It’s been a weird year in Tampa Bay. This time last year, the Lightning were firing on all cylinders. Steven Stamkos had an excellent season, Victor Hedman had emerged as an elite defenceman, the Triplet Line was taking the league by storm, and they rolled all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals where they were eventually taken down in six games by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Then it all started falling apart. The team is sitting on the outside of the playoffs and they look like a shell of last year’s group and the dark reality that Lightning fans were repressing deep in the shadows on their soul has exploded into the limelight, as Stamkos inches closer and closer to free agency every day. And it doesn’t stop there, as Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and many, many others are in need of new deals over the next couple of years. Can Steve Yzerman make this thing work, or is the Lightning dynasty in Tampa over before it even began?
Obviously the name that really pops out here is Steven Stamkos. Since being drafted first overall in 2008, Stamkos has been the face of the Lightning. He’s averaged a point per game through his career, he’s won a couple of Rocket Richard trophies, and he’s led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals. That said, there are many reasons to believe that his tenure in Tampa Bay could be done this summer.
There was the tweet that he liked, a rumoured rift between him and head coach Jon Cooper, and endless amounts of speculation (largely surrounding him signing in his native Toronto), but Stamkos said to the Tampa Bay Times that he intends on staying with the Lightning. I mean, obviously he’s going to say that. Simply liking a Tweet nearly broke the internet, so the last thing he’s going to want to do is tell a reporter anything other than what you would expect from an impending free agent superstar in his situation.
But then there’s also the fact that Steve Yzerman has to find a way to, you know, fit the colossal salary he’s going to command into the team’s financial plans. It’s safe to assume that Stamkos is going to ask for Toews and Kane level money, which would mean somewhere between $10 and $11 million annually, and as we’ve seen in Chicago, it isn’t exactly easy to put together an NHL roster when individual players are making that much money.
In the next couple of years, the Lightning are going to need to figure out new deals for Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on. And those are just the forwards.
DEFENCEMEN AND GOALTENDERS
Beyond the many, many good, young forwards that are going to be lining up for new contracts, the Lighting have another very important piece hitting free agency soon as Victor Hedman’s deal comes to an end one year after Stamkos’ does. Hedman has transformed into one of the league’s elite defencemen over the past few years, forming a dominant duo alongside fellow Swede Anton Stralman on Tampa’s top pairing.
Thankfully for the Lightning, Stralman is signed for another three more seasons after this one at a very reasonable $4.5 million cap hit, but Hedman is going to be due for a raise after just one more year. Over the past three seasons, Hedman is 11th among defencemen (who have played 2000 minutes) with a 54.4 Corsi For percentage, and only Brent Burns has produced more points per 60 minutes than he has at even strength. So while fans are worrying about Stamkos in a Leafs jersey right now, they should also be thinking about Hedman because he can easily demand to be paid in the same ballpark as the league’s elite defenders come July 2017.
In net, Ben Bishop has been excellent for the Lighting. He’s posted a 0.927 save percentage and 8.34 goals saved above average, but at $5.95 annually, he isn’t exactly a discount. Obviously he isn’t overpaid by any stretch of the imagination, but with Andrei Vasilevskiy on his entry-level deal, Yzerman may want to look to deal Bishop to free up some cap space for other players.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, the Lighting have roughly $51 million tied into seven forwards, five defencemen, and two goalies. Obviously we don’t know where the cap is going to end up yet, but judging by the strength of the Canadian dollar right now, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it isn’t going to be much higher than it is this year. If that’s the case, Yzerman is going to have around $23 million, give or take, to flesh out Tampa Bay’s roster, figure out new deals for a bunch of RFAs, and potentially sign UFAs Braydon Coburn and Steven Stamkos.
So if they get Stamkos at the $11 million he’s probably going to command, they have only about $12 million to do the rest of the things on that grocery list. They’ll probably have to let Coburn walk, unless they deal somebody like Bishop or Matt Carle, but getting the other RFAs signed shouldn’t be too difficult, even with Stamkos’ mammoth salary. I guess that isn’t so tough, right? Unfortunately, Stamkos isn’t going to be signing a one-year deal, so there’s a lot more to think about than how the 2016-17 Lightning are going to look.
The financial issues don’t really hit until the year after, when Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Johnson, Palat, and Drouin all need new deals. The Lightning could easily be looking at a combined $18 million in Stamkos and Hedman when it’s all said and done, and that’s being conservative. On top of that, Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov as a trio aren’t going to come cheap, and even if Carle, Bishop, Jason Garrison, Ryan Callahan, or whoever else is moved to open up space, the Lighting will need to find replacements for them to flesh out a deep and competitive roster.
That said, I would obviously worry about putting together a core of a team before putting together good depth. Stamkos is only 25 years old right now, and he has plenty of prime and productive years left in the tank. Evidence suggests that players do peak in their mid-20s, then decline in their early-30s, but I don’t think Stamkos is going to fall off a cliff any time soon. Rick Nash just had his best goal-scoring season last year at 30, the same age that Patrick Marleau and Jarome Iginla scored 44 and 50 respectively.
Even if it does cost them upwards of $20 million to keep Stamkos and Hedman, that isn’t something that’s unheard of. Chicago pays Kane and Toews $21 million, Pittsburgh pays Malkin and Crosby $18.2 million, and Anaheim and Philadelphia pay their duos of Getzlaf and Perry and Voracek and Giroux over $16.5 million. And those teams have enough money to afford like Brent Seabrook, Phil Kessel, and Ryan Kesler to boot.
It’s certainly doable, but it’s going to cost them. Not only in cash, but the Lighting are going to have to sell off players like Callahan, Bishop, Garrison, or Filppula to make it all work when 2017’s wave of free agents come asking for new deals. Of course, there’s also the issue of whether or not he actually wants to sign in Tampa, but that’s a whole other story.