Steve Yzerman has done an incredible job cultivating talent for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Since he became the GM in 2010 the team has been to three Eastern Conference finals, one Stanley Cup Final and they’re set up to be competitive for years to come with the core Yzerman has assembled.
The only thing that matters to the players and coaches at the moment is working through the recent spate of injuries, staying ahead of the Maple Leafs (who they play Thursday) and leapfrogging the Islanders (who occupy the final East wild card spot).
Beyond this season, however, is where it gets interesting for Lightning management—especially at forward. Between the upcoming expansion draft and the NHL’s salary cap system, Yzerman will be in a difficult position to keep that talented core intact heading into next season.
“It’s unfortunate. It really is,” former Lightning captain and the team’s VP of corporate and community affairs Dave Andreychuk told Hockey Central at Noon Thursday. “But again that’s the message we’ve sent out to everybody in this area…Listen, we live in a cap world, we understand where the cap’s going to be next year, and we don’t have enough money to keep our core together…Guys have to go.”
The Lightning have Steven Stamkos ($8.5-million AAV) locked up through 2024, Alex Killorn ($4.45-million AAV) through 2023, Ryan Callahan through 2020 ($5.8-million AAV) and Nikita Kucherov ($4.76-million AAV) doesn’t become a restricted free agent until 2019.
When you account for the fact Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are all pending RFAs and should garner deals with cap hits at least as high as Killorn’s, then money starts becoming a real issue. They currently have approximately $12.8 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, but they don’t have much coming off the books in the summer in the form of UFAs. They’ll also want to add some pieces—possibly a top-four defenceman—in free agency yet won’t be able to do so if they’ve got no money to spend.
The Lightning began selling off assets this year despite firmly being in the playoff hunt. Yzerman traded Nikita Nesterov to the Canadiens in January and was busy around the trade deadline sending Ben Bishop to the Kings, Brian Boyle to the Maple Leafs and Valtteri Filppula to the Flyers.
Those four players would’ve undoubtedly helped the Lightning down the stretch and in the playoffs. However, with Andrei Vasilevsky clearly the team’s goalie of the future Yzerman wasn’t going to lose a star like Bishop in free agency without getting anything in return.
“In the Ben Bishop case I think it’s been a relief, not only probably for Ben, for the team, but even for our fans,” Andreychuk said. “I mean this has been hanging over the heads of everybody all year long.”
Boyle is also a pending UFA so he was moved, Nesterov would’ve been a likely candidate to get picked up by the Vegas Golden Knights, and Filppula’s $5 million salary and no-movement clause was going to complicate the team’s cap situation and expansion draft strategy.
“It’s the nature of the beast and if you want to keep your core guys together you gotta have the money to do it,” Andreychuk added. “A guy like Boyle or Filppula that have been key parts of us on our long runs, they had to go and it’s unfortunate really.”
The emergence of a young player like Brayden Point, a third-round pick from 2014, is an example of Yzerman’s ability to find solid young players and speaks to the depth of this organization. The rookie has 27 points in 55 games and will be on his entry-level contract for another two seasons. Point continuing to make an impact at the NHL level should help make upcoming roster changes more palatable for management and fans, but either way, Yzerman is about to have a busy off-season.