With the NHL’s February 29 trade deadline fast approaching, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman recently opted to announce his intention to keep captain Steven Stamkos in town through the end of the 2015-16 season. While this action may bring a temporary halt to trade speculation, the rumors of Stamkos signing elsewhere on July 1 will remain present until the moment a resolution is decided. Given Stamkos’ world-class ability and reputation as a humble, motivated locker room leader, the only logical hurdle standing in the way of an extension with the Lightning is average annual salary. As one of the top five or six most talented players in the entire hockey world, establishing a fair price point for both sides is understandably an immensely difficult task. Ultimately, the market will dictate the cost, leaving Stamkos likely to finish with a deal similar to the recently signed eight-year, $80-million pact agreed to by the Los Angeles Kings’ and star pivot Anze Kopitar.
If Yzerman is indeed able to retain his captain at a price similar to Kopitar’s ($10-million annual cap hit), it should be considered a major victory for the Lightning front office. While allocating that amount of space for a single player may appear costly, it is a reality all teams must confront in order to retain elite talent.
As of today, the Lightning sit roughly $1.5-million under the salary cap. This summer, the contracts of Stamkos (7.5M AAV), Braydon Coburn ($4.5M AAV), and Alex Killorn ($2.55M AAV) will expire, expanding the team’s available space to nearly $15-million. With several other key contributors also headed for restricted free agency, most notably Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov, that space will be reduced significantly. In order for the Lightning to preserve their long-term success, the complicated offseason that lies ahead must be executed with precision and foresight.
In the interest of helping to create the financial flexibility they’ll need this upcoming summer, moving one of the team’s most burdensome contracts ahead of this year’s trading deadline is an option that should be heavily considered. While the $5.5M annual price tag on goalless, pointless defenseman Matt Carle is without doubt a tremendous misallocation of funds, it remains highly unlikely that any team will take on an onerous deal like his without also receiving an asset the Lightning may not be interested in parting with. Tampa Bay missed a huge opportunity to move on Carle this past offseason when his value was still slightly above the Mendoza line. Instead, they’re left with what is assuredly one of the most difficult to move assets in the NHL today. Yzerman has proven adept at maneuvering difficult trade scenarios in the past, but successfully executing this one might require a whole new level of wizardry.
More realistically, the contract the Lightning should be listening to offers on right now is that of third-year Bolt Ryan Callahan. In 2014, Yzerman and the Lightning front office extended themselves financially for the former New York Rangers’ captain, believing he’d bolster their forward core with consistent top-six production. With an average yearly cap hit of $5.8-million and a deal that doesn’t expire until the conclusion of the 2020 season, his contract is one of the largest on the current Lightning roster. In 55 appearances this season, Callahan has fallen well short of the expectations that accompany that type of price tag, registering only six goals and 12 assists. In total, he is on pace to set a new career-low of nine goals in 2015-16. While the reason behind his struggles remains unknown, the chance of Callahan’s deal devolving into an unmovable asset is now a very distinct possibility. If the rest of this season plays out without significant improvement at the offensive end, there will be very few (if any) teams actively seeking his services on the trade market.
The Lightning will soon be forced to make several critical decisions on the composition of their roster. The forthcoming offseason will undoubtedly be one of the most important in team history…one that will have an incredible impact on the future of the franchise. Getting a head start on that challenging equation before the deadline may just be a savvy move.