With the Pittsburgh Penguins beating the Nashville Predators this weekend, the off-season has officially started. The buy-out period will start soon. Expansion protection lists will be due soon. The NHL draft will happen in just a couple weeks. And the Tampa Bay Lightning, and their general manager Steve Yzerman, have a laundry list of things to get done while we get to watch it all unfold.
Figure out what to do with Jason Garrison
It’s obvious that defenseman Jason Garrison has lost something in his game. The offense he was once known for has been missing the past two seasons. He’s dealt with numerous injuries, and his $4.6 million cap hit isn’t helping matters either.
Yzerman has four paths he could take with Garrison: buy him out, get Las Vegas to take him in the expansion draft, trade him to another team, or sit tight with him. The biggest hurdle to trading him, though, is that he has a full No Trade Clause (NTC) and could veto any trade to a team he does not wish to go to.
I am of the opinion that a buyout is the last possible course of action. He won’t get bought out before the expansion draft. Just as Yzerman did with Matt Carle, Yzerman will likely wait until the end of his contract before making a decision in case someone comes along that is interested in him. In the event of a buyout, the team would only save $1,666,667 on the cap this season and would move $833,333 of his cap hit to next season.
Due to Garrison’s back-diving deal, the benefits of buying him out aren’t as great. He is only owed $2.5 million in salary for this season against a $4.6 million cap hit. The Lightning would pay him $833,333 in cash this season and next. Overall, the team only saves $833,333 against the cap over the next two years. That’s not much of a benefit. That’s why I believe it’s the very last resort.
One bonus of his low actual salary is that he could be attractive to teams that are on a budget as far as actual salary goes. The Ottawa Senators are one such team that could be a potential trade partner. Just last offseason they made a trade of Mika Zibanejad for Derick Brassard. Drassard had three years left on a five year contract that had a cap hit of $5 million. The deal has been front-loaded, allowing Ottawa to only pay $12 million in total over the last three years of the deal despite a $15 million total cap hit.
Ottawa has seven defensemen under contract plus Jyrki Jokipakka as a restricted free agent. If needed, Yzerman could take back Mark Borowiecki or Chris Wideman as a part of the deal and use one of them as a bottom pair or seventh defenseman.
Expansion draft is another way to move Garrison. Yzerman could offer up a draft pick, perhaps one of the team’s extra 2nd rounders, or a prospect to Las Vegas to get them to take Garrison in the draft. If the Golden Knights covet Alex Killorn or Vladislav Namestnikov, Yzerman could agree to leave the one they want exposed in exchange for them also taking Garrison.
The last option is to just stick with him through the season. That would be problematic though if Yzerman brings in a top 4 defenseman during the offseason without moving someone else out. And that brings us to our next checklist item.
Find a top-four defenseman
Yzerman tried his darnedest to acquire a top four defenseman in a trade. There was reportedly a deal in play with St. Louis that likely involved sending Jonathan Drouin to the Blues for Kevin Shattenkirk. That was on condition of Shattenkirk agreeing to a contract extension. Shattenkirk wanted more money than Yzerman was willing to offer and the deal fell through.
With the expansion lists due in just days, Yzerman will have an opportunity to wheel and deal with a couple of teams that have too many defensemen to protect. The two big fish in that pond are the Anaheim Ducks and the Minnesota Wild.
For Anaheim, they have Kevin Bieksa eating up a slot due to his no movement clause. They have to make a decision between Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Sami Vatanen. The common belief is that Lindholm and Fowler are the most likely. That leaves the Ducks in a position where they must trade the valuable Vatanen or potentially lose him in the expansion draft. It would cost a high price to get Vegas to ignore him in the draft.
For the Wild, Ryan Suter with his NMC has the first protection slot. Jared Spurgeon is sure to get another spot. That leaves the Wild to make a decision between two young defensemen, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba. Dumba would be the better target of the two. He has more offense, is a year younger, is cheaper (though maybe for just one more year), and is right handed. But either player would work for the Lightning.
The last option is to find someone in free agency. The pickings there are rather slim though. We already tried with Shattenkirk and he’s just too expensive. Cody Franson is a bit of an under-the-radar pick that the RawCharge staff have discussed (more in a Raw Table later). We feel he would be an adequate solution if the costs prove prohibitive for making a trade.
