Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Old regime's bad contracts limit Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman

Too many opponents to skate around. Too many bad contracts, too.

Too many physical shortcomings. Too many fiscal ones, too.

Too many nights when the team lacks balance. Too many days when the payroll does the same.

Pretty much, that's as good an explanation as any as to why the rest of the NHL has spent most of this season giving the business to the Lightning.

Is it possible the Lightning is paying now for overpaying in years past? Has the team's battle plan been swallowed by a wayward business plan? As the slow skate of a disappointing season continues, that seems as good a theory as any.

If last season's success was about possibilities, perhaps this season is about obstacles. The truth of it is general manager Steve Yzerman still has a lot of work ahead of him before this team can be the consistent challenger he wishes it to be.

There is talent to upgrade. There are bad contracts to work around. There is a minor-league system — where most teams get their affordable players — to develop. Until then, a lot of questions asked of Stevie Y will start out as "Stevie … why?''

Start with the bad contracts that have stripped this franchise of any flexibility. Call it Lawton's Legacy, or Koules' Last Laugh, or Barrie's Revenge. However you put it, the Lightning is still trying to work around some of the ghastly contracts the previous regime left behind.

For instance, there is the contract of defenseman Mattias Ohlund, who hasn't played a second this year for his $5.5 million. Not only that, but after this season, the Lightning owes Ohlund another $11.75 million over the next four seasons … even if Ohlund never plays again.

It never seemed reasonable to give a 33-year-old defenseman a seven-year contract. These days, it seems tragic, and there is no recourse. The Lightning can't even buy out the contract of a player who is hurt.

For instance, there is the contract of center Vinny Lecavalier. Good guy, Lecavalier. Nice player. But is he still worth $10 million a year, which he gets for the next four seasons (and $8.5 million the year after)? That was just an owner looking for a splash.

For instance, there is the $5.5 million contract of left wing Ryan Malone. To be fair, Malone's contract shrinks to the more-sensible $3 million next year, then to $2.5 million the next two years.

That isn't meant to excuse everything because this year should have been better and because other teams have bad contracts, too. But if the Lightning is to become a solid, contending team, working around the bad deals is a big deal.

The result is the team is skating uphill. Buying depth out of the discount bin is a hard way to succeed. Last year's run to the conference final proves it is possible to win that way, especially if you have stars such as Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, but that kind of winning is hard to maintain.

Sure, the Lightning needs a better goaltender and a better defense and better depth. Everyone can see that. Remember, though, that in the offseason, Steven Stamkos' contract doubled, and both goalie Dwayne Roloson and defenseman Eric Brewer got paid. Even if there had been a top-notch defenseman available, could the Lightning have paid him?

I know, I know. When it comes to sports, no one wants to talk about business. For crying out loud, we watch sports so we don't have to think about business. It's a lot more fun to applaud a winning goal than it is a new contract.

The problem here isn't that owner Jeff Vinik hasn't spent (the salary cap payroll is a shade under $62 million, about $3 million under the limit); it's that the previous owners spent recklessly, as if they thought they could toss a financial jigsaw puzzle into the air and have it look right when it landed.

It's simple math, really. If a team overpays for one player, it has less money available for the next one. And the one after that. It has left the Lightning scrambling for a new goaltender every year and for bargains to provide depth. You have to wonder how much that affected this season.

Now for the good news. Help might be on the way.

There are reports that in upcoming talks for a new collective bargaining agreement, owners might seek a form of contract amnesty, in which they could select one contract that they could buy out without salary cap impact. After all, a lot of teams have a lousy contract or two.

That could help the Lighting which, otherwise, has little choice but to wait for the calendar.

So, too, could the new emphasis on building a better farm system. For the most part, young players are cheaper players, and as such, they have less impact on the budget.

The thing is, young players take time. And old contracts leave a team with little recourse. The result is a team out of balance.

In other words, on his way to building a contender, Yzerman has more work to do than a lot of us realized.

Part of it is his team must learn to pay the price.

And the front office must remember how costly a wrong deal can be.

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