Joe Pavelski is a great player but the fit with the Lightning is complicated

According to reports, the Bolts are in on the veteran forward.

The rumors that the Lightning were interested in Joe Pavelski began with a report from Pierre LeBrun earlier this week. Elliotte Friedman confirmed that report yesterday in 31 Thoughts. And then last night, a fan reported seeing Pavelski and General Manager Julien BriseBois at a dinner meeting.

With free agency officially starting on Monday, July 1, Pavelski is one of the premier players on the market. So far, he’s been mostly linked to Dallas and Tampa Bay. Dallas appears to be a sensible option with the Stars having cap space and room in the lineup for him in a second-line role behind Tyler Seguin.

For the Lightning, the fit is far from obvious. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m a little confused about why the team seems to be exploring this option so seriously. For one, they can’t afford him. Geo wrote a great cap breakdown a few days ago that does a good job of showing how the Lightning are going to have a hard time re-signing all of their restricted free agents, let alone adding one of the biggest names on the market this year, while still maintaining some in-season cap flexibility.

According to Evolving Hockey, Pavelski is projected to receive a contract of three years at an average annual value of $7.4 million per season. If we look a little deeper into the projections, the model gives a fairly even chance to a contract anywhere from two to five years with an AAV of between $6.4 million and and $7.7 million.

Even assuming the Lightning can get him at a number closer to six million because of taxes and his desire to pursue a Cup, there’s no easy solution for how this would work under the salary cap. Any idea of bringing in Pavelski probably has to start with trading Yanni Gourde. The team just signed Gourde to a five year extension at a little over $5 million per season last fall. He has a no-trade clause that would kick in on July 1. So if they want to make that move, it will have to happen before Monday.

And while the team can technically trade Gourde before July 1, doing so might have ramifications on future contract negotiations. Players have typically signed deals at slight discounts to stay in Tampa both because the team is good and because of the lower tax rate. In exchange for the lower AAV, the Lightning have usually offered no trade protection so that the players aren’t at risk of being sent to another market where that lower AAV will come back to bite them after being subjected to a higher tax rate.

If the Lightning dump Gourde before his NTC kicks in, that would signal to future players that no-trade protection might not mean much to this front office under Julien BriseBois. And maybe they should take that risk into consideration when considering what they’ll accept in terms of dollar value.

Adding Pavelski would also put more pressure to get Brayden Point signed to a bridge term at a lower dollar value rather than a long-term deal. And it might even make it more difficult to retain restricted free agents like Adam Erne and Cedric Paquette and force the team to choose players making league minimum like Cory Conacher or Danick Martel.

If we put aside the cap considerations for a moment, Pavelski is certainly still a good player. He was a high end offensive play driver in San Jose last season. Going back to Evolving Hockey, he had the tenth best impact on his teams offensive play of anyone in the NHL last season and was in the top 50 overall.

In terms of scoring, he potted 38 goals but just 64 points due to a relatively low on-ice shooting percentage suggesting that the other players on his line weren’t finishing many chances. On a team like Tampa, he’d probably pick up more assists just by being on the ice with other high-end shooting talent so if he repeated what he did last year, he could easily end up with 75-80 points.

All of that is to say that he’s still a very good player. The question is how much longer he can maintain that. He turns 35 in July so a three-year contract would take him through his age 38 season. Players not named Jaromir Jagr rarely continue to perform at a high level that late into their careers. Any contract longer than three years would almost certainly end up being a buyout candidate before it ends.

Because Pavelski doesn’t turn 35 until after June 30th, his contract will not qualify as 35+ contract, which would have different implications if he decided to retire with term remaining. It also means that he’s not eligible for a performance bonus laden contract that could push some of his cap hit to next season with a bonus overage.

The Lightning were one of the best teams in the league last year. Bringing back as much of the same group as possible to make another run would be the most obvious approach. They already moved J.T. Miller to make room for Brayden Point’s new contract. That was a move that most fans knew was possible coming into the offseason.

Adding a player like Pavelski would be a much bigger change. It will almost certainly force other roster moves unless the veteran is willing to take a deal far below market value. And those roster moves could impact the perception of the Lightning’s new front office.

Pavelski is a great player and in a vacuum, he would make an already great offensive team even more dynamic. But considering the cap implications and the amount of moving parts required to make him fit, the ramifications of a signing like this could be far reaching.