It's never too early to look ahead to the offseason and start planning when you're an NHL general manager. Recently, the Lightning opened up a morning skate for season ticket members that included interviews with center Tyler Johnson and GM Steve Yzerman, all hosted by the TV game coverage tandem of Rick Peckham and Brian Engblom.
When attention turned to Yzerman, he said that as far as the 2016 NHL trade deadline is concerned, about a month before the February 29th date he'll start making calls to his counterparts around the league and start lining up potential deals. It involves seeing what everyone wants, what they're selling, and what they might have in mind when it comes to a particular deal.
With that in mind, Yzerman has likely already has plans for the 2016 offseason and the future when it comes to restricted free agents (RFAs). The plan for those RFAs will be greatly impacted by the potential contract extension of Steven Stamkos and is an unspoken component of why a deal has not been completed as of yet. With that in mind, let's go through the 15 players in the Lightning organization scheduled to be RFAs at the end of the season.
All contract information drawn from General Fanager.
LW Alex Killorn - 2015-16 Cap Hit: $2.55m
Killorn has started off the season slow after having a very solid showing in the playoffs. He's average half-a-point-per-game up to this point in his career and has the ability to play up and down the line up. He is a complementary winger that provides grit and size on a line to open up space for more offensively talented players. He's also a capable penalty killer and can provide a net front presence on the power play. Killorn is coming to the end of a two-year contract and his performance this season will greatly determine what his next contract will be. Justin Abdelkader just recently signed a seven year extension with a $4.25m cap hit with the Red Wings. Abdelkader is a couple years older and hasn't performed as well as Killorn over his career, but is an otherwise similar player. I think the Abdelkader deal is a mistake, particularly with that much term. The Lightning would likely seek a shorter deal with Killorn for $3.5m to $4m. The other option will be to trade Killorn and he would bring back a decent return, maybe even as good as a first round selection in the 2016 draft. The development of Adam Erne, who has been sidetracked by injury in his first pro season, into a capable complementary winger this season would make Killorn more expendable.
RW J.T. Brown - 2015-16 Cap Hit: $950k
Brown has been a useful energy player for the Lightning in the bottom-6. He has been receiving more penalty kill time recently and can increase his value to the team by being a consistent presence there. His best games are when he's hitting anything that moves and using his speed to challenge slower defensemen on the forecheck. He's unlikely to score 10 goals or more a season, but you need guys like him to complement your forward lineup. His current contract is the result of a two year deal and he should be in a position to command a raise and possibly a longer term, especially if his play continues to improve this season. Erik Condra is not a bad comparable player to Brown and you could see Brown get a multi-year deal in the $1.25m range which would represent good value for what Brown provides to the team.
C Vladislav Namestnikov - 2015-16 Cap Hit: $874,125
Last summer Namestnikov was coming off of his three year entry level contract. While he was one of the team's top prospects, he hadn't proven himself yet in the NHL and had only 17 points over 59 career games. This season so far he's gotten off to a good start with 9 points in 22 games. He still hasn't reached his full potential but his performance over the rest of the season will greatly determine his next contract. If he remains on this point pace, he could be looking at a one year deal in the $1.0m-$2m range as a "show me" deal. As in, "show me what you got and I'll pay you more". If he goes on a tear, he could get more of a Tyler Johnson/Ondrej Palat type deal for 3 years around $3m.
RW Nikita Kucherov - 2015-16 Cap Hit: $711,666
Kucherov is in the last year of his entry level contract. As the Triplets have struggled and injuries have broken up the trio, Kucherov's point production is down and he has been shuffled around. It's clear though that he is becoming a borderline elite player. He drives play and can finish. Four of his top five forward partners have better CF% with him than without him at 5v5 (the above Namestnikov being the exception). His progression from over his first two seasons is very similar to Russian superstar Vladimir Tarasenko. He doesn't have quite the star power that Tarasenko has, but a near-point per game year could vault him into that territory. Steve Yzerman will be left with a choice of trying to save money for a few years with a bridge deal for Kucherov and pay more in his next deal or pay more on a long-term contract now and save money over its term.
RW Joel Vermin - 2015-16 Cap Hit: $600,000
Vermin is in the final year of his entry level contract, finally reaching the NHL level and joining the NHL level while the club has dealt with multiple forward injuries. His ice time has been limited but he has shown promise. He has also been performing very well in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch. He likely won't get enough time with the Bolts to show he belongs full time, so expect him to be re-signed to a one-year two-way deal. The real negotiation will be on his AHL salary, not his NHL salary as he'll most likely be back in Syracuse to start next season.
RW Jonathan Marchessault - 2015-16 Cap Hit: $600,000
Marchessault is in much the same position as Vermin but has gotten more chances in the NHL over the past two years. Additionally, he has a stronger track record in the AHL as he's has a longer tenure. Marchessault is a ‘tweener that is almost good enough to play in the NHL and plays very well in the AHL. His deal this offseason will likely be the same as what he has right now: a one-year two-way deal that pays him a veteran's salary in the AHL.
C Cedric Paquette - 2015-16 Cap Hit: $666,333
Paquette is in the last year of his entry level contract. Much like J.T. Brown, he is a complementary bottom-6 player. He is a pest through and through and is at his best when he's laying hits, getting under the opponent's skin and using his speed on the forecheck. He's valuable in that role and makes the team harder to play against. He did admirably last season when asked to play defense against one of the best centers in the league in Jonathan Toews. I would expect his next deal to be similar to J.T. Brown's current deal as a two-year deal just under the $1m mark.
D Luke Witkowski - 2015-16 Cap Hit: $575,000
Witkowski finished his entry level contract last season and received a one-year, two-way deal for this season and will likely be in the same position this summer. He currently has a $100,000 AHL salary and with him getting into the second-half of his 20s, he'll likely want to increase that into the $150,000 - $200,000 range as an AHL veteran.
D Nikita Nesterov, C Tanner Richard, LW Tye McGinn, G Kristers Gudlevskis, LW David Broll, RW Yanni Gourde, C Phillipe Paradis
All of these players are either on two-way deals or entry level contracts. Right now, they're mostly prospects and depth players with Nesterov having the highest ceiling of the group. For all of these players, it will come down to if the club still feels they have the potential that the organization initially thought they had. If the club feels any of the listed group has reached their ceiling in the AHL, then it will be time to cut ties with them and move on. If they still have room to grow, then one-year two-way contracts will be in their futures. Richard, Broll, and Paradis are, I think, most on the hot seat. Even in the AHL, they have not been big point producers and with players like Point and DiGiacinto coming to Syracuse next season, they could find themselves squeezed out.