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Free Agents To Keep An Eye On for Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning will have some play money for one year.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

While there’s still some time left in the regular season, and we’re a good ways from free agency started, I’ve already begun to think about the salary cap situation for the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 2022-23 season. The recent extension that Joe Pavelski (a player I thought the Lightning might target) signed with the Dallas Stars started me thinking about some other low-cost veterans they may sign. The team will find itself in a position where it has some money to actually dip into the free agent market in the summer, but that comes with some caveats.

Salary Cap and Contract Information from CapFriendly.com. Player cards from Evolving-Hockey.com.

I’m not going to go into the full, big picture of the salary cap for next season in this article. That can wait for after the season is over. So I’ll just give a quick overview. The salary cap for next season is expected to go up by $1 million to $82.5 million. The Lightning have eleven forwards, six defensemen, and one goaltender signed for next season. The Lightning have forward Ondrej Palat, defenseman Jan Rutta, and goaltender Brian Elliott as pending unrestricted free agents. The only restricted free agent of note is Mathieu Joseph. The Lightning have already handled what would have been their big RFA by signing Brayden Point to an eight-year extension that will carry a $9.5 million salary cap hit.

Backing out Brent Seabrook’s LTIR contract for the moment, the Lightning have just over $6.5 million to sign Joseph, and fill in the roster with a forward or two, a defenseman, and a back-up goaltender. Obviously Ondrej Palat is a guy that the Lightning would love to bring back, but the money is just not there to offer him anywhere close to what he’s worth. He’d have to take a huge discount, something like 60% of market rate, for the Lightning to afford to hang on to him without moving a different contract.

The Joseph contract is likely to end up somewhere around $2 million. If the Lightning filled two of their remaining roster spots with minimum salary players, they’d have around $3 million to spend on one player, either at forward or defense, that could be an upgrade over someone currently on the roster. If the team instead traded Joseph and replaced him with a prospect or other cheap veteran, the team could have $4 million to sign someone.

The other consideration for the Lightning will be that the following offseason, Anthony Cirelli, Ross Colton, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Cal Foote will all be restricted free agents and will be due for raises, some of them quite hefty. Something will likely have to give to get everyone under the cap with only Alex Killorn, Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scheduled to be unrestricted free agents that summer.

So how do the Lightning spend that $3 or $4 million in salary cap space? They could try and push Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk further down the depth chart with a couple of veterans in the $1.5 to $2 million price range up front. They could split that between a forward and defenseman to also push Cal Foote and Zach Bogosian down a spot. They could spend all of that money on one player to upgrade the middle six or the top four on the right side. Or, the team could trade Brent Seabrook’s contract so they’re not using LTIR, do some minor tinkering, and then build up salary cap room to swing for the fences with a big trade acquisition at the deadline.

But if the Lightning are going to spend that money on veterans, then they’re really going to need for that player to come on a one-year contract because of their future salary cap situation. Which means a veteran that is near the end of their career, but still performing well enough that they can contribute. Whether the team trades Joseph or not, if they’re going to spend that money on a one-year deal then the two most ideal spots would be a middle-six winger that can play up the line-up and help replace Ondrej Palat or a top-four right-handed defenseman.

As we finish out the season, here’s some names that I’ll be keeping an eye on to see how they perform down the stretch as they could be potential players that might be willing to take a one-year contract. Remember, we’re looking for older players nearing the end of their career, but that have enough left in the tank to potentially perform at the level the Lightning need in those spots.

Claude Giroux

This is one I consider to be less likely. Giroux just turned 34 years old. He’s spent his entire career with the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s also been the focus of plenty of trade speculation because he’s in the last year of his long-term contract. He’s coming off of a $8.725 million cap hit contract. He can play center and right wing. Despite the Flyers’ struggles this season, he’s recorded 17 goals and 41 points in 54 games. Part of why I think this is less likely is because I think he’s still good enough that he can command more money and more than a one-year contract which makes it unlikely he would come to Tampa. But still a player to keep an eye on just in case he’s willing.

Phil Kessel

Kessel has really dropped off from when he was a high end, goal-scoring winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins. He’ll turn 35 in October and is coming off of an eight-year contract that paid him $8 million per year. He has spent the past three seasons with the Arizona Coyotes which makes it feel like he’s more likely interested in returning to a contending team.

In 57 games this season for the Coyotes, he’s put up only six goals, but has still put up 29 assists and 35 points in 57 games. Last season, in 56 games, he recorded 20 goals and 23 assists for 43 points. He’s dropped off offensively, and he’s not very good defensively, which is a concern. But he’s one of the few players out there that I feel like makes sense and would be open to a one-year contract like this.

David Perron

Like Giroux, this is one that I don’t think is highly likely either. Perron is a quality player that has 14 goals and 32 points in 43 games for the St. Louis Blues. He’s also interesting because he’s had three different stints with the Blues who originally drafted him in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Which makes me think he’d be more interested in returning to the Blues than going elsewhere.

He’ll turn 34 years old this summer and is finishing up a four year contract with a $4 million salary cap hit. If the Lightning could lure him to the sunshine though, he has the flexibility to play on the right wing or left wing in the top six for the Lightning. He’d be a nice one-year piece to help supplement the core.

Paul Stastny

Stastny is a player that a lot like Kessel, has some defensive warts but a decent chunk of that has come from poor short handed performances which wouldn’t be as much of a factor if he came to the Lightning. He’s 36 and won’t turn 37 until December. He’s currently on a one-year contract with the Winnipeg Jets paying him $3.75 million. He’s also a more natural left winger, which with the departure of Ondrej Palat, makes him a better fit for the Lightning’s need. However, he hasn’t had top six production in a while and is more a fit in the middle six at this point. In 47 games for the Jets this season, he’s recorded 17 goals and 29 points.

Anton Stralman

I partially included Stralman here for nostalgia reasons, but also partly because he’s one of the few, older, right-handed defenseman that make any amount of sense in this scenario. Stralman will turn 36 in August, but the dream of bringing him back to Tampa is that he would rekindle his chemistry with Victor Hedman and provide solid minutes on the top pair with his old partner.

Stralman is in the last year of a three-year contract that paid him $5.5 million that he signed with the Florida Panthers following the expiration of his five-year contract with the Lightning following the 2018-19 season. He fell out of favor with the Panthers after his second season down south, and facilitated a trade to the Coyotes for this season where he has put up four goals and 12 points.

One added benefit of bringing in Stralman is that he’d have a chance of reaching 1,000 games played in the NHL towards the end of next season, depending on time missed. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to see a player get a Silver Stick on the ice of Amalie Arena. And it’d be pretty neat to see that for Stralman, even though my desire to see this is based more on nostalgia than his on-ice performance.