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Trade rumors can weigh on NHL players as deadline approaches

With next Monday's deadline looming, Lightning players shrug off speculation from "armchair GMs."

WASHINGTON — Tyler Johnson was as good as gone.

Or so it seemed.

The scuttlebutt around last year's trade deadline was that the Lightning center could be the piece headed elsewhere to land a top-four defenseman. Maybe Nashville? St. Louis?

Then there was the summer, when Johnson was linked in trade rumors, partly due to the fact that he was going to be a restricted free agent and warrant a hefty, long-term deal.

Johnson, 27, saw all of the speculation. If he didn't, he heard from his parents or his buddies back home in Spokane, Wash.

But GM Steve Yzerman helped put Johnson's mind at ease in conversations before signing him to a seven-year, $35 million deal in July.

"(Yzerman) came up to me and said, 'Don't worry about all of that,'" Johnson said of the trade rumors. "I saw all that stuff, and I know that nothing is real, there's really no smoke there at all. But people, for whatever reason, still try to talk about it."

It is the silly season, with rumors running rampant leading up to next Monday's trade deadline. Players' names are tossed around on blogs, Twitter, TV and yes, in the Tampa Bay Times. Some are credible. Others are crazy.

"Everybody's name gets thrown out there," Lightning wing Ryan Callahan said. "Twenty rumors. One hit."

What sometimes is missed is the human element.

When Callahan was acquired by the Lightning at the 2014 deadline, he had to scramble to coordinate with his wife, Kyla, on how they'd uproot their family. Defenseman Braydon Coburn was awakened in the middle of the night of his March 1, 2015, deal from Philadelphia to Tampa Bay. His wife had gotten up to check on their then 17-month-old son and saw all the missed calls and texts.

"She said, 'Time to wake up,'" Coburn said. "A million thoughts run through your head."

Brian Boyle's wife, Lauren, was pregnant in Tampa last February when he got shipped to Toronto as a cap-related move.

As much as players say they try to block out all of that uncertainty, it can still take a toll, on them and their families.

"Whenever your name is on the block, it's a little tougher to go to work every day," said veteran wing Chris Kunitz. "You feel like you're under the gun. I'm sure guys are feeling like that throughout the week.

"If you're one of those guys being talked about, hopefully you're getting a chance to play for someone that is contending. You should be getting ready for that push."

Kunitz was playing for the Ducks on Feb. 26, 2009, and was at the team's morning skate in Boston when he was told to come off the ice. He had been traded to Pittsburgh.

"It was a shock," Kunitz said. "You learn hockey is a business."

It worked out wonderfully for Kunitz, who won the first of three Cups with the Penguins that summer. The Lightning is a Cup contender this season, but could use a boost on its blueline (and possibly) the bottom six.

But if Tampa Bay is going to make a move, it could be costly, with Yzerman noting you have to "overpay on an overpay" at the deadline. The current roster could stay in tact if the Lightning can snag a rental defenseman like the Red Wings' Mike Green or the Blue Jackets' Jack Johnson for a late first-round pick in this June's NHL draft.

But if you're talking about getting the likes of a Ryan McDonagh (Rangers) or — dreaming big — Erik Karlsson (Senators), the tight Tampa Bay dressing room might lose a teammate or two.

Yzerman has, at times, approached players like Johnson to shoot down rumors. "I'm not going to lie to the player," he said. He'd rather break the news to players of trades, but has noted it's more difficult to do with the 24-hour news cycle and social media. "I don't know how it gets out," he said. "We've made trades where we haven't even contacted the league."

Johnson's name is one that could surface because top-six caliber centers are coveted, plus the no-trade clause of his seven-year deal kicks in this summer. Johnson, who is in a career-long 16-game goal drought, said he's not going to worry about it until a credible call actually comes.

"I think everyone thinks, 'What if?' " Johnson said. "But at the same time, all it is is, 'What if?' There are so many armchair GMs making all these trades. They have zero idea what's going on. A lot of people that have 'inside sources' never heard anything in their life.

"You just have to keep playing your game and keep doing what you can. We might go into the deadline without doing anything to our team. And we'd be happy with that. We like the guys here; we have the guys we want."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.

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