- The Tampa Bay Lightning are a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, but securing at least one final key piece to their championship puzzle will llkely be difficult unless GM Steve Yzerman plays his trade cards right.
Steve Yzerman has already worked some magic this summer. Earlier this month, the Tampa Bay Lightning's GM waved a wand and convinced his top two players, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, to sign team-friendly contracts that gave him the best chance to keep the core of his Stanley Cup-contending team intact.
But after inking restricted free agent forward Alex Killorn to an aggressive seven-year, $31.15 million deal on Sunday, it's going to take more than a little sleight of hand to get this now cap-strapped team ready for the start of the season.
Yzerman clearly values what Killorn brings to the table, but this contract paints him into a corner.
The 25-year-old is a smart, versatile forward who can move up and down the roster, and has demonstrated chemistry with Stamkos. He scored 14 goals and had 26 assists in 81 games last season, then added five goals and eight assists in the playoffs. Those are solid numbers, but after four years in the league, he's hardly a star. It's why many thought he might be the player who is sacrificed to the team's pending cap crunch.
Instead, he's now part of the core. And Yzerman is left with just $8.53M in available salary cap space left to sign his three remaining restricted free agents.
The first two, forward Vladislav Namestnikov and defenseman Nikita Nesterov, shouldn't be particularly challenging. Namestnikov is coming off a solid campaign in which he outscored Killorn on a points/60 basis (1.86 to 1.76), tallying 14 goals and 21 assists. But with just one full NHL season under his belt, he's likely to be limited to a bridge deal worth maybe $2.5 million per season. Nestorov, still looking to establish himself as a full-time player, will likely wind up around $1.25-$1.5 million per season on a short-term deal.
But even those modest deals don't leave Yzerman enough room to sign leading scorer Nikita Kucherov. The 23-year-old winger, who earned just $700,000 last year, is going to cash in after notching career highs with 30 goals and 66 points.
Guys who put up those numbers at his age aren't cheap. Looking for a comparable? Try the eight-year, $60 million deal that Vladimir Tarasenko signed with St. Louis last summer. The Blues' star forward was coming off a slightly better 73-point season when he inked that contract, but can't boast the excellent playoff numbers that Kucherov can (21 goals and 41 points in 43 games). And Kucherov proved he could be the centerpiece of Tamba Bay's offense, stepping up when Stamkos went down with blood clot issues.
That's why, even as an RFA, Kucherov has Yzerman over a barrel. He's just scratching the surface of his potential as an elite attacker and is as critical to the team's future success as either Stamkos or Hedman. Even if he agrees to a similar hometown discount, the best-case scenario sees him counting something like $6.5 million against Tampa Bay's cap.
That doesn't work unless another contract is moved out.
Much of the speculation has surrounded goaltender Ben Bishop, who is entering the final year of a contract that counts $5.95 million against the cap. With backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy signed to a three-year, $10.5 million extension ($3.5 million AAV) on July 1, the writing's on the wall. Bishop will either be dealt at some point this season or lost in the expansion draft next June. But moving him now, and potentially weakening the team's Cup bid, doesn't make much sense.
That's why the ideal candidate might be Braydon Coburn. The veteran defenseman has three years remaining on a deal that counts $3.7 million against the cap, and that's too much for someone skating on the third pair. He could easily be replaced by slick, puck-moving rookie Slater Koekkoek.
The Devils, Bruins, Sabres, Oilers and Colorado all need defensive help, but Coburn's contract won't be easy to move. That could force Jason Garrison into play. The 31-year-old has two years remaining on a deal with a $4.6 million cap hit, but is a more talented and versatile defender. His departure would leave a massive hole on the blue line, but the return would be significant—possibly something that could be flipped for veteran help closer to the deadline when Yzerman would have a little more cap flexibility.
Another option: center Valtteri Filppula. The problem: There's not much of a market for the 32-year-old center. He has two years remaining on a deal that carries a $5 million AAV, a hefty tag for a player whose production has dropped precipitously over the past two years (25-33-58 in 2013-14 to 8-23-31 last season). The Lightning would have to retain salary and/or sweeten the pot with a pick or prospect to get that hit off their books.
It's far from an ideal situation, but we've seen Yzerman pull a rabbit from a hat before.