While the Tampa Bay Lightning continue on their run for a third straight Stanley Cup, it isn’t too early to predict what the roster may look like in 2022-23. One of the biggest question marks for general manager Julien BriseBois will be whether he decides to re-sign forward Ondrej Palat. Palat will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) for the first time in his career this summer. A seventh-round draft pick in 2011, he was just one of a long list of late-round steals by former general manager Steve Yzerman. Despite his draft position, Palat has been an integral part of the Stanley Cup-winning core in Tampa Bay, making the decision to let him test the market much more difficult.
Will the Lightning Have the Cap Space?
Probably the biggest question mark is whether or not the Lightning can fit his salary into what is already a narrow window of available cap space. With Brayden Point’s eight-year, $76 million extension kicking into effect in 2022-23, and with stars like Nikita Kucherov ($9.5 million per year), Steven Stamkos ($8.5 million per year), and Victor Hedman ($7.875 million per year) eating up large chunks of the salary cap, money is tight in Tampa Bay.
The Lightning also have younger talent that they need to consider. Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anthony Cirelli, all instrumental pieces of the roster, will be restricted free agents (RFAs) in 2023. All three are below the age of 25, so it is likely that Palat will be the odd man out in terms of the Lightning’s long-term plans.
However, BriseBois has infamously jumped through hoops to get his team cap compliant over the last couple of years. If anyone has the knowledge and experience to fit a contract under the cap restrictions set forth in the collective bargaining agreement, it’s him. If the Lightning feel that what Palat brings to the roster is irreplaceable, look for the GM to figure out a way to re-sign him.
Palat Due for Raise
However, at 31, Palat is also likely to see an increase from the $5.3 million per year he is making now. A superb running mate on the top line with Stamkos and Kucherov, he’s been a model two-way forward for years. Consistently a 40-to-50 point player while being great in his own zone, it is not far-fetched to think that there will be other teams willing to offer more than his current deal.
While age will be a factor, especially in determining the length of a new deal, it is undeniable that he would provide a veteran presence along with a copious amount of playoff experience to any roster. Not only does he have loads of playoff experience, but he seems to elevate his game when the stakes are higher. Being second all-time in franchise history in playoff goals behind Kucherov, and with 80 points in 125 career playoff games, he’s been a reliable option come crunch time; another invaluable asset for possible suitors this summer.
In terms of value, there are a couple of comparisons that might help us predict the number. For instance, Jaden Schwartz was a consistent 40 to 50-point two-way player in a top-six role when he signed his big deal with the Seattle Kraken this past summer. Just a couple of years younger than Palat, he played a similar role on a Stanley Cup-winning team, the St. Louis Blues, making a similar $5.35 million per year in his last contract. He signed a five-year deal at $5.5 million per season with the Kraken.
Another comparison would be the three-year, $15 million contract Evgenii Dadonov signed with the Ottawa Senators in 2020. At a similar age and with a similar role, Dadonov saw a million-dollar increase in salary per year from his prior deal. For Palat, a reasonable argument can be made based that he could earn a three-year deal worth at least $5.5 million per season.
Lightning Have Cheaper Options
Going into this season, many speculated that the Lightning would have to re-sign Palat due to their lack of forward depth. With players like Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow no longer in the lineup, many felt the club needed to make re-signing him a priority. Viewpoints have since shifted after the success of trade deadline acquisitions Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel, as the Lightning may now have cheaper options to address the lack of depth moving forward.
While Paul will also be a UFA this summer, he would likely be worth less than half of what Palat would make per year if the Lightning wanted to sign him. However, these two aren’t necessarily the best comparison as they don’t play the same position nor bring the same offensive production.
Perhaps a better comparison would be Hagel, a fellow winger. Scoring over 20 goals this season, something Palat hasn’t done since his first full campaign in the league, it isn’t unreasonable to think that he can grow into a player of Palat’s caliber. At 23 years old, Hagel’s already made large contributions to the forward depth, especially during this season’s playoff run. Locked in for the next two years at an inexpensive $1.5 million annually, he provides the Lightning with a younger and cheaper option at the winger position. It wouldn’t even be outlandish to claim that BriseBois made the deal for Hagel with Palat’s pending UFA status in mind.
We’ll have to wait and see what the market is for Palat come July 13 (the first day of free agency). The Lightning are no strangers to handing out ‘big money’ contracts. However, in the salary cap era, there is a ceiling to how many can fit on one roster. Unfortunately, the Lightning seem like they have neared their ceiling, an indication that consistent and reliable play doesn’t necessarily guarantee loyalty from the franchise in the business of sports. If contract negotiations with Palat start to teeter over the $5.5 million per year range, don’t be surprised if we see him in a new jersey for the first time in his career come 2022-23.
Contract values and figures found from capfriendly.com