by Jon Jordan on 06/14/11 at 09:35 PM ET
For general manager Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning, this summer carries that theme. With no less than 12 expiring contracts set to come off the books, conventional wisdom dictates that this team, which enjoyed so much success in year one under Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher, could very well look significantly different next season.
That isn’t to say that bringing back a majority of those whose contracts are up is impossible but Yzerman will have to employ a little creative thinking to do so, hope that key free agents aren’t wooed by big-time dollars elsewhere and sell once again what so many bought into this past season – that the group is more important than the individual. That Tampa Bay’s lengthy playoff run that fell a single win short of the Stanley Cup Final is still so fresh in the minds of all involved will only aid the overall cause.
But with so many variables in play, the most likely outcome remains a lineup for the Bolts in 2011-12 that is pointedly altered, as compared to its immediate predecessor. A little number-crunching almost assures as much, if only in thinking that each new contract affects another.
The two deals with the biggest impact on the Lightning books and the many other contracts requiring attention, of course, will be those of superstar forward Steven Stamkos and defenseman Eric Brewer, a late 2010-11 acquisition that helped stabilize the Bolts’ blueline tremendously down the stretch and into the postseason.
Stamkos’ status as a restricted free agent means almost certainly that he will return (though has there ever been a more attractive target for a potential offer sheet?) but Brewer, as a top-four defenseman, will command big dollars on the open market if he gets to July 1st. Because of many other areas in need of attention, the Lightning may not be able to compete for his services against rival bidders. It would be quite a reach to expect Brewer to take a pay cut on the $4.5 million he made last season, which might be what it would take to keep him around in these parts.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Brewer re-ups with an identical $4.5 cap hit and Stamkos comes in around the expected $7 million per. Where does that leave the Lightning, in terms of the other expiring deals they’ll have to tend to?
With the consensus high-end estimate for next year’s salary cap at about $63.5 million, $11.5 annually to Brewer and Stamkos would have Tampa Bay on the hook for roughly $48 million against the cap with just 13 players inked at the NHL level. Toss in a few more assumptions, as in restricted free agents Teddy Purcell, Mike Lundin and Matt Smaby signing for no more than their respective qualifying offers, and the Lightning would have a little more than $13 million remaining to do business with a pair of goaltenders and 5 position players. (Incidentally, here’s where I check right out of any and all Brad Richards return conversations. Snag him on the open market for, oh, $7 per – which banks on the pretentious idea of any sort of “hometown discount” – and you’re left with $6 million and change to fill 7more roster spots. Yikes.)
$13 million won’t get you much (relatively speaking, of course, because I could do some serious damage with that kind of cheddar in the real world) and there’s no guarantee it will even get you a return engagement with the Lightning’s own unrestricted crop. In fact, that group (consisting of Simon Gagne, Sean Bergenheim, Adam Hall, Randy Jones, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Dwayne Roloson and Mike Smith) accounted for an aggregate cap hit of $13.25 millionlast
season. Gagne ($5.25), Roloson ($2.5) and Smith ($2.2) would all likely have to agree to a reduced salary to return and, while that is possible in each case, whatever money is saved there might be offset by raises to Bergenheim, Hall and Bergeron, each of whom would at least have a leg to stand on, to varying degrees, in arguing for as much.
Sure, the team could choose to part with one, more or all of their unrestricted group too – and that’s kind of the point…
In a nutshell, this group – as is – just isn’t coming back. Shame, too, because we saw what they were capable of with their extended postseason stay.
And let’s not anybody forget for a minute that nobody’s ever guaranteed this team will spend to the cap ceiling – what we’ve admittedly assumed irresponsibly in all hypothetical scenarios put forth and otherwise imagined.
So, with change clearly afoot, the best Yzerman can do is focus on locking Stamkos in for the long haul at a fair number. A little over a year ago, I argued that Nicklas Backstrom’s 10-year, $67 million deal with Washington was a fine comparable. Now, the Bolts would be awfully fortunate to get that dollar amount and term for a player that has potted a league-high 96 goals the last two seasons.
Beyond that, a reasonable deal for Brewer seems to make sense but anything more than his expiring $4.5 million hit could yield some complications for Tampa Bay and you can’t blame the player for looking for the best offer out there, if he chooses to do so. The Lightning just can’t be a part of that derby.
Naturally, Yzerman could wave the old trade wand to free up some extra space. The contract and age of d-man Mattias Ohlund pops out there, despite the cagey vet’s impressive playoff run. There are others, obviously, that stick out as well. Take your pick and add to the uncertainty in doing so… Perhaps a deal materializes somewhere that brings a fairly-priced (and competent) goaltender back in return? That, of course, would mean a farewell to either Roloson or Smith and, well, no one should be surprised if that comes to fruition.
Picture’s becoming clear, isn’t it?
As much as people would like to see another crack at things for last year’s incarnation of the Tampa Bay Lightning, that just isn’t going to happen.
It’s anyone’s guess as to how things will eventually shake out with this roster but make no mistake, change is coming.
Still, with year one as the backbone, the adopted mantra of the local fans – “In Yzerman We Trust” – won’t be abandoned any time soon.
Executive of the Year finalist as a rookie GM or not, with such a complex off-season of certain change on several levels, the real arduous work for Tampa Bay’s architect has only just begun.
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