For the second straight offseason, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman’s biggest question revolves around who he will be able to re-sign ahead of free agency.
Last summer’s list included captain Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn, among a handful of others. This offseason, Yzerman’s biggest decisions will be what to do with restricted free agents-to-be Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. There’s also questions about the future of pending unrestricted free agents like Peter Budaj, Yanni Gourde and Luke Witkowski, to name a few.
Let’s take a look at the big three RFAs pending for this summer and how they may play into the Lightning’s plans for the future, and in particular, what the future of Jonathan Drouin may hold with the club. In a follow-up piece Tuesday, we will look at some other important pending free agents the club must make decisions about this offseason.
There’s perhaps not a more intriguing pending free agent situation for the Lightning than the case of Drouin.
He turned 22-years-old in March and had a breakout season in 2016-17, scoring 21 goals and 32 assists in 73 games. It was a strong follow-up to his 14-point performance in 17 games this past postseason, where he was playing with a chip on his shoulders after he returned to the team after an eventful regular season off the ice.
Drouin’s maturity level has grown over the past couple years and while he still has the occasional turnover and defensive lapses, he’s a truly dynamic offensive talent. In fact, at his age and if he continues his upward trajectory, it’s reasonable to believe he’s a top-10 scorer in the NHL in the not too distant future.
But a somewhat telling statistic (depending on how much faith you put in plus/minus) is that Drouin was a team-leading minus-13 this season. The next closest Lightning players were Andrej Sustr (minus-10) and forwards Adam Erne and Killorn (minus-9). While plus/minus isn’t the most reliable indicator of a player’s defensive ability, it’s certainly something that may have played into Drouin being held out of certain situations where you might expect to see him on the ice this past season.
Where things get interesting, though, is when you consider what his value may be to other teams. The Lightning are in desperate need of a top-4 defenseman and Drouin may be the sort of player it takes to land one. Yzerman certainly sees the value in Drouin. Why do you think he wasn’t willing to ship him out of town in 2015-16 to the highest bidder at the trade deadline? A player with Drouin’s offensive skill is a tough find but it also means it will come at a price for the Lightning if they opt to keep him.
Drouin could seek a long-term deal of anywhere from five to seven years in the neighborhood of more than $6 million per year, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. The hockey insider did NOT report anything about a trade being on the horizon but was merely pontificating that he “would not be surprised if Drouin was moved” on his Bobcast Podcast on April 14 about what could play out this summer. Again, this was McKenzie just thinking out loud about the reality of the team’s salary cap situation, also adding that it’s possible Drouin stays right where he is.
That’s real money and Yzerman will have to evaluate how that figures into the team’s finances. One that includes a Victor Hedman extension (eight years) which begins next season and nearly doubles over his cap hit this past year and Andrei Vasilevskiy’s three-year extension which kicks in beginning next season at a bargain of $3.5 million per year. And you can’t forget about Nikita Kucherov’s bridge deal expiring in two more years. He earns $4.7 million and if he is remotely close to the 40 goals he scored this year, that number could very well become $8-9 million annually, too.
There’s also always the potential threat of an offer sheet. What was once a way for competing NHL teams to attempt to land big fish RFAs is now seemingly a thing of the past, but whose to say Drouin is a guy that doesn’t garner at least a head scratch from an NHL GM. The sky is the limit for him offensively and he’s the dynamic sort of player that sells tickets when he’s at his best.
Almost as intriguing is the situation posed by Johnson’s pending RFA status.
The 26-year-old center turns 27 in July and things just didn’t go like he (or the team) hoped they’d go for the most part this past regular season. Plagued with a wrist injury that he suffered in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and the short summer that came with a June exit from the playoffs that year, he struggled until the second half of the 2015-16 season. He bounced back strong in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs and scored at a point per game average in 17 postseason contests.
Entering the 2016-17 season, Johnson spoke about the excitement he had for entering the year feeling 100-percent and after a good summer of training. This, in part, paved the way for big expectations offensively for him this season as he began a contract year. But things didn’t play out like they’d been drawn up. He struggled to find the score sheet during the early part of the season but found his groove at times (a six-game point streak in November was a season high). He scored 24 points in the 28 games he played in the new calendar year, but was plagued by injury again — this time it was a lower-body injury he suffered March 9 that kept him out of all but two games the remainder of the season.
By the end of the season, 21-year-old rookie Brayden Point was playing regularly as the team’s No. 1 center and looked pretty comfortable playing alongside Palat and Kucherov. One has to wonder if Point’s performance, coupled with the team’s strength at the center position in the American Hockey League and in major junior hockey hasn’t at least caused Yzerman to consider the idea of moving Johnson for a defenseman. Point has two years left on his entry-level contract which carries an average annual value of $919k.
