Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mattias Öhlund doesn't participate in practices, meetings or other team functions but he continues to draw a paycheck from the Lightning and more often than not, he is present at home games, watching from the press box.
He is Schrödinger's Bolt; he simultaneously is and is not a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Öhlund has not skated with the team since May 27, 2011, game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. By the time you read this, nearly 1,300 days will have passed during which the Lightning will have played over 230 regular season games. It's entirely possible at this point that if you ever think of Mattias Öhlund and his relationship to the Lightning at all, it's as some stiff that the organization is saddled with having to pay to sit around doing nothing as well as the resultant negative impact that has on the salary cap and General Manager Steve Yzerman's ability to navigate around it.
That's understandable as it's not entirely incorrect but the situation, as is usually the case, is more complicated than that.
On paper, at that time, from a standpoint of filling needs, the Öhlund signing was easily one of the best transactions made by that management group, maybe even the best. The problem is, beyond those parameters, through absolutely no fault of anyone involved, the deal was a disaster. A catastrophe that continues to produce fallout and will do so for a few more years. Here's the history...
On July 1, 2009, then-Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton signed unrestricted free agent Öhlund to a seven-year, $26.25-million contract. From the team press release announcing the signing:
"We are thrilled Mattias elected to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning today. With so many options in front of him, having him elect to play in Tampa demonstrates the faith he has in our team's strategy and vision for success, which should be exciting for our fans. This signing accomplished two primary goals for us. First, we have added the top-two defenseman we coveted to lead our blue line and second, we have found a leader and a mentor for Victor Hedman as he prepares to play in the NHL this fall." - Lawton
A 6-foot-2, 227 pound native of Pitea, Sweden, Öhlund was a former first round draft choice of the Vancouver Canucks (13th overall, 1994) and was 32-years-old when he signed with the Lightning. He had played in 770 NHL games, all with the Canucks. During his tenure in Vancouver, he scored 93 goals and 325 total points, including 36 power play goals and 19 game-winners. He still holds the Canucks team record for goals by a defenseman. He was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 1997-98 and was an All-Star in 1998-99. During his time in Vancouver, he played in 52 playoff games, during which he posted nine goals and 19 assists. During his last season with the Canucks, he played all 82 games, recording 25 points (six goals, 19 assists). He ranked third on the team in points among defensemen and second in plus/minus with a plus-14 rating. He also led the team in hits with 109 and played in 10 playoff games, recording a goal and two assists.
In addition, he was a member of the Swedish national team, winning the Gold Medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics and also participated in 2002 and 1998. Ohlund also played in the 2001 (Bronze), 1998 (Gold) and 1997 (Silver) World Championships, the 2004 World Cup, as well as the 1996 (Silver), 1995 (Bronze) and 1994 (Silver) World Junior Championships.
He made his Lightning debut on October 3, 2009, opening night of the 2009-10 season at Phillips Arena, netting an assist in the 6-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers.· His first significant injury with the Lightning occurred a month later when he suffered an ankle injury against the Los Angeles Kings which caused him to miss seven games. He finished that season with no goals and 13 assists, career lows up to that point in both categories. However, he did lead all Lightning skaters in average ice time (22:47) while blocking 116 shots.
In the off-season, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, a knee he would aggravate during the ensuing training camp, although he played in pre-season exhibition games. Inflammation and other complications with the knee resulted in him missing the first eight games of the regular season. Later that season, he developed a deep bone bruise in his left leg, an injury that didn't sideline him. After the all-star break, he suffered a "lower body injury" that cost him two games. He would end the season with 72 games played but again no goals scored with only five assists. His average time on the ice also dropped drastically, averaging only 18:43, which ranked sixth among Lightning defenders. Still, the team valued his leadership and he served as an assistant captain.
That season saw the Lightning return to the playoffs after a three-season absence, qualifying as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Öhlund finally scored a goal in a Tampa Bay uniform, an empty-netter in game 2 of the opening round, a 5-1 win over the Penguins in Pittsburgh. He would go on to add two assists over the 18 games the Lightning played before being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals. In an interview in 2012, Öhlund would describe the experience as "the most fun I had playing hockey, ever." He hasn't skated since.
Before the next season began, Öhlund was suffering from inflammation in his right knee and the Lightning placed him on injured reserve on October 4, 2011. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees about a week later. At the time, a return some time in December was anticipated but there was a problem with his left knee that eventually required further surgery, ending his season and in effect, his career.
Today, there is still a full season remaining on his contract, a contract that impacts the Lightning salary cap by more than $3.6 million. Due to how the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is structured, Öhlund himself can't even offer assistance by retiring because the numbers would still count against the cap. For an excellent, through-yet-succinct explanation of that situation, check out this article John posted here at Raw Charge way back in May of 2013.
His contract was signed long before the current CBA went into effect and with nothing in his personal or professional lives to indicate otherwise, his acquisition by the Lightning was seen as a good, necessary and smart move at the time. Point being, Mattias Öhlund was a very good hockey player that the Lightning had every reason to feel would provide dividends for the organization over the length of his contract. Still, the end result is that he and the Lightning find themselves stuck with each other, for lack of a better description. Sadly, Öhlund's greatest contribution to the organization, albeit unwilling, could be as a cautionary tale about the inherent risk that will always exist in signing players to long-term contracts.