Chris Kontos, who got the Tampa Bay Lightning off to a bang with four goals in its NHL debut, probably will be playing for another team next season.
The left wing was not among nine forwards the Lightning protected for Thursday's expansion draft.
"It was kind of like a bomb," Kontos said. "But my career never has gone easy."
Despite missing 18 games with injuries, Kontos finished with 27 goals, second only to Brian Bradley's 42, and 51 points, third best on the team.
Even if Kontos is not selected by either the Florida Panthers or the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, contract problems likely will keep him off the Lightning roster. Kontos, 29, was the lowest-paid regular on the team last season at $150,000. The Lightning has offered a larger contract, but it still would leave him among the team's lowest-paid players. The two sides apparently are about $100,000 apart.
"I would have hoped I would never be leaving Tampa," Kontos said Monday. "I love playing there. I felt I did a lot for the club and would be part of the nucleus coming back. I don't know why they are so down on me."
Kontos, who has spent parts of eight seasons in the NHL, said he was willing to take less money than he thinks he deserves to play for the Lightning. But he said he doesn't want to be at the bottom of the team's pay scale.
Lightning general manager Phil Esposito was not available for comment Monday, but he has said the team's offer was fair.
Kontos signed as a free agent last July after spending the previous two seasons away from the NHL. The Lightning expected him to play for its farm team in Atlanta. However, Kontos had four goals and five assists in training camp and earned a spot in Tampa. His scoring touch continued into the regular season. After 21 games, he was among the league leaders with 19 goals.
But in his next 35 games, he cooled off with eight goals and 20 assists before a knee injury sidelined him for the team's last 16 games.
Lightning coach Terry Crisp said contract difficulties did not play a part in the decision to leave Kontos unprotected.
"The biggest reason is we got (Petr) Klima to fill a void on offense, and we still have Bradley," Crisp said. "There are certain types of players (not physical) that we have enough of. We didn't want to lose a Marc Bureau because of his grinding style."
The Lightning is trying to get bigger and stronger in preparation for its move into the Atlantic Division (the former Patrick Division plus Tampa Bay and Florida, minus Pittsburgh).
"Chris worked hard and did a good job for us," Crisp said. "But we (coaches and management) were almost in common agreement who to leave off. And we still might not lose Chris."
At goaltender, Crisp said the Lightning protected J.C. Bergeron, 24, because they think he has the best chance to develop.
"He's an untapped resource, while we've seen a lot of Wendell (Young) here and in the league. Same with (Pat) Jablonski," Crisp said. "But we don't think they'll take our goalies. It's not a slight on our goalies in the least, but there are more established goaltenders available."
The Lightning likely will lose a combination of the following: Kontos, Randy Gilhen, Tim Bergland, Dennis Vial and Eric Charron. Each team can lose two forwards but only one defenseman or goalie.
One player Crisp hopes will not be selected is Bergland, a physical right wing who played 27 games for the Lightning with three goals and three assists.
"He was coming on strong," Crisp said. "I hope he slips through."
Players the Lightning will protect for the NHL expansion draft Thursday:
Goaltender: J.C. Bergeron.
Defensemen: Bob Beers, Marc Bergevin, Shawn Chambers, Joe Reekie and Donald Dufresne. (One- or two-year pros, including Roman Hamrlik and Chris LiPuma, are exempt).
Forwards: Mikael Andersson, Brian Bradley, Marc Bureau, Danton Cole, Adam Creighton, Rob DiMaio, Petr Klima, John Tucker and Rob Zamuner.