Tampa Bay Lightning restricted free agent preview

With the offseason officially underway, Steve Yzerman has some work to do.

With the Stanley Cup having been awarded, along with the AHL’s Calder Cup and ECHL’s Kelly Cup, the offseason is officially under way. For Steve Yzerman, the work has been in progress for a little while. He’s already made two offseason moves to sign restricted free agents Daniel Walcott and Carter Verhaeghe to one-year, two-way contracts. Walcott and Verhaeghe are just the first, and easiest, of the restricted free agent deals that will be done this summer. Some of these deals will be done within the next couple weeks leading up to the draft and some might not come until July after the free agent frenzy cools down.

First, a quick review of what makes a player a restricted free agent. It’s actually a little easier to start by defining unrestricted free agents, as the remaining unsigned players are then restricted free agents. Unrestricted free agents are as follows:

  • A player 27 years or older as of June 30th (Group 3)
  • A player with seven or more accrued seasons (Group 3)
  • A player 25 years or older as of June 30th that has completed three or more professional seasons and has played in less than 80 NHL games, or for a goaltender, less than 28 games (minimum 30 minutes played) (Group 6)/

There are a few other complexities to unrestricted free agency, but those are not relevant to the players discussed in this article. The rest of the organization’s players that were under contract in 2018-19 and have had their contracts expire are restricted free agents.

Other NHL clubs can make an Offer Sheet to a restricted free agent. If they agree to a contract with the player, the original club has the first right of refusal and have the right to match the contract and retain the player. If the original club declines to match the contract, then depending on the contract value, the original club would be owed draft pick compensation.

It is very rare for Offer Sheets to occur in the NHL. There is a general belief that there is something of an unspoken agreement between GMs to not do so. There was even a report that a GM had said that if another club offer sheeted one of his players, then he would return the favor every single offseason and force that team to pay more for their restricted free agents.

Now that we’ve got some of the technical details out of the way, it’s time to go through the Tampa Bay Lightning’s restricted free agents that Steve Yzerman will need to make a decision on over the summer.

J.T. Miller

As I discussed in my Armchair GM article, there is a decision to be made of Miller. Signing him to a long-term contract could be difficult for the team to manage with the other contracts that will have to be signed over the next two offseasons. If he isn’t traded, I anticipate a one or two-year contract for Miller. A two-year contract is less ideal as it would expire with him being an unrestricted free agent. A one-year deal would be the best for the team as he would then be a restricted free agent once again next summer. Either way, Yzerman could look to trade him now or next offseason to extract some value before he can walk away for free.

Prediction: Two-year contract, $5.5 million AAV or One-year contract $6.5 million AAV (if he isn’t traded)

Adam Erne

Erne was starting to show some of the promise we had been expecting of him late late season. An unfortunate lower body injury ended his season prematurely. As a waiver eligible player, he should have an inside track on winning a spot out of training camp. He could slide into Chris Kunitz’s fourth line left wing role with the ability to move up on to the third line in the event of an injury. He also needs to play in 31 NHL games this season for the team to avoid him becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Prediction: One-year, one-way contract for $750,000

Cedric Paquette

While a lot of thoughts have been swirling around on social media about letting Paquette go, I believe that the team will still see value in him as the fourth line center. Mitchell Stephens is the name fans often circulate as his replacement, but I feel that Stephens isn’t quite ready for that role. He also wouldn’t represent very much of a savings on the cap over Paquette with his $833,333 salary cap hit. Stephens also has a higher ceiling than that of a fourth line center, so the team may not want to box him into that role so early in his development. For those reasons, I think Paquette will be retained and be on the roster, but his contract will remain short and cheap.

Prediction: One or Two-year contract, $900,000 AAV

Slater Koekkoek

Koekkoek is a big wild card. He didn’t play a lot last year and he slipped down the depth chart behind Andrej Sustr and Jake Dotchin. There’s a pretty good chance that he is traded before long, but it also depends on some other potential moves the team can make. If Yzerman does as I’ve suggested and ships Braydon Coburn off in a trade, that opens up a potential spot for Koekkoek. You also can’t overlook that Yzerman gave up a 2nd, and 4th round pick, plus Nikita Gusev’s rights to the Vegas Golden Knights to get them to leave Koekkoek and Dotchin and take Jason Garrison. I personally would hold on to Koekkoek and get him regular playing time on the third pair next year to give him an opportunity to rebuild some value. Even if Yzerman ultimately wants to trade him, that would maximize the return because his value is suppressed right now due to lack of playing time.

Also of note is that he’s coming off of a one-year, one-way $800,000 contract.

Prediction: One-year, one-way contract for $900,000

Louis Domingue

The presumptive back-up in net, Domingue is in a position for a decent little pay day. He has starter experience in the NHL where he has been up-and-down. However, after coming over to the Lightning from the Arizona Coyotes, he re-established his game in the AHL and then provided solid back-up play in the NHL after Peter Budaj’s injury. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to pass through waivers as he did during last season, and should be spending the year in Tampa.

He’s only a year away from unrestricted free agency and Yzerman has shown a tendency to look to buy at least a year of unrestricted free agency when signing restricted free agents. I think this will be no exception, even if he has to pay a little bit more to hang on to Domingue for a couple seasons. With almost 100 games played in the NHL, there are a number of comparable back-ups to draw some conclusions from for his next contract.

Prediction: Two-year, one-way contract for $1.75 million AAV.

Alex Gallant

Gallant was brought in last off-season to bring some grit to the Syracuse Crunch. He played a good amount early in the season, but it was obvious his low-skill game was not bringing much to the Crunch. He piled up way more penalty minutes than he did points. With even more offensively gifted young players coming to the Crunch this fall, I don’t think there’s room for him on the roster.

Prediction: Non-tendered