Lightning free agency questions: Joe Pavelski, a defenseman, both or neither?

Tampa Bay has been talking to Joe Pavelski and is still in talks with Brayden Point.
Free agent center Joe Pavelski is a veteran skilled at tipping and redirecting pucks. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)
Free agent center Joe Pavelski is a veteran skilled at tipping and redirecting pucks. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)
Published June 28

TAMPA — The Lightning has questions to answer as free agency opens at noon Monday. Most involve center Brayden Point and Sharks center Joe Pavelski.

Tampa Bay has interest in Pavelski, who spent a couple of days in Tampa during the free-agent interview period last week.

He was spotted at lunch with general manager Julien BriseBois and was given a tour of the practice facility at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. He also visited Dallas and is still open to returning to San Jose, Canada’s TSN network reported.

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He is a dominating net-front presence, one of the best in the league, and that’s something the Lightning doesn’t truly have.

“If we’re inviting players to visit us, it’s because we are interested in bringing them into our organization,” BriseBois said. “At that point, it’s more us selling ourselves than their having to sell themselves.”

What would it take for the Lightning to sign Pavelski, who turns 35 July 11?

The Sharks, with whom he has played his entire 13-year career, paid him $6 million last season, the final one in a five-season, $30 million deal. Presumably he’d like a raise, though the salary-cap-crunched Lighting could use the lower cost of living in Tampa and the lack of state income tax to mitigate that some. As for contract length, the Lightning would likely want to sign him only for a few years, given his age.

Tampa Bay has $10.6 million of available cap space and the ability to exceed the upper limit of next season’s $81.5 million cap by up to $5.8 million if Ryan Callahan goes on long-term injured reserve because of his degenerative back problem.

Most of the cap space will go to re-signing restricted free agents. Point is likely to re-sign in the $8 million-a-season range. The Lightning made qualifying offers to Cedric Paquette, Adam Erne and Danick Martel. If all three sign at the minimum qualifying offer, that would be about $2.6 million total.

That doesn’t leave BriseBois much room to negotiate with Pavelski. Perhaps the non-financial pieces — location, term, potential to win — could make a difference.

BriseBois said the Lightning wasn’t really a player in free agency the past few years because the free agents didn’t feel like the right fit, be it for age, contract or what the team already had.

“This summer is a little different,” he said. “We’re looking at different things, trying to find ways to improve our team because we think there are opportunities out there to make that happen. Maybe it happens; maybe it doesn’t.”

Though Pavelski would address an opening on the Lightning’s roster, there’s the question of whether that would be the best use of limited funds. Tampa Bay’s needs are sharper on defense.

Six defensemen return with the re-signing of Braydon Coburn, so the team needs one more. At this point, it looks like Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi will leave in free agency. Stralman may not want to take the pay cut the Lightning likely asked for. He’s rated highly on most free agency rankings despite his age (he turns 33 Aug. 1) and injury issues.

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The Lightning has its top two defensemen in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. It has promising young blue liners in Erik Cernak (22) and Mikhail Sergachev (21). It needs someone else in the middle, maybe someone in the $3 million range.

Complicating that, the Lightning likely is losing two right-handed shots and would likely prefer to add one. Not a lot of right shots are available in free agency.

Jordie Benn, coming off a strong season with the Canadiens, and Patrik Nemeth, a shutdown defenseman pushed out of the Avalanche by young talent, could be of interest. Both are left shots.

Ben Lovejoy, a Stanley Cup winner with the 2015-16 Penguins, doesn’t have a lot of offensive output, but scoring isn’t something the Lightning lacks. But he is 35 and even at a projected cap hit of $1.5 million, according to analytics website Hockey Graphs, the Lightning might want to look younger.

The biggest piece of free agency for the Lighting is Point. He has earned a big contract coming out of his entry-level deal, but the question is exactly how much. Will this a long-term contract, like the Lightning got with Nikita Kucherov, or just a bridge deal to get Point to unrestricted free agency.

BriseBois pointed to the natural schedule of signings, in which restricted free agents tend to sign last. First the focus in on the draft, then on retaining your own free agents, then signing other unrestricted free agents, then arbitration-eligible restricted free agents, all by nature of set dates and deadlines in the NHL calendar.

As much as BriseBois would like to get a contract with Point done soon, and thinks Point and his camp probably want the same, restricted free agents coming out of their entry-level contracts don’t have a true deadline for signing. BriseBois and Point’s agent, Gerry Johannson, met in Vancouver during last week’s draft, but all BriseBois shared about the meeting was the he had tea while Johannson drank coffee.

“We have ongoing dialogues, and I’m confident we’ll eventually get something done,” BriseBois said.

This isn’t just between the Lightning and Point, though. The restricted free agent market is waiting for its place in the schedule and holding its breath while the Maple Leafs and Mitch Marner negotiate. That contract could set the bar at which everyone else falls into line.