Vinny Lecavalier always has said he wants to play his entire career with the Lightning.
But Tampa Bay's captain also understands the business of the game. That is why he is preparing for the possibility that the team will choose to buy out his contract.
"It's obviously something you think about," Lecavalier said. "At the same time, there's nothing I can do about it."
Such a move would be a chance for the Lightning to get out from under the annual $7.727 million salary cap hit — eighth highest in the league according to capgeek.com — that came with Lecavalier's 11-year, $85 million contract extension that took effect in 2009-10.
The mechanism is the compliance buyout, included in the new collective bargaining agreement to help teams manage a salary cap that next season falls to $64.3 million from this season's $70.2 million.
Each team gets two such buyouts to use this summer or next, with players receiving two-thirds the salary remaining on their contract over double the remaining years. The money will not count against the cap.
The buyout period begins 48 hours after the end of the Stanley Cup final until 5 p.m. July 4.
For the Lightning, which for 2013-14 already has more than $60 million in cap commitments and up to five roster spots to fill, it will be a time of hard decisions. For Lecavalier, 33, and other NHL players on teams facing cap pressure, it could be a time of trepidation.
"It's something that's really hard to think about, but you see it all the time in sports and business," Lecavalier said. "Sometimes there are changes. It's something you have to adapt to with your family and the city."
Ryan Malone, with two years left on a contract with a $4.5 million annual cap hit, also is a possible buyout target. Buying out the oft-injured left wing would go a long way to create much-needed short-term cap flexibility.
Buying out Lecavalier would be part of a longer-term strategy, and a seismic move, to be sure.
The center, with the Lightning since 1998 when at 18 he was the No. 1 overall pick of the draft, is an organizational icon with deep community ties. He also is one of two players — with Marty St. Louis — remaining from the 2004 Stanley Cup team.
That said, a buyout would save $54 million in cap space over the seven years left on his contract, significant for a non-playoff team that needs an overhaul on defense, still is figuring out its long-term goaltending needs and eventually will need a top-six wing to complement center Steven Stamkos.
"We understand this is a difficult contract," Lecavalier's agent Kent Hughes said of his client's deal, which has $45 million left over seven seasons and will pay $10 million in each of the next three. "There's nothing we can do to change that on our end given the restrictions incorporated into the collective bargaining agreement."
"Ultimately," Hughes said of a buyout, "it's a decision the Tampa Bay Lightning will have to assess and make."
How seriously is Lightning GM Steve Yzerman considering using a compliance buyout? "All I would say is we just finished 28th (in the league)," he said. "We should be looking at every possible way to improve our team. I'm not about to say we're doing this or we're not doing that. As an organization, we sit and debate everything."
Buyouts aren't cheap. The Lightning has two years left on a six-year buyout that pays Vinny Prospal $1.17 annually.
A Lecavalier buyout would cost $30 million over 14 years, $2.14 million annually. Malone is owed $5 million in the next two seasons, so a buyout would cost $3.35 million over four years, $837,500 annually.
That's a lot of money to pay people not to play. But if owner Jeff Vinik is willing to foot the bill, cap flexibility certainly would increase.
That said, losing Lecavalier would create a huge hole at center, a position at which the Lightning wants to add depth. That is why Malone's agent, Mike Liut, speaking generally, said teams might first try to trade a burdensome contract.
Malone would be easier to move because his remaining salary is relatively cheap.
Lecavalier has a no-move clause. His salary is steep. And because for the next four seasons his salary exceeds his cap hit, an acquiring team — under a complicated formula in the new CBA, and according to capgeek.com, which tracks such trends — would be subject to cap penalties if Lecavalier retires more than one year before his contract expires in 2020.
The "recapture" rule is part of the league's attempt to discourage long-term, front-loaded contracts set up to provide salary cap relief.
Under the same provision, the Lightning already faces penalties if Lecavalier retires early, even if he is traded, because his $10 million salary in each of the first four years of his contract exceeded his salary cap hit. Tampa Bay potentially faces higher penalties if Lecavalier remains with the team and the disparity between his accrued salary and salary cap hits widen, though if he fulfills his contract no penalties apply.
It is a dizzying array of factors.
"How is it going to work? Is it a good move, not a good move?" Liut said about buyouts. "I think some teams will have no choice but to move a contract. There will be lots of speculation. The media will make it interesting, for sure."