Steven Stamkos' future puts Lightning at crossroads
No team enjoyed a quieter off-season last year than the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their house was so tidy coming off that remarkable run to the Stanley Cup Final that general manager Steve Yzerman simply cut ties with one player, forward Brenden Morrow, and brought in another, free agent Erik Condra, to take his place.
The hands-off approach worked out pretty well. The Bolts fell short of a return trip to the Final, but gave a good account of themselves along the way, overcoming serious injuries to Steven Stamkos (blood clot), Anton Stralman (broken leg) and Ben Bishop (lower body) before finally falling in seven games to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite another solid run, things won't be so quiet this summer. Tampa Bay looks to be a team in transition heading to next season. And it won't necessarily be better after the dust clears.
Yzerman's most pressing issue is the future of Stamkos, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1. Whichever way that domino falls will impact the future of the organization in dramatic fashion.
If Stamkos stays, the Bolts will dress one of the few legitimate gamebreakers in the league. He's a dynamic force and a lock to score 40-plus goals. The Lightning are a better team with him in the lineup.
That said, a new deal would eat up a massive chunk of cap space and would require hard contract choices elsewhere. Losing him would ease that burden, but would leave a gaping hole at center and carve away at Tampa Bay's offensive firepower.
However it plays out, the Lightning are going to take a hit.
If Stamkos leaves, Yzerman can at least get to work locking down some of the younger elements of his core. He has five RFA forwards who need new contracts, including Nikita Kucherov, the team's top point producer in both the regular season and the playoffs. The 22-year-old winger is coming off an entry deal that paid him just $711,666, making him one of the biggest bargains in the league. That's about to change. His new deal could fall in line with the one signed by Vladimir Tarasenko last summer (eight years, $60 million, $7.5 million cap hit). That's only possible though if Stamkos isn't in the picture.
Yzerman also has to sign reliable top-six forward Alex Killorn, along with J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette. Combined, they made less than $5 million this season. That total could double moving forward. Or Yzerman could look to save a few bucks by promoting one of several promising forwards from a group that includes Mathew Peca, Adam Erne, Brayden Point and Joel Vermin.
The bulk of the blueline is locked up for next season—only RFA Nikita Nestorov needs a new, low-dough deal—and should get younger with 2012 first rounder Slater Koekkoek set to take on an expanded role and 2014 first rounder Anthony DeAngelo likely to see spot duty.
Yzerman though will look to open talks with Victor Hedman on a new long-term deal. The franchise defenseman is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after next season, but can sign an extension as soon as July 1. He'll double, at a minimum, his current $4 million per year salary on a long-term deal.
And then there's the goaltending issue.
At the moment, the Bolts have the luxury of dressing two world-class keepers in Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy. That won't last for long. Bishop will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017, and it's hard to imagine his next contract fitting under Tampa Bay's cap.
There's also the looming possibility of an expansion draft next summer. Since teams will only be allowed to protect one goalie, the Lightning would certainly lose whichever player they expose. They could ride it out and worry about that next summer, but if trading one of them is deemed an option, Yzerman will have to act quickly. It's about to become a buyer's market as teams look to maximize their assets.
Vasilevskiy was always viewed as the future of the franchise, but his performance in the conference final suggests his time is now. Will Yzerman get a jump on the market by auctioning off Vezina-finalist Bishop? Don't be surprised if a deal already is in the works, possibly with goalie-starved Dallas. The pieces that trade would return could impact the club as soon as next season.
Safe to say the Bolts will have a very different look to open the 2016-17 season. Whether they'll be better remains to be seen.