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Day before free agency begins, talks go on between Tampa Bay Lightning, Steven Stamkos

If negotiations are at a delicate stage, they are not saying.

If the sides are close to bridging the gap between what the player wants to be paid and what the team believes it can afford, they aren't hinting, either.

But the Lightning and representatives for All-Star center Steven Stamkos are talking.

"We just spoke," general manager Steve Yzerman said Thursday about himself and agent Don Meehan. "Without getting specific, I hope to speak to him later (in the evening)."

They did speak later. Asked if he had anything to report, Yzerman said in a text message "no" and they would speak again today.

Yzerman would love to get Stamkos' contract done before free agency opens at noon today, not only to keep the center from becoming a restricted free agent but to better know what he can offer unrestricted free agents.

"It makes it difficult to be real aggressive," he said. "We have a budget, and we're acting on that budget. But until we have that certainty, we have to proceed cautiously."

The Lightning — which is about $18 million under the $64.3 million salary cap, with 17 of the maximum 23 roster players under contract — has holes to fill in net and at forward.

Yzerman wouldn't mind adding a defenseman, but with seven signed, he said that is his last priority. The most intriguing position: backup goalie. "There are a lot of options, but our interest is bringing back Mike Smith," he said. Smith, an unrestricted free agent, would have to take a pay cut from last season's $2.4 million.

If Smith is not signed, options might include Minnesota's Josh Harding and Jose Theodore, Philadelphia's Brian Boucher, Columbus' Mathieu Garon or even AHL Norfolk's Cedrick Desjardins, if his bad shoulder is healthy.

At forward, playoff standout Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne will hit the open market. Bergenheim's agent, Todd Diamond, said his client and the team are so far apart when it comes to salary, he believes the wing, who made $700,000 last season, will not be back.

Then there is Stars center Brad Richards. Yzerman is interested in the unrestricted free agent. But Richards, who made $7.8 million last season and is expected to get rich offers from the Rangers or Maple Leafs, would have to play for substantially less to return to Tampa Bay, where he was MVP of the team's 2004 Stanley Cup run.

Could the Lightning handle contracts for Richards and Stamkos? It depends on the numbers.

Stamkos is expected to come in at between $7 million and $8 million, especially now that Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told Philadelphia reporters he will not give Stamkos an offer sheet.

Toronto still is rumored to be contemplating an offer sheet that would force the Lightning to match and jack up Stamkos' salary. But that seems a long shot for a team so far from a title and that would have to give Tampa Bay four first-round draft choices as compensation.

And remember, Stamkos, 21, who has said he wants to play for the Lightning, does not have to sign an offer sheet if he gets one.

That's a lot of moving parts, which is why Yzerman said his free agent strategy was evolving. "We've made our list but haven't even ranked them or prioritized them," he said of the players in whom he is interested. "Once we know where we are, we're going to reach out to all of them, see what everybody wants and make decisions based on that."

And where he stands with Stamkos.

ARBITRATION: Wing Teddy Purcell is expected to file by Tuesday's deadline, said agent Kent Hughes, who added he expects to negotiate a deal before the hearing. Purcell, who made $750,000 last season, had career bests of 17 goals, 34 assists and 51 points.

Day before free agency begins, talks go on between Tampa Bay Lightning, Steven Stamkos 07/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 1, 2011 1:07am]

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