TAMPA — For Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, this summer promises to be a complicated one.
Not to mention critical to the future of his franchise.
There's the (10?) million-dollar question of whether Yzerman can re-sign captain Steven Stamkos to a long-term deal before or after he reaches unrestricted free agency July 1. There's wing Nikita Kucherov, another potential building block, a 30-goal scorer this season due a hefty raise from $700,000 as a restricted free agent.
Top defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are due new deals after next season, as is Vezina Trophy-finalist goaltender Ben Bishop, unless Yzerman decides to deal Bishop or 21-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy in the next year.
And Yzerman has to balance all that with a relatively flat salary cap while considering a potential expansion draft.
"The next two summers will kind of define our team the next seven or eight years," Yzerman said Friday. "I have an idea of what we want to do. And we're doing our best to get everyone to buy in to what we're trying to do and keep it together."
But the Lightning realizes that after returning nearly the entire team from last season, next year's team could have a much different look.
"You never know what'll happen," center Brian Boyle said.
Here's a look at Yzerman's biggest decisions this summer:
On the surface, this seems easy.
Steven Stamkos, 26, the face of the franchise, wants to stay with a Lightning team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2008. GM Steve Yzerman hopes to keep Stamkos, one of the league's top scorers.
But there's a reason Stamkos' contract situation has dragged out this long, even with, Canada's Sportsnet reported, the Lightning offering Stamkos an eight-year deal worth $8.5 million annually. Stamkos could likely get more in free agency, but the Lightning can ill afford to go much higher because of the cap.
"It's not as easy as everyone thinks it is," Stamkos said. "It's not something that on both sides can be taken lightly. It's a big decision for an organization; it's a big decision for a player."
Yzerman said he can't force Stamkos into signing, and with the center holding a full no-move clause, the GM can't trade his rights without his permission. Stamkos insists he's not feeling pressure from the Players Association to strike a huge deal, nor has he thought about free agency.
"I hope to be back," he said. "We have some unfinished business. This group has been unbelievable; this city has been unbelievable to me. I can't believe it's been eight years already; time flies. The last couple years, you can finally see that light. You still haven't got to (a Stanley Cup win), but it's there, it's dangling right in front of us. When you start something, you want to finish it, and I really hope that can be the case."
Who's No. 1?
GM Steve Yzerman said his team is in a "fantastic situation" in net, with "two elite starting goaltenders" in Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy. There's Bishop, 29, a two-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league's top goalie, and who is proven and still in his prime. And there's Vasilevskiy, 21, who showed why he's a future No. 1 in his four 30-plus-save performances after Bishop (left) was hurt in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final.
"Is (Vasilevskiy) going to be a No. 1 starting goaltender in this league? I don't have a doubt in my mind," coach Jon Cooper said. "The ceiling is limitless."
The Lightning may explore a long-term deal with Bishop, especially if Steven Stamkos isn't re-signed and there's salary cap space. World top-five goalies don't get dealt often. But the Lightning could also save money by trading Bishop, who is making $5.95 million, and net a hefty return while turning over the reins to Vasilevskiy, who makes $925,000. With a potential expansion draft next year, Yzerman could lose one of those goalies anyway. He knows he'll eventually have to make a decision but didn't rule out Bishop and Vasilevskiy starting next season as a tandem.
Signing forward Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Victor Hedman appear to be locks. It's just a matter of for how much.
Kucherov, a dynamic scorer who could replace Steven Stamkos, racked up 59 goals the past two seasons and shined in the playoffs with 21 combined goals.
"He's an important part of our future,' Yzerman said. "I love everything about him."
But it'll cost the Lightning. Kucherov's $700,000 salary could rise by around $5 million, depending on the contract term. And Hedman, a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman, will get a significant boost from his $4 million cap hit.
"Start it with a 9 (million)," NHL Network analyst Craig Button, a former GM, said of a Hedman deal. "Hedman is a stud. If (Canadiens defenseman) P.K. Subban is making $9 million … Hedman is an irreplaceable player."
Hedman's agent, Peter Wallen, said his client is willing to wait until Yzerman sorts out his other contracts though he'd be "shocked" if Hedman's negotiations lasted the length of next season.
"We're going to be patient," Wallen said. "It's a big puzzle for (GM Steve Yzerman) to put in place."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.