The Lightning opens training camp Wednesday, and again will be without defenseman Mattias Ohlund. The big Swede hasn't played a minute for Tampa Bay since the 2011 playoffs, his career finished by bad knees worn down during a rugged and notable 13 seasons on the ice.
That Ohlund has three years left on his contract has shifted the focus of his legacy with the Lightning to what his situation is costing the team financially rather than the huge contribution he made in the run to the 2011 Eastern Conference final.
It also is a prime example of the bind teams are in because of the NHL's new rule against front-loaded contracts, which can result in salary cap penalties if players with such deals retire early.
Then-general manager Brian Lawton played by the rules in the summer of 2009 when he front-loaded Ohlund's seven-year, $25.25 million deal in order to minimize the annual salary cap hit. In five of those years, Ohlund's actual salary is more than his $3.607 million cap hit.
But the league didn't like teams circumventing the salary cap and in the new collective bargaining agreement introduced a penalty that kicks in when players with front-loaded contracts of seven years or more retire before the deals are done.
Under the rule, the "advantage" a team receives in a contract — that is, the amount a player's cap hit is less than his actual salary — is distributed equally over the remaining contract years.
In Ohlund's case, his total salary in the first four years of his deal was $18.5 million, $4.08 million more than his cumulative cap hit of $14.42 million.
If Ohlund, who turns 37 on Monday, retired before this season, that cap "advantage" would be distributed equally over the final three unused seasons of the deal, creating a $1.36 million annual cap hit.
That actually is the lesser of two evils.
If Ohlund retired, the Lightning would not have to pay the final $6.75 million on his contract. If he does not retire, Ohlund gets that money and the team continues to deal with a $3.607 million cap hit.
Tampa Bay, though, will not push Ohlund to call it quits.
It would be one thing if his injuries were from, say, water skiing. But Ohlund, who had partial replacement surgery on his left knee in February 2012 to try to save his career, is a casualty of the game. And the contract was signed in good faith.
Because teams cannot buy out an injured player, perhaps the Lightning can find a job for Ohlund, though he has been understandably reluctant to take a position coaching teammates.
Whatever the outcome, it is entirely in Ohlund's hands.
NO WORRIES: Lightning prospects today finish a three-game tournament in Coral Springs. Coach Jon Cooper said don't read too much into the results. And he should know.
Cooper, then coach of Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate in Norfolk, was behind the bench in 2011 when Lightning prospects went 0-3 at the same tournament and were outscored 15-6.
Norfolk, which was full of players at the tournament, went on to win the 2012 AHL Calder Cup title and had a 28-game winning streak to boot.
"At the time, I think we used the word demoralizing," Cooper recalled. "I'll tell you right now, after that tournament, I thought, 'Oh, my God, we might not win a game in the American league.' "
So, what is the prospects tournament good for? "It introduces the organization on a competitive, almost systemwide level, to the players," Cooper said. "Ultimately, we want these guys to put their best foot forward (at training camp), and this puts them in that position."
Prospects tourney: The Lightning rode a five-goal second period to a 7-4 victory over the Predators on Saturday. Seven players scored for Tampa Bay: Nikita Nesterov, Tanner Richard, Nikita Kucherov, Vlad Namestnikov, Drew Olson, Danick Gauthier and J.T. Brown, who had an empty-netter.
Goaltender Eric Brassard started but left late in the second period with an upper-body injury after making 19 saves on 21 shots. There was no update on his condition. Kristers Gudlevskis had seven saves on nine shots in relief.
Tampa Bay plays the Panthers today.