At some point during a run of recent success like the Tampa Bay Lightning are currently enjoying, players continue to excel on the ice and will soon look for a nice new contract because of it. The Lightning are currently in a position where they have many restricted and unrestricted free agents to be at the end of the season.
Assuming the team re-signs Steven Stamkos, Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov to new contracts, which seem to be the top priority contracts to get done, that will leave the team with minimal salary cap space to fill out the rest of the rest of the NHL roster. There are up to six other potential free agents to be that the team will soon have to make decisions on.
First, the candidates
Out of the six potential free agents we will be going through, only one of them is set to be an unrestricted free agent; top-four defenseman Braydon Coburn. I recently wrote an article about Coburn, who was acquired during last year’s NHL trade deadline in a deal made with the Philadelphia Flyers, and how he has been one of the rocks on the Lightning blue line. There is no doubt the team will have to consider re-signing the veteran defenseman if the money makes sense.
Next, we move on to the future restricted free agents the team will be negotiating with. Starting with the older players on the team, J.T. Brown has really come into his own this year. He has always been the kind of player to give you energy and effort for 11-12 minutes a night, play the penalty kill, and give you an apple every once in a while. However, we are seeing a better version of the former Minnesota-Duluth star.
Known for being a scorer in college, Brown has had trouble in the past when it comes to finishing what he started. He has the speed and awareness to get to scoring areas of the ice, but he could never finish. Now, the speedy Brown is finally getting results, tallying eight goals and 12 assists to go along with a plus-16 rating in 55 games this season. Brown had already set his career high in goals, which previously was four back during the 2013-14 season, but he now has set his career high in points with 24 more games to go. The reason for this success? A combination of experience, continuous hard work, and the ability to get to the dirty areas in order to score.
Cedric Paquette is an interesting case; mainly because of the style of play he brings to the table every night. Ceddy is that hard-nosed team player you want on your team and has become a valuable part of the Lightning roster.
He isn’t going to light up the score sheet, potting four goals to go along with four assists in 35 games so far this season, but you can tell that Paquette gives 110% every night and will leave it all out on the ice every single shift. He is one of the key player on the penalty kill, blocking shots and effectively getting into passing lanes. His skating has vastly improved from his draft year and he makes it difficult for the opposition to be comfortable anytime he is on the ice, as Paquette is not afraid to lay some lumber.
The only problem with Paquette, due to his style to play, is the inability to stay on the ice. He missed 18 games last season due to injury and has already missed 24 this season. His play reminds me of a Andrew Shaw at his age; someone who will do everything else for his team but consistently find his name on the score sheet. Only 22 years old, Paquette could be in a Lightning uniform for many years to come.
Alex Killorn is another interesting case; mainly due to his age and skill set that could potentially earn him a nice sized contract at season’s end. The Harvard University graduate, who is currently fourth on the team in scoring, continues to provide a solid source of offense for a team that has desperately needed it at times this season. He has the size, speed, and scoring ability to could make him a constant 40 point scorer in the NHL.
At age 26 and a restricted free agent, there is a chance the team could run out of salary cap space to pay the third year pro. He is currently making $2.5 million dollars in the final season of his current contract and there is no doubt his price tag should increase come this offseason when contract negotiations go on. Fortunately for the Lightning, as a restricted free agent, the team could get compensated by another team for Killorn in the payment of draft picks, depending on the price of his contract, if another team were to sign him. There is a lot of speculation that Killorn might not be back next season due to salary cap restrictions, but he is a player the Lightning would not like to lose.
Coming out of nowhere over the last couple of season and providing constant offensive production (when he gets the ice time) is forward Jonathan Marchessault, who the Lightning acquired back during the 2013-14 season in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Dana Tyrell.
Here is an interesting stat about Marchessault; in the 17 games he has played more than 10 minutes in ice time, Marchessault has at least one point in 12 of those games. So about 70% of the time you see Marchessault out there for 1/6th of the game, he finds his name on the score sheet. Pretty unbelievable if you ask me, and that is one of the main reasons Marchessault has earned a permanent spot on the NHL roster after being a career AHL player during his first five seasons as a professional.
Last but not least, there is Nikita Nesterov, a player that really revived his NHL career with a breakout campaign when he helped the Lightning make it to their second ever Stanley Cup Final appearance. There was a point about two years ago where it looked like Nesterov might move back to Russia and play in the KHL. He was not producing offensively, he was a liability defensively, and was just not panning out during his first season with the Syracuse Crunch.
Though Nesterov struggled out of the gate, turning the puck over and getting beat by opposing forwards in what seemed to be every other shift, Nesterov has proven to be a solid top-6 defenseman on the Lightning blue line, increasing his level of play on the defensive while maintaining the offensive threat that stood out to the team during his draft year back in 2013 when the team selected him with their 5th round selection.
How it will all play out
At this point, it seems like all directions point to the Lightning trying to keep at least four or five of these players. Ideally, the team would love to keep all of them, but with so many talented prospects looking to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL full-time, names like Slater Koekkoek, Anthony DeAngelo, Tanner Richard, and others would force some of these players out to join the 2016 free agent pool.
With the season Brown has had so far, there is no doubt the team will do everything in their power to get him re-signed. His combination of speed, toughness, and now the ability to finish has made Brown even more valuable than he was before the season started. His increased scoring is no accident, as Brown has always had the ability to put the puck in the back of the net going back to his days at Minnesota-Duluth.
Marchessault is another player that the Lightning will look to bring back. He should not be too expensive to re-sign and could be an excellent value contract over the next two or three seasons if the team chooses to go in that direction.
As for the other four, there are some question marks that need to be answered first; mainly the question if Steven Stamkos will be returning, or is another high salary contract can be moved (cough, Matt Carle, cough). This is especially the case for Coburn, who at a $4.5 million dollar salary and potential raise coming in the near future, it may be hard to keep him if Stamkos is signed and a large salary contract isn’t moved. However, due to his consistent play this season, the Lightning will do everything they can to bring Coburn back.
Killorn’s situation is a bit more complicated; mainly due to his age and talent level that will cause a large cap hit after this season. However, he is a restricted free agent and the Lightning will own his rights. At this point, I could see Killorn not being brought back, but his situation is up in the air.
As for Nesterov and Paquette, the talented prospect pool the Lightning organization possesses could eventually be their demise. Koekkoek or DeAngelo could take the spot of Nesterov on the NHL roster, mainly due to the fact that they would have cheaper, club friendly contracts over the next two-three seasons while playing at about the same level. As for Paquette, Tanner Richard is really an interesting name to keep your eye on. Richard plays the same style of Paquette with a little less scoring potential that could see Paquette pushed out of Tampa Bay. All of this is just speculation, but the Lightning roster could look very different come the start of next season.