Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning enters free agency looking for No. 2 center

The question isn't if Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is interested in the free agent market that opens today — he is — but what, if anything, he can find that is the right fit.

"We're just going to proceed very cautiously," he said.

Tampa Bay has a very specific need, a No. 2 center, but the market is thin. There also are several ways it can fill the void created by the Vinny Lecavalier buyout.

It can promote from within the organization or, perhaps, use its deep pool of minor-leaguers and prospects as part of a trade.

"So I don't know how active we will be," Yzerman said. "The reason we used the compliance buyout (on Lecavalier) is to give ourselves flexibility, to give ourselves options. We don't want to … turn around and put ourselves in the same position with a contract that doesn't make sense. We have to be careful in that respect."

What is interesting about this year is it is the first in a while in which Tampa Bay's primary need is not on the blue line.

As Yzerman said, "Buying out Vinny changes things a little bit."

Besides, with eight defensemen on one-way contracts — including injured Mattias Ohlund and Brian Lee — and Mark Barberio poised in AHL Syracuse, unless something changes, the roster, in terms of a free agent addition, seems full.

Some of the centers the Lightning might consider come with caveats.

Valtteri Filppula, 29, had a bad 2012-13 for the Red Wings and is asking for $5 million per season. Toronto's Tyler Bozak, 27, and Washington's Mike Ribeiro, 33, also will command high prices.

Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski, 29, has personal conduct issues. (During a fight last season, he bit the wrist of Montreal's Max Pacioretty.) And Stephen Weiss, 30, is coming off an injury-filled season for the Panthers.

Yzerman did say, "I'm not opposed to signing a 38-year-old. … It depends on the term of the contract." Matt Cullen, who turns 37 in November, had seven goals, 27 points and was plus-9 in 42 games last season for the Wild. But is that really a direction for a team that wants to get younger and faster?

"There is a hole there," Yzerman said of the No. 2 center position. "And at the end of the day, if we're not able to do it through free agency or trade, we've got players on our roster who are centermen who are playing the wing. If we have to move one of them back there, I think we'll be okay."

The presence of Alex Killorn reinforces that Tampa Bay can be picky. Killorn played wing after his callup last season from Syracuse and impressed with seven goals and 19 points in 38 games. His natural position is center, though winning 39.3 percent of faceoffs was unacceptable.

Syracuse's Tyler Johnson also might be an option. He had three goals and six points and was plus-3 in 14 games last season with Tampa Bay and won 59.5 percent of his faceoffs.

If Yzerman does promote from within, perhaps he turns his free agent attention to a wing.

Former Swiss star Damien Brunner, who flirted with the Lightning last year before signing with Detroit, is available. So is agitator David Clarkson, 29, who had 30 goals in 2011-12 and 15 in 48 games last season for the Devils.

Clarkson would be an unlikely luxury, but the Lightning does have about $9 million in cap space.

Really, though, this summer is about finding a No. 2 center.

"The first thing we'll try to do is see if there's a free agent that fits our needs, and then, obviously, if we can afford the term of the contract," Yzerman said. "If there's nothing there, we'll look at other ways to do it."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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