Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Names for Lightning fans to watch as NHL free agency opens Saturday

BRANDON — The Lightning enters today's noon opening of free agency hoping to cross off the two main items on its wish list:

A top-four defenseman.

A top-nine wing.

It looks like the Lightning could fill both needs with a splash, as it is in the running for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and wing Justin Williams.

It would make the expected signing of veteran defenseman Dan Girardi seem like the undercard.

Girardi, 33, who was bought out by the Rangers after 11 seasons, would likely come on a short-term, relatively inexpensive deal.

The big fish, however, has always been Shattenkirk, 28, a puck-moving, power play-quarterbacking, top-four caliber defenseman. The Lightning has been courting Shattenkirk since the six-day free agency period opened Sunday, and it should find out today if it will win the sweepstakes; the Devils, with the most cap space in the league and proximity to Shattenkirk's New Rochelle, N.Y., home, appear to be the toughest competition.

The Lightning is also a finalist for Williams, 35, aka "Mr. Game 7." The right wing, who scored 24 goals a year ago, is also drawing interest from the likes of the Islanders and Flyers.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman should have around $10 million of cap space to play with when you take into account expected signings of restricted free agents Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek.

Yzerman explained why free agency is "tricky."

"You better be prepared to give more term and more money than you want on July 1," Yzerman said. "Or you wait until after. Or you wait until after and you might miss out. It's tricky. We've done a lot here to give ourselves a little bit of flexibility. We don't want to put ourselves right back in the same position if we're not confident that it's really going to make a difference."

Here are names to watch as noon rolls around:

Justin Williams, RW

Getty Images

He is a proven secondary scorer, a clutch playoff performer (former Conn Smythe winner) and a leader in the room, which could add to Tampa Bay's young forward group. The Stars, Islanders and Flyers are also likely in the mix, with Williams wanting to play for a contender.

Dan Girardi, D

AP photo

Sounds like it's a done deal with the Lightning and Girardi, who was bought out this summer after 11 seasons with the Rangers. Girardi, 33, has been banged up the past couple seasons, no doubt the result of a career built on shotblocking and shutdown 'D'. A great character guy and lockeroom presence, but doesn't provide much offense (15 points last season) and likely better suited for a third pairing role at this stage in his career. Signing is kind of a head-scratcher, but it may not be the only move Yzerman makes to address blueline.

Kevin Shattenkirk, D

Getty Images

He could get a bigger deal in New Jersey, which has $27 million in cap space and would make him the No. 1 defenseman. But the Devils were also last in the Eastern Conference last season, not nearly as close to being a contender as Tampa. Don't read too much into the fact Shattenkirk reportedly nixed a trade from St. Louis to the Lightning in January. It sounds like there would be mutual interest from Shattenkirk, we just don't know if it will lead to a deal. The Lightning no doubt used the same no state income taxes selling point as it did with Steven Stamkos last summer. For example, a seven-year, $6.5 million annual average over seven years in Tampa would be the same as $7 million over seven in New Jersey.

Chris Kunitz, LW

Getty Images

The Lightning is in the mix for Kunitz, 37, a four-time Stanley Cup champion. Kunitz averaged 23 goals per season from 2010-16, dropping to nine last season. But Kunitz could also provide some grit, averaging 230 hits per season since 2014. Likely a backup plan behind Williams.

Jaromir Jagr, RW

Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS

Jagr, 45, may have joked on Twitter Thursday that he's getting no calls in free agency. But there has been interest in the future Hall of Famer, who still had 16 goals and 30 assists last season for the Panthers. Jagr wants to play one more year (at least) and could be an intriguing option for Tampa Bay. He doesn't have the same speed, but provides size, scoring touch and a unique presence in the room. A one-year deal with incentives could make sense.

SLAP SHOTS: It doesn't appear like a Lightning reunion with Brian Boyle is happening, Tampa Bay not reaching out to the veteran in the free agency window; makes sense, though, with the Lightning not needing a center.... Tampa Bay did not reach out to free agent wing Thomas Vanek, or free agent defensemen Cody Franson, Karl Alzner.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]_JSmith.

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