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Where he plays, not when, is the question for Ryan Callahan

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With his return to the lineup only a few short weeks away, finding a spot in the lineup will be the biggest challange

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game One Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Lightning started off their season with three come-from-behind wins. That would have been great by itself, but they also received some good news off the ice. Their one injured player, Ryan Callahan, appears to be slightly ahead of schedule. His return to the lineup is looking to be slated for early November. He has been practicing with the team, and last Friday he shed the no-contact jersey. Now the Lightning just need to figure out where he’s going to play.

The Lightning are set on their top six. Even if they juggle a combination or three, it’s going to be some mix of Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson getting the bulk of the playing time for the forwards. Even at his healthiest, Callahan isn’t going to crack that top six.

Callahan is just one season removed from scoring 24 goals in his first full season with the Lightning. He developed a nice chemistry with Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn, and gave the Bolts an effective alternative to the Triplet Line. However, how much Callahan has left in the tank is questionable. At 31-years-old, his role as a top-six forward is pretty much over.

Last season saw him produce the worst stat line of his career as a starter with 10 goals and 28 points in 73 games (if it wasn’t for a 4 game stretch in late February where he scored 4 goals and 4 assists things would have looked even worse). His agent did admit to the Tampa Bay Times that the hip issue Callahan had surgery for this past June “nagged” him for most of the second-half of the season.

It could be that the injury was responsible for the decline in play, or it might be that his style of play is finally catching up to him. Regardless, the emergence of Drouin has bumped Callahan out of the top-six role and, when he returns, the 8- year veteran is going to have to adjust to a slightly different role.

Moving down could be a positive for his career. Not only has he played 450 games over his 8 years in the league, they have been tough games. Never one to float on the periphery of play, Callahan runs into or at someone every time he is on the ice. Even if it’s just a love tap on an opposing defender flipping the puck out of the zone, Callahan is going to hit something.

Doing that for 18 minutes a night for 82 games takes a toll on his body. Case in point, the labrum tear in his hip that required surgery wasn’t from a single act, rather it was from night in and night out of hard play. Blocking over 400 shots in his career hasn’t done anything to help the wear and tear on his body, either. While no player wants diminished ice time, playing 10-14 minutes a night might be the best thing for extending his career.

How Brayden Point plays over the next couple of weeks could do a lot to determine where Jon Cooper slots Callahan into the lineup when he returns. Point has averaged about 16 minutes a game so far. If he continues to play well with Vladislav Namestnikov and Valtteri Filppula, the coach may be hesitant to break that line up. It gives him another valuable source of offense.

In that case, Callahan and his $5.8 million cap hit might find himself playing on the 4th line with JT Brown and Brian Boyle. That would cost Cedric Paquette some playing time, which would make sense as Callahan and Paquette share a similar playing style. Seeing the third largest cap hit on the team playing only 10 minutes a game might grate some people the wrong way, but Cooper usually does what’s best for the team in a tactical sense, finances be damned.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Should Point hit the rookie wall sometime over the next week, then he will most likely be sent down to Syracuse, with Erik Condra or Joel Vermin recalled to rotate out as the extra forward on the 4th line. Callahan can then be slotted into the third line with Filppula (whom Callahan played a lot with during his successful 2014-15 season) and Namestnikov. That would change the dynamic of the third line a bit, but Callahan does bring enough offense to keep it from becoming a true “grind” line.

What about his future past this season with the team? With so many RFAs needing to be signed, Callahan’s $5.8 million hit for three more seasons seems a bit troublesome. Could they buy him out after the season? Sure. According to General Fanager (RIP!), if they bought him out next season, his cap hit would be $1.76 million until 2022-23. In the short term that would be good. The savings over the next three seasons would help offset raises to Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

Buying him out would also fit nicely with Matt Carle’s buyout. Currently the Lightning are taking a $1.83 million hit for having the privilege of not having Carle on the team. That penalty expires in 2019-20. The next season would be when Callahan’s buyout turns from helping the Lightning to hurting the Lightning. (Remember, Gary Bettman doesn’t think fans want to “focus on what players make”...)

Buying him out would most likely be a last resort for next season. If the team is unable to move Filppula’s contract and wants to keep Bishop along with the pending RFAs, then they might be forced to cut him. This would be a shame because the team does look at him as a leader and they do feed off his play.

Bottom line, his play is effective. Case in point, Alex Killorn’s series-clinching goal against Detroit in the first round of the playoffs was a prime illustration in how Callahan can influence a game. Callahan had the puck in his own zone, skated it to center ice and chipped it into the offensive zone. He then skated around Niklas Kronwall like the Red Wings defenseman was nailed to the ice. He intercepted the pass from goalie Petr Mrazek and found Killorn for the winning goal.

All that with a torn labrum in his hip.

A lot can change from now until early November. Someone on the roster could get hurt. Callahan himself might suffer a setback now that he’s banging around the ice in practice. But, if things don’t change, Callahan will have to adjust to life on the fourth line. The good news there is that, if he does, it just makes the Lightning a deeper, stronger team.