing to pay what could be a steep asking price to sign him.
SI.com's Allan Muir points out Stamkos' departure will make it easier for Yzerman to re-sign Kucherov and Killorn.
Kucherov, 22, is coming off an entry-level contract and lacks arbitration rights. However, his emergence as a top sniper should earn him a substantial raise. Custance suggests the eight-year, $60-million contract of St. Louis Blues right winger Vladimir Tarasenko as a comparable.
The 26-year-old Killorn, meanwhile, is completing a two-year deal worth an annual salary-cap hit of $2.55 million. A versatile and reliable two-way forward, he has arbitration rights this summer and is a year away from unrestricted free agent eligibility. He could seek a long-term extension at double his current cap hit.
The cost of re-signing Stamkos, Kucherov and Killorn could eat up almost all of the Lightning's $21-million cap space for 2016-17, leaving little room for other roster moves. It could also complicate efforts to re-sign next year's notable free agents.
Trading Bishop could be one way to shed salary. Custance and Smith both noted Vasilevskiy's solid effort during the Eastern Conference Final subbing for the sidelined Lightning starter. If Yzerman believes the 21-year-old Vasilevskiy is ready to become a full-time starter, perhaps Bishop becomes expendable.
The possibility of an expansion draft could also force Yzerman's hand. Teams can only protect one goaltender. Players with full no-movement clauses (like Bishop) must reportedly be protected from the draft. If that draft is held next June, Bishop would fall under that draft protection, leaving Vasilevskiy exposed.
To avoid that problem, Yzerman could put Bishop on the block this summer, provided the 29-year-old netminder is willing to waive his no-movement clause. The Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars and Maple Leafs could have interest in his services.
Yzerman could also avail himself of the buyout period in late-June to shed a contract. Defenseman Matt Carle ($5.5-million per season) frequently surfaced in the rumor mill this season as a trade candidate. If there's no takers, Carle could be bought out before the June 30 deadline.
Earlier this year, Drouin appeared a certain trade candidate. His impressive playoff performance, however, seems to have healed the rift between himself and Lightning management. While Drouin's improved play certainly improves his trade value, he's no longer considered available.
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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