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Count the Lightning among the league’s power brokers

In this Nov. 2, 2017, file photo, New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) skates with the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, in Washington. A jump in the salary cap should make for a more entertaining NHL offseason. Tavares and Senators captain Erik Karlsson could be among the high-end players on the move in the coming weeks. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
In this Nov. 2, 2017, file photo, New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) skates with the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, in Washington. A jump in the salary cap should make for a more entertaining NHL offseason. Tavares and Senators captain Erik Karlsson could be among the high-end players on the move in the coming weeks. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
Published Jun. 25, 2018

This could be a big week for the Lightning.

Tampa Bay is in the running for one of the best players in the game. Add him and the Lightning's chances of winning a Stanley Cup will go up exponentially. And its chances for next year are already pretty good.

The biggest fish in this summer's free-agent pool is listening to an offer from the Lightning. Islanders star John Tavares will listen to pitches from six teams other than the Islanders and the Lightning might have what it takes to land him.

This is huge.

Will Tampa Bay get him? Feels like a long shot, but at least it is in the game, along with the Leafs, Stars, Sharks, Golden Knights and Bruins.

Apparently the Sharks have the inside track. My guess is Tavares isn't going anywhere, that he will stay with the Islanders. But the Lightning certainly can make an interesting presentation.

For starters, it can bring in captain Steven Stamkos. He and Tavares are buddies from way back.

Meantime, the Lightning can offer Tavares something he has never really had: a team that's ready to win a Stanley Cup right now. Let him know about the beautiful weather in the winter. And don't forget to mention that Florida has no state income tax. All those things are what convinced Stamkos to stay and it might entice Tavares to come.

But the Lightning's pitch doesn't come without reservations.

Tampa Bay will have some serious payroll issues in the next couple of years. By the 2019-20 season, Stamkos will be making $8.5 million. Victor Hedman will be close to $8 million. Ondrej Palat will be at $5.3 million. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point will be restricted free agents. Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman will be unrestricted free agents. Rising stars Andrei Vasilevskiy and Mikhail Sergachev will a year away from being restricted free agents.

And that doesn't even count guys like Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson, assuming they aren't traded before then.

In other words, the Lightning will have a whole lot of players making a whole lot of money and it simply might not have enough dough to pay Tavares, who is going to want more money than both Stamkos and Hedman. (Hmm, wonder how that would go over inside the locker room?)

Ultimately, what it might come down to is the Lightning choosing between Tavares and Kucherov.

And if the Lightning can somehow squeeze both Taveras and Kucherov under the cap then that might mean parting ways with several other players, including Palat, Johnson, Killorn, McDonagh and Yanni Gourde. It also might risk losing Point and Sergachev some day.

If it did come down to Tavares or Kucherov, well, flip a coin. I think I'd rather have Kucherov, but you can't go wrong either way. Fans might be disappointed with how Kucherov finished the recent postseason (just one goal in final eight games), but don't let that cloud just how fabulous this player is. And he traditionally has been a good playoff performer with 59 points in 62 career postseason games.

Either (or both) would look good in a Lightning uniform.

But there's something else going on here even if the Lightning doesn't end up with Tavares. Just the fact that Tavares wants to talk to the Lightning is exciting for Tampa Bay.

See, the NHL has just a few marquee teams. That is, teams that create a buzz, get noticed, generate interest across the U.S. and Canada. They are teams that are typically in the news, in the middle of the action.

Those teams?

The Original Six (Leafs, Canadiens, Bruins, Red Wings, Blackhawks and Rangers) and toss in the Penguins. That's pretty much it.

Now add the Lightning.

First off, the Lightning has really big names. Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman and Vasilevskiy are superstars. Just last week, Hedman was named the league's best defenseman.

The Lighting also has an elite general manger in Steve Yzerman, one of hockey's all-time great names, and a top-flight coach in Jon Cooper.

And, of course, it's a marquee team because it consistently plays in huge games, as proven by three trips in the Eastern Conference final in the past four years.

And there's this: whenever a big name is a free agent or on the trade block, the Lighting's name always comes up. It's kind of like how the Yankees and Red Sox, Celtics and Lakers, Cowboys and Patriots always come up as ideal destinations in their respective sports.

Think back to last trade deadline. Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson was on the block and the one team that kept coming up was the Lightning.

And now Tavares is considering Tampa Bay, which might encourage other free agents to think of Tampa Bay.

It might not land him, but there's no question that Tavares wanting to talk to the Lightning is further proof that the Lightning is a marquee team and Tampa Bay is a top hockey market.

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