Steve Yzerman was tasked with deciding what to do Tampa Bay Lightning’s 14 RFAs, or restricted free agents, ad the end of last season. They are:
Forwards (8): Tyler Johnson*, Ondrej Palat*, Tanner Richard*, Matthew Peca*, Michael Bournival*, Tye McGinn*, Henri Ikonen
Defensemen (5): Andrej Sustr*, Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Blujus, Jonathan Racine*
Goaltender (1) : Kristers Gudlevskis*
*This player held/holds arbitration rights. Eligibility for salary arbitration depends on the age at which the player signed his entry-level contract as well as the amount of years he has of professional experience—combined years in the NHL and AHL.
Players who sign their entry-level contract (ELC) up to the age of 20 require four years of professional experience; at age 21, three years of professional experience; at ages 22 and 23, two years of professional experience; and ages 24 and older, one year of professional experience.
This past Monday, the Lightning announced it had qualified Johnson, Palat, Peca, McGinn, Richard, Bournival, Dotchin, Koekkoek, and Gudlevskis. In addition, Racine, Blujus, and Ikonen were not qualified.
The qualifying offers that Tampa Bay tendered to Gudlevskis and Richard are interesting. Richard just reportedly signed a two-year deal with Genève-Servette HC of the NLA in Switzerland. He was the 71st overall selection in the 2012 Entry Draft by the Lightning. The Lightning will maintain his rights for one more year. If he attempts to sign with an NHL organization after the 2017/18 season, he will be an unrestricted free agent and will have the ability to sign wherever he so chooses.
As for Gudlevskis, he looks to be going overseas as well, given that Connor Ingram—Tampa Bay’s 3rd round choice in 2016—will be in Syracuse this fall, presumably paired with pending veteran goaltender UFA Mike McKenna between the pipes.
Jonathan Racine was not likely to be qualified with the amount of defensemen in the pro system, but he was part of the deal that landed the Lightning Cole Guttman with the 180th overall selection this past weekend. Thank you, Montréal.
Henri Ikonen just signed a two-year deal with Jokerit of the KHL. He was Tampa Bay’s 6th round selection in 2013 and never really made a name for himself in Syracuse, although he did light up the OHL playing alongside Sam Bennett in Kingston—the 4th overall selection in 2014.
Dylan Blujus was hampered with injuries recently and was surpassed by Dotchin on the depth chart. With the glut of defensemen in Syracuse, Yzerman saw no need for Blujus' services and decided to cut ties with Tampa’s 2012 2nd rounder.
Now, for those who were qualified.
The following five forwards all have arbitration rights, so it will be imperative to sign them prior to their camps electing for arbitration.
Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are due for a raise, as both are coming off of matching three-year, $10 million contracts. Both are sure-fire top-six forwards: Palat is a durable two-way winger, and Johnson is a speedy number two center. I’d imagine both get at least five years in their next contract. However, Johnson has been plagued with injuries lately, so Yzerman should be wary of that when deciding how much term to give him.
Palat signs a seven-year, $38.5 million contract (AAV: $5.5 million)
Johnson signs a five-year, $25 million contract (AAV: $5 million).
Matthew Peca, Michael Bournival, and Tye McGinn were all mainstays in Syracuse this past year and showed very well. In terms of NHL upside, Peca could be a possible third-line center, Bournival showed very well in fourth line minutes this past year in Tampa, and McGinn is a nice AHL veteran who can play physically in limited minutes when called up to the big leagues.
I’d imagine Bournival and McGinn will both get one-year, two-way deals with a slight bump in AHL salary and a possible increase in the guaranteed amount of money.
As for Peca, he may get a two-year deal with Year 1 (2017/18) being two-way and Year 2 (2018/19) being one-way. Peca showed very well in his 10-game stint with the Bolts this past year, notching one goal and one assist with the Bolts. In his last two seasons with Syracuse, he put up 43 and 41 points, respectively.
Bournival signs a one-year, two-way contract with an NHL salary worth $600,000, an AHL salary worth $150,000, and a guarantee of $200,000.
McGinn signs a one-year, two-way contract with an NHL salary worth $600,000, an AHL salary worth $225,000, and a guarantee of $275,000.
Peca signs a two-year contract worth $1.6 million. Year 1 would be a two-way contract worth $750,000 in the NHL and $85,000 in the AHL. Year 2 would be a one-way contract worth $850,000.
Now for the defensemen.
Of the RFAs at season’s end, Sustr has already been signed to a one-year deal worth $1.95 million. I hate this deal in so many ways because knowing Cooper, he will be played, but I will save your time for now.
The current RFAs on defense include Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek, and both, in my opinion, deserve one-way deals. It is important to note that both players require waivers if Yzerman wants to send them down to Syracuse. A one-way deal does not preclude Yzerman from sending either player down. A one-way deal only signifies that the player is paid the same regardless of which league he is playing in.
Dotchin played very well next to Victor Hedman on the right side in his 35-game call up this year, notching 11 assists. However, at the moment, he is no top-pair defenseman in the NHL, yet, and he may never be. Dotchin brings a physical game each and every night and deserves a full-time spot in the top-6 this year.
Koekkoek, on the other hand, spent the majority of the season in Syracuse, playing 29 games early in the season with the Lightning, notching 4 assists, before being sent down to the Crunch. Again, to save your time, I will not go on and on about why Koekkoek should have been playing in the NHL for the past year, but regardless, it’s time to trust him.
The organization has invested a 10th overall pick in selecting him, as well as Nikita Gusev’s rights and the 45th overall selection in 2017 and a 4th round pick in 2018 in the Expansion Draft to steer Vegas away from the youngsters and have them select Jason Garrison.
There is no fathomable reason that Koekkoek, or Dotchin, for that matter, should be playing in the AHL this season, at any point.
Koekkoek and Dotchin sign matching one-year, one-way deals worth $900,000.
If Yzerman is able to sign the aforementioned players at reasonable deals, he will likely have in the neighborhood of $7.5 to $8.5 million to spend on any unrestricted free agents, such as Brian Boyle, Kris Versteeg, Justin Williams, or Cody Franson.
Yzerman has made it clear that he would like to bolster the Lightning’s back end as well as possibly adding a top-9 winger. If he can do that and more, the Lightning will have a significantly better chance to vie for the Stanley Cup come April.