Some people are latching on to the fading dream of the season where the Bolts back their way into the playoffs. Yet others are moving on to other sports - spring training is in full swing, after all, and the NFL draft is inching closer by the minute. The Lightning's recent free fall of late has removed them from the local sports narrative.
While the Lightning's season-long inconsistency gives them the potential to surprise everyone and finish strongly, it's a reach to expect a comeback from a roster that's coming apart with injuries.
It's never too early to look at the off-season ahead with the Lightning roster... Even if the team was locked into a playoff seeding, the next several months will be a time of change at 401 Channelside Drive as Jeff Vinik formally starts remaking the franchise in his own image. Those changes, for now, remain to be seen.
Yet it will certainly have an effect on who stays and who goes for the Lightning. Let's take a quick look at the Bolt's current Restricted Free Agents (RFA) and Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA), and the likelihood of them being resigned.
- RW Steve Downie
- C Blair Jones
- D Mike Lundin
- D Paul Ranger
- C Paul Szczechura
- RW Teddy Purcell
- C Nate Thompson
Of this list, the only restricted free agent that may not be tendered a qualifying offer is defenseman Paul Ranger. Ranger, on top of being away from the team most of the season, has not been contributing enough to the Lightning to warrant being brought back. That is, unless he were to take a substantial pay-cut or sign a two-way contract. In general, a guy can't spend so much time injured and away from the game and be taken back before re-establishing his game.
Jones and Szczechura hang around for the sake of providing organizational depth. Nate Thompson has earned a new contract since his mid-January arrival in Tampa. It'd be nice, however, if he could net a few more points next season. Purcell, acquired at the deadline, has shown he can keep up with Vincent Lecavalier... Now what happens if they get to work together from the get go?
Lundin, who was vanquished to the minors during the 2008-09 campaign, started this season again in the AHL (losing out Hale and former Bolt Lukas Krajicek for a roster spot). Since his call up by the club, he's not only earned steady playing time but has been paired with the likes of Mattias Ohlund.
Online reports conflict regarding Lundin's pending FA status. NHL Numbers (who was the source for the majority of this report) lists Lundin as a UFA after the season while CapGeek lists him as a RFA. We called Octagon Hockey, the agency that represents Lundin, and requested Lundin's pending free agent status. They stated he was to be a RFA. Regardless of FA status, it's important he is not only tendered but re-signed long-term.
Finally, Downie will undoubtedly be tendered a qualifying offer. How much of a pay raise he is up for remains unseen, but as an RFA I fully expect him tendered.
- RW Brandon Bochenski
- C Ryan Craig
- D / F Kurtis Foster
- D David Hale
- C Zenon Konopka
- G Antero Niittymaki
- RW Mark Parrish
- LW Alex Tanguay
- LW Stephane Veilleux
Most UFA's on this list signed last off-season with the intention of re-establishing their free-agent market value. While some did it swimmingly (Antero Niittymaki, Kurtis Foster), others struggled to regain their form (Alex Tanguay). This is going to be the nuisance of the off-season in addition to what sets the tone forward with the makeup of the team.
No one on this list could be re-signed without a hint of debate. While Antero Niittymaki has won support and playing time, you have to wonder if he's won the right for a substantial pay raise from his $650,000 one-year contract, and the job security that will come with it. Other teams will likely be in the market for goaltending this off-season and Niitty will be their target acquisition. Do the Bolts get involved in a bidding war to retain Frank?
Even if Niittymaki was to be re-signed, remember that the team has the rights to six netminders at current: Dustin Tokarski (AHL), Jaroslav Janus (AHL), Michael Zador (CHL), Riku Helenius (SEL), Karri Ramo (KHL) and Vasily Kochechkin (KHL). If the Bolts are serious about bringing Karri Ramo back to North America (as the general meme has stated), or introducing Koshechkin (a 2002 draft pick who is a towering 6'6" and was listed as one of the 10 KHL'ers that the Hockey News wanted to see in the NHL ) to the North American game, the opportunity to play NHL minutes must be there. To re-sign Niittymaki shuts the door on such opportunities unless Mike Smith is traded or bought out.
Another difficulty in re-signing Niittymaki is his history of hip problems (he's been operated on twice for injuries there). While he has played well this year, the potential he becomes another Darren Puppa-like re-signing (to sign a big contract extension and then get hurt) is legitimate.
The above isn't trying to make a case in letting Frank leave through free-agency, it's more of an attempt to impress upon the fact this is a more complicated situation than it looks. All pending UFA's are complicated subject and shouldn't be looked in the absolutes of "re-sign" or "let go".
Kurtis Foster is another case of this complexity. As a fan, I would love nothing more than to see him re-upped by the club... But he is not a natural forward and could potentially be blocking the way for Lightning defensive prospects if he were retained specifically on D.
Alex Tanguay failed to re-establish his offensive credentials playing alongside Vincent Lecavalier this season and will likely be free to go elsewhere. Even if he wanted to stay in Tampa, he'd likely face a substantial pay cut to do so.
What are your thoughts on these RFA's and UFA's? Who do you want to see retained and who is expendable? It's still a long ways from July 1st and the start of free agency, but when the season ends next month, the season of change begins.