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Tampa Bay Lightning now must pay for its success

He is standing in a hallway, no more than 10 yards away from the visitors locker room at TD Garden in Boston. The clock nearby shows 11:20 p.m., no more than 40 minutes after the end of Friday night's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.

And yet Guy Boucher is already talking as if his team, as if the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Lightning, is forever out of his reach.

"It hurts because what you feel you lost the most is a family that is very special. Because you know what's going to happen now," Boucher said. "It's going to be, 'How many guys come back?' And, 'Who's heading where?'

"That's the nature of the NHL."

And it is the nature of success.

When a team is going poorly, you can't wait for the offseason to arrive so you can begin chasing hope with a new roster. And when a team is going well, the offseason is that frightening interlude when contracts and salary caps conspire against you.

In this case, Boucher has reason to be wary.

The Lightning may have generated tremendous momentum under new owner Jeff Vinik, but there is little doubt that this roster will change in the coming months.

Now there is certainly a chance the changes will be positive, but the odds are less appealing when you're dealing with a more successful team.

Tampa Bay, for instance, has a half-dozen or more key free agents and another handful of restricted free agents. And that doesn't even include age creeping into the conversation.

So is it true the Lightning had some space to maneuver under the salary cap? Yes. And is it also true the team's accountants were ecstatic over the additional revenues that eight home playoff games at the St. Pete Times Forum generated? Yes.

Even so, Boucher is probably reading the tea leaves correctly when he anticipates some changing of nameplates in the locker room.

For example, both of his goaltenders (Dwayne Roloson and Mike Smith), his best defenseman (Eric Brewer) and two of his better forwards (Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim) are free agents. Not to mention his leading goal scorer (Steven Stamkos) and another of his top-six defensemen (Mike Lundin) are restricted free agents.

What does it all mean?

That general manager Steve Yzerman's second summer on the job might be more challenging than his first.

A year ago, subtractions were not a concern in Tampa Bay. Free agents left, and no one cried. Yzerman dealt defensemen with bloated contracts, and everyone cheered.

This time, it will be different. Gagne will probably move on. Brewer will be an expensive re-sign. Bergenheim's bargaining power increased dramatically in the postseason.

So where, exactly, does Yzerman begin?

I imagine getting Stamkos signed is the top priority. He is 21 and has averaged 48 goals over the last two seasons. That puts him in rare company in NHL history.

He might not command the $9 million a season that Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are making, but somewhere in the $7 million range is probable.

Figuring out the goaltender is also high on the list. Roloson was a huge part of Tampa Bay's postseason success, but he will turn 42 early next season.

Do you sign him and hope Cedrick Desjardins is still your goaltender for the future even with his shoulder injury? Do you go outside the organization and look for another goaltender? Or are you convinced Smith has finally turned the corner and go with him?

Once you figure out those two decisions and have some cost-certainty with Stamkos and the goaltender, then the other pieces start falling in place.

The good news is Yzerman showed a knack for matching talent and value in contracts in his first summer as GM. (Dan Ellis being the obvious mulligan.) In a one-week stretch, he signed Marty St. Louis to an extension, re-signed restricted free agents Lundin and Teddy Purcell, dumped Andrej Meszaros' contract and signed Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark.

Later, he added Dominic Moore and Bergenheim for bargain deals, traded for Gagne and re-signed restricted free agents Steve Downie and Nate Thompson.

That type of creativity will be required again. It is hard to see how all of Tampa Bay's free agents will fit under the payroll umbrella, so Yzerman will be forced to pick and choose and then supplement from outside the organization.

It's not comforting to think about losing players from a team that accomplished so much in 2010-11, but it's better than at least one alternative.

Not caring whether the players stay or go.

Tampa Bay Lightning now must pay for its success 05/29/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 29, 2011 9:30pm]
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