TAMPA — It's probably the biggest question this offseason for the Lightning:
Can Tampa Bay afford to sign restricted free agents Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin with its remaining salary cap space?
"I think we can sign all the players we need to sign," GM Steve Yzerman said.
I'll believe it when I see it. In a perfect world, the Lightning would retain Palat, Johnson and Drouin. They can be considered core players. Palat is any line's engine. Johnson is a gutsy and clutch, albeit often injured, one-time All-Star. Drouin is one of the most dynamic players in the league.
But this isn't a perfect world. It's a salary cap world. And it's hard to imagine the Lightning being able to sign all three to long-term deals, plus acquire a backup goalie and the top-four defenseman it has desperately sought. There's also Victor Hedman's extension kicking in next season (nearly doubling his cap number) and what Nikita Kucherov's next deal in two years will look like (hint: massive).
Signing Palat, Johnson and Drouin isn't impossible. But there are lot of moving parts and some work to be done. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights scouted the Lightning heavily late in the season, so Yzerman could try to create more cap room with deals leading up to the June expansion and amateur drafts (maybe moving a contract such as Jason Garrison's?)
Palat appears to be a sure signing, and it wouldn't be surprising if his deal is done first. Johnson wants to stay, calling Tampa Bay his "second home." But coming off a three-year, $3.3 million bridge deal, he will be looking for a long-term commitment. I think Tampa Bay will try to work something out, though the emergence of rookie Brayden Point gives the team a solid backup plan at center.
Then comes Drouin. The 2013 No. 3 overall draft pick is coming off a breakout 21-goal season. It would be very difficult to replace Drouin's playmaking skill set. Still, I wouldn't be stunned if the Lightning shops Drouin leading up to the amateur draft. It was rumored that Drouin was part of the package in the Lightning's January offer to the Blues for D Kevin Shattenkirk, who nixed the trade. And teams were kicking the tires on Drouin at this season's trade deadline (St. Louis, Nashville).
I don't like the idea of trading Drouin, but who else on this team would net a return of a top-caliber, right-shot defenseman? And don't count on Drouin taking a discounted deal to stay in Tampa Bay long term. Drouin's asking price could be a "five- or six- or seven-year deal at north of $6 million" per year, said Bob McKenzie, a reporter for Canada's TSN TV network.
My guess is Drouin's first long-term deal could come somewhere other than Tampa Bay.
SLAP SHOTS: The Lightning's trade-deadline deals of Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula were shrewd for salary cap purposes, the team ending the year with $644,500 in cap space, as opposed to a $1.19 million overage that would have to be carried into next year, the website capfriendly.com says. But I'm betting fans would trade that $1 million for a playoff berth. … Sounds like Hedman will play for Sweden at next month's World Championship, with D Anton Stralman potentially joining him as long as he gets medical clearance. … Love the video of former AHL Syracuse captain Luke Witkowski sweeping up ice shavings at a recent Crunch home game. … Cool to see that the U.S. women's team selection camp will be April 30-May 4 at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.