Point has shown similarities in the game of Johnson — an undersized forward with a tremendous work ethic and good speed. The big difference being that keeping Johnson could potentially cost more than four and a half times what Point makes at the center position.
And then there’s Palat, who one NHL scout told me earlier this season that he thought was one of the best two-way forwards in the league. At 26-years-old, his unique set of size (6′, 188-pounds) and physical play make him a player the Lightning cannot afford to move.
Palat struggled in the first part of the season, scoring just 17 points in the first 33 games he played. But if there is one player who helped spearhead the Lightning’s turnaround during the last third of the season not named Kucherov, Point or Vasilevskiy, it was Palat. He scored four goals and 18 assists in the final 21 games of the season and was a physical force night in and night out.
He is another player who has battled injuries too but a player who is another tough find in today’s NHL. He and Johnson have been praised in the past by head coach Jon Cooper for their tireless work ethic. Palat is the sort of player who leaves it all out on the ice every night. Between that and his defensive awareness (he was third on the team with a plus-8 this season), he’s the sort of player you’d be hard pressed to move at this point in his career.
What Does Yzerman Do?
I was asked recently whether or not I believed the Lightning needed to move a forward or two to improve the team’s defense corps. In short, my answer is yes. The question then becomes, who? If you are looking at these three players only, I would narrow it down to Johnson or Drouin. This is not to imply that either player is on the block to move at this point. I can’t see Palat being moved — especially not after the last third of the season he had. When it was crunch time for the club, he stepped up in a big way and that is something he will be rewarded for this summer.
So we circle back to Drouin and Johnson.
In short, Drouin is a 22-year-old who plays somewhat of a different style than Cooper is accustomed to and has virtually two seasons of full-time NHL playing experience (really one if you look at the playing time he received this year vs. 2014-15).
On the other hand, you have a soon to be 27-year-old forward, Johnson, that fits the mold of Cooper’s sort of player, but who hasn’t sniffed the 29-goal and 72-point campaign he had in 2014-15 as a second-year NHLer. He’s played a combined 135 regular season games the past two seasons and is showing some durability issues at a center position where the Lightning are deep now and into the future.
If you are looking down the road, Drouin has the most offensive upside of any one of these three.
So what gives?
When he was asked point blank if he thought he had enough cap space to re-sign Drouin, Johnson and Palat, Yzerman chose his words carefully but confidently. “I think we can sign all the players we need to sign,” Yzerman said during his exit interview on April 10. But there’s no shortage of players for Yzerman to sign outside of these three.
People doubted his ability to land Stamkos and keep the team cap-friendly with Kucherov and Killorn re-signed, among others. Can he pull off the same sort of feat this summer? Do Drouin and Johnson each play into the long-term plans? If Yzerman wants to keep all three of these RFAs, does he try to move Alex Killorn, who has six years left on a deal that pays him $4.45 million annually, instead? He may try to move a player like Jason Garrison who has one year left at $4.6 million, but that may be hard to do. The bottom line is that for all three — Drouin, Johnson and Palat — to return to the club next season, some player(s) have to go.
As much as Yzerman was able to defy all logic and keep each of the big pieces of his roster in place heading into the 2016-17 season, the team has some holes it must plug to take the next step. Filling them is almost undoubtedly going to mean moving at least a forward or two. Moving Drouin might be what it takes to land that top-end defenseman they need, but moving him seems like a hard thing to justify given that his most productive years of his career are in the near future. But if Drouin only considers at a long-term deal and not a short-term bridge bargain, Yzerman will be hard pressed to find room without making other deals and it puts him in a tough spot.
With Drouin right now, the “What could be?” factor makes his value very high. So much so that some believe that he was the player involved in the trade that would have sent former St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Lightning at the trade deadline. Then again, Johnson seems to be primed for a move too, but he’s probably not the player that will land you the perennial top pair (or top-4) defenseman the Lightning need. It would be hard to unload a player with Drouin’s upside unless Yzerman felt he had to do it to improve the club. Perhaps Yzerman feels that way, but only time will tell.
Ultimately, what this will come down to is who fits in the long-term plans for the Lightning and of course, economics.
Then again, isn’t that how free agency always plays out?
Tune in Tuesday as I discuss more of the free agency picture Yzerman faces this summer.
Steven is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the game of hockey. He’s the Lead Writer covering the Tampa Bay Lightning with THW. He’s also been press credentialed through the Lightning since 2016. His work has been published at The Fourth Period, LightningInsider.com, Bolt Prospects, The Sports Daily Network, U.S. College Hockey Online and College Hockey News. He’s had radio appearances on TSN 690 in Montreal, Lightning Power Play Live and multiple podcasts to give insight and analysis on the team. He can be reached on Twitter @StevenDiOssi and by email at email@example.com.