Here are two possible defensive alignments, depending on a left hander versus a right hander, if Yzerman acquires a new top 4 defender and moves on from Jason Garrison.
LHD Acquired (Leftie)
Victor Hedman - Anton Stralman
Leftie - Jake Dotchin
Braydon Coburn - Andrej Sustr
RHD Acquired (Rightie)
Victor Hedman - Rightie
Slater Koekkoek - Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn - Jake Dotchin
Sign, or trade, the Restricted Free Agents
The big three are Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat. The lesser RFAs are as follows:
Forwards - Michael Bournival, Matthew Peca, Byron Froese, Henri Ikonen and Tye McGinn.
Defensemen - Andrej Sustr, Jonathan Racine, Dylan Blujus, Jake Dotchin, and Slater Koekkoek
Goaltender - Kristers Gudlevskis
I’m going to try to keep this part short, although I could easily write a few hundred words on each player.
Drouin - Drouin has been the object of speculation for many trade rumors.
My Prediction: If he isn’t traded, I think he’ll be signed for 2 or 3 seasons for around $3.5 to $4 million per season. He hasn’t accomplished as much as Nikita Kucherov did before Kucherov signed his $4.766 million bridge contract. 4 years would take Drouin to unrestricted free agency without buying any years so that is out the window. On a 5+ year deal, Yzerman likely isn’t willing to offer him as much as he might make on a deal after a bridge if he scores 65+ points the next three seasons.
Johnson - Brayden Point has made Johnson more expendable for the team. But Johnson’s trade value isn’t as high as Drouin’s and it might not be enough to bring back the top-four defenseman Yzerman wants.
My Prediction: If he’s brought back, I think he’s looking at a 5 year deal at $5.5 million per season.
Palat - Palat doesn’t have a clear replacement in the organization and he needs to be kept.
My Prediction: 5 years for $5 million per season.
Michael Bournival - Bournival did more than enough to earn another contract. He’ll have a chance to make the Lightning out of camp as a fourth liner. At worst, he heads back to Syracuse to be a leader and contributor.
My prediction: Two-way deal for $650k in the NHL, $150k in the AHL, and $200k guaranteed.
Matthew Peca - Peca is coming off of his entry level contract. He got his first taste of the NHL this past season. I think it’s unlikely he makes the Lightning out of training camp, but he should be high on the recall list.
My prediction: Two-way deal for $650k in the NHL, $125k in the AHL.
Byron Froese - Acquired as part of the Brian Boyle deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, I don’t see any reason to not re-sign Froese. At worst, he’s one of the Crunch’s top center options and NHL depth.
My prediction: Two-way deal for $650k in the NHL, $200k in the AHL.
Henri Ikonen - Ikonen has not come along much as a professional. The question on Ikonen is “is there still NHL potential?” I’d say no, but Murray and his scouts may say otherwise.
My prediction: Non-tendered. If he is offered a contract, it’s a two-way deal for $650k in the NHL, $75k in the AHL.
Tye McGinn - McGinn has been really unlucky with injuries the past two seasons. But that won’t keep the Lightning from bringing him back to contribute to the Crunch’s leadership group.
My prediction: Two-way deal for $650k in the NHL, $200k in the AHL, $225k guaranteed.
Andrej Sustr - Sustr did not have a great year. A lot of fans will scream to non-tender him and cut the cord. I doubt that happens though I could see him getting traded in a minor deal.
My prediction: Two years for $1.75 million per year.
Jonathan Racine - Racine was acquired in the Nikita Nesterov deal. Bringing him back all depends on the defensive depth in Syracuse. I believe there will be enough bodies to not need him.
My prediction: Non-tendered.
Dylan Blujus - Blujus dealt with some injuries that forced him to miss much of the year. At this time last year, he was ahead of Dotchin on the depth chart, but he has since been passed over.
My prediction: Two-way deal for $650k in the NHL, $125k in the AHL.
