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Free agent prospects will be judged in light of expensive current, future contracts.

The Lightning has money problems.

It's not that new owner Jeff Vinik can't pay the bills, but expensive, long-term player contracts to which the team is committed have it in a bind.

Free agency begins Thursday, and Tampa Bay needs a No. 1 goaltender, a puck-moving defenseman and a top-six wing. But it is hamstrung by $139.525 million it owes five players whose contracts run a combined 28 years, a remnant of the previous ownership group.

"Realistically, it limits you," general manager Steve Yzerman said.

Add that center Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman are in for substantial salary increases when their entry-level contracts expire in one and two years, respectively. And add a proposed contract extension for wing Marty St. Louis, and Yzerman said he likely will take a cautious approach to free agency.

"To pay a huge premium on July 1, we're not in a position to do that," he said.

"We have more flexibility in shorter-term deals to keep us competitive, to make us more competitive for a year or two going out. But we have to be prepared with some of the contracts we have coming up with some of our younger guys."

The long-term commitments to forwards Vinny Lecavalier and Ryan Malone, and defensemen Mattias Ohlund, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker were signed the past two years under former owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie and former general manager Brian Lawton.

Each player underachieved, and Yzerman said he plans next season to evaluate the cost effectiveness of all players and their contracts to see if they fit in.

Assume added scrutiny for the most expensive deals.

"I don't want to just sit here and do nothing for the next year and evaluate," Yzerman said. "At the same time, there are decisions I have to make. I have to keep in mind that core group, that we have to keep commitments to them going forward and keep the (salary cap) space open."

"It's a tough puzzle," Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill said. "But that's where you have to have patience. You have to give yourself a year to kind of work through it.

"The big decision is, who are your core guys? If they're not the right guys, then you have to move them, and that's not easy to do."

Especially, Penguins general manager Ray Shero said, when extended, expensive contracts are involved:

"I like shorter contracts. You've got entry-level guys making entry-level salaries who are going to jump into their second contracts at a higher level. You have to plan for that, and that flexibility helps you move bodies. It's harder to move contracts."

What will Yzerman do during free agency? It's tough to tell, as there is no word on how close his budget for player salaries will come to the $59.4 million cap for next season.

"We have to be careful with any contract," he said.

"I want to try to improve the team every year. That's my job. But I'm not going to do anything in the short term that jeopardizes what we have to do two, three, four years down the road."

When Yzerman hopes the money problems are solved.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at

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Contract breakdown

The Lightning's long-term contract commitments:

Player Years left Salary

Vinny Lecavalier.....10.....$75 million

Mattias Ohlund.........6.....$21.25 million

Ryan Malone............5.....$19.5 million

Andrej Meszaros......4.....$18.25 million

Matt Walker............3......$5.525 million

Total..............................$139.525 million