Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is slowly but surely locking up his core players to long-term contracts. A series of signings that seemed daunting just a few years ago has been handled with aplomb by the player-turned-GM.
Following the 2014-15 season, fans and pundits alike wondered how Tampa Bay could keep it’s talented but young group of players in place. Various members of that Stanley Cup Final team were on deals that were to expire over the next few seasons, and it was evident that Yzerman had a lot of work cut out for him.
Since that campaign ended, the Lightning has needed to re-sign Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn to extensions. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat needed new contracts entering this summer as well, and the former has been signed for the foreseeable future.
Earlier this week, Johnson inked a seven-year deal worth a total of $35 million.
Johnson year by year: $5 mil, $6.75 mil, $5.5 mil, $3.75 mil, $5.5 mil, $3.75 mil and $4.75 mil. Deal includes NTC and ltd NTC near end.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) July 11, 2017
With this contract, Yzerman has committed to Johnson as a core part of the Lightning, alongside the likes of Stamkos, Killorn and Hedman. He’s also successfully managed to keep a majority of the driving forces behind the team’s most recent run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Most importantly, the GM has done so while signing players to contracts that make a lot of sense. Such is the case with Johnson, who will have a very fair cap hit of $5 million over the next seven years. Over the last three seasons, he’s just barely been outside of the NHL’s 50 most productive forwards.
With 155 points across 212 games played, only 55 forwards have notched more points. His 0.73 points per game have him sitting just outside of the league’s top-50 as well. Even a cursory glance at the players who occupy the rankings around Johnson will yield numerous examples of those who are hitting the cap for more than $5 million.
Granted, some of those forwards bring other skill sets to the table, but it’s tough to find a reason not to like Yzerman’s work on the Johnson deal. Some may feel that the term is too long, but the last two or three years of the contract are necessary to keep the cap hit down.
Extensions with too much term can bite teams when they are given to older players, but Johnson is only 26.
Odds are good that his production will begin to slow in his 30s, but not to the point where a $5 million cap hit is an albatross. Johnson has proven to be a reliable scoring threat when healthy. The when healthy caveat may be an issue for a handful of pundits, as he’s missed a total of 34 contests since 2014.
That’s a fair concern, but if anything too serious befalls Johnson, it’s not like the Lightning won’t be able to stash him on LTIR. He’s worth the $5 million when he’s not injured, and when he is, he’s not hitting the books for anything.
As solid as this contract looks for the Lightning, Yzerman still has a few more matters to attend to before he’s out of the proverbial salary cap woods. It’s true that he’s ticked a lot of boxes over the last three years or so, but there is more work to be done in Tampa.
Palat still needs a new deal this summer, and his arbitration hearing is set for July 25. With a bit over $8 million left in cap space, that’s a contract that we should see done sometime in the next few weeks. If the recent signings of Johnson and Killorn are any indication, Yzerman will be able to keep Palat’s cap hit manageable while also leaving a bit of wiggle room moving forward.
Once Palat is locked down, the focus will shift to the summer of 2019 and how a long-term extension with Kucherov can be achieved. Those negotiations won’t be easy, as the 24-year-old has established himself as one of the NHL’s premier scoring forwards.
Signing him will be every bit as critical Stamkos was, which means that Yzerman may need to find a way to clear some cap space. The most obvious candidate to be moved is Ryan Callahan and his $5.8 million cap hit. He’s been a strong veteran presence for the Lightning, but he’s not worth the money he is being paid.
Yzerman has managed to jump mostly every hurdle he’s faced since taking the Lightning over, but finding a new home for Callahan will require some creativity and cleverness. The prize for doing so, however, is enough cap space to re-sign Kucherov in two year’s time when his current deal expires.
The Lightning still have a bit of work to do in terms of managing their cap, but following the Johnson extension, they’re mostly sitting pretty as a well-constructed team that should be able to contend for years to come.