Jake Dotchin - Dotchin broke in to the NHL this season and had great success playing next to Victor Hedman. The question is can he perform as well next to a lesser partner. He still has a lot to prove and his stint in the NHL won’t bump his salary too much.
My prediction: Two-way deal for $650k in the NHL, $150k in the AHL.
Slater Koekkoek - Koekkoek sits at an awkward spot. His development has stalled somewhat and he hasn’t shown the offense in the AHL that was expected of him. He’ll be waiver eligible next season though and I don’t think Yzerman can afford trying to pass him through waivers. That means he’ll either have to be traded or will make the Lightning out of camp.
My prediction: Two-way deal for $650k in the NHL, $150k in the AHL.
Kristers Gudlevskis - Gudlevskis has obviously fallen out of favor with the organization. The team will tender him a contract just to preserve their rights for him, but I expect Gudlevskis is going to return to Europe and play in the KHL or SHL.
My prediction: Headed to Europe
The 2017 NHL Entry Draft
Yzerman and Al Murray have done a marvelous job of stocking up the farm since the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. While it lacks very much high end talent, there is a lot of depth and future NHL contributors there. If the Lightning continue on their way back to being Stanley Cup contenders, this could be the last time for a while that they are drafting in the top 15 of the first round; barring a trade to acquire such a pick.
This will be a good opportunity to make it count with a high skill player that could become a top six forward or top four defenseman. I know many people think the team needs to draft a defenseman, but I don’t believe there will be an appropriate right handed defenseman available at this point. The Lightning’s prospect pool is also loaded up on left handers. So I would not be upset with a high skill forward here either.
The Syracuse Crunch
The Crunch will be seeing a surge of rookie talent headed their way in the fall. They’ve already gotten to play with some of those players, most notably Anthony Cirelli, Dennis Yan, and Mitchell Stephens. They’ll also have Matthew Spencer, Jonne Tammela, Mathieu Joseph, and Erik Cernak joining the team too.
That’s potentially seven new players for the Crunch. I think there’s a chance that one of Cirelli or Stephens makes the Lightning out of training camp, but that still leaves a very young team. It will be important that Yzerman make sure he has a solid leadership corps in place in Syracuse with so many youngsters. That may mean that Erik Condra will be headed back there and continue in his role as the Captain of the Crunch.
Unrestricted Free Agents
As stated previously regarding a top 4 defenseman, it’s possible that Yzerman goes this route to acquire one such as Cody Franson. Beyond that, the Lightning will have to make a decision on Yanni Gourde and if they’d like to bring him back. The same goes for Cory Conacher.
Gourde got his first extended taste of the NHL this season and acquitted himself well over that time. He had a knack for scoring goals in big situations that endeared him to many fans. His playmaking didn’t show up much, though, and that was a little bit of a red flag for me. He’s likely looking for someone to offer him a deal with Jonathan Marchessault received from the Florida Panthers last summer.
Conacher could stick around, especially if the Lightning will guarantee him enough money even if he’s playing in Syracuse all year. I think it could be worth the investment to pay him more than he should probably be paid next year. With so many youngsters slated to join the Crunch next season, Syracuse really needs a strong leadership group. Conacher can be a part of that group. Matt Taormina is also an unrestricted free agent and would be a big leader in that group as well.
The two other players that will be important to look at are Peter Budaj and Mike McKenna. Both goaltenders were brought in at the trade deadline. Budaj was brought in to back-up Andrei Vasilevskiy with Ben Bishop out of the picture. Mike McKenna was brought in to be the number one goalie in Syracuse.
Both players should be high on Yzerman’s list to bring back in those same roles. Otherwise, he’ll need to look outside of the organization for replacements.
As far as outside unrestricted free agents go, other than the aforementioned Cody Franson, there isn’t really any player in particular I’m looking at as targets. Yzerman will need to bring in at least a handful of bodies for the Syracuse Crunch. That will depend on how many current players he brings back to the team.
Yzerman and his staff are looking at a lot of hard decisions and negotiations this summer. It’s really no different from any other summer for an NHL general manager. I’m lucky that I’m just a writer that gets to speculate on what Yzerman might do. I don’t have to actually make those decisions. He has a hard job and he does it well. And that’s why he gets paid the big bucks.