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Peter Budaj is Lightning's most likely option for Andrei Vasilevskiy's backup

Peter Budaj, acquired from the Kings in the Ben Bishop trade, can be a free agent July 1. He says he’s interested in staying.
Peter Budaj, acquired from the Kings in the Ben Bishop trade, can be a free agent July 1. He says he’s interested in staying.
Published May 21, 2017

TAMPA — There are important tasks this summer for the Lightning in terms of keeping its own, with Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat restricted free agents.

But one position Tampa Bay needs to fill is backup goaltender to No. 1 Andrei Vasilevskiy. And if everything works out, it could be filled by the one who ended the season with the Lightning, veteran Peter Budaj.

Budaj, 34, acquired from the Kings in February in the Ben Bishop trade, can be an unrestricted free agent July 1. GM Steve Yzerman said on WDAE-AM 620 last week he'd be "very much interested" in bringing Budaj back.

And from what Budaj has told me, the feeling is mutual.

"I like it here a lot," Budaj said. "They're a great group of guys, great organization. The coaching staff, the trainers are awesome. Everyone is friendly. We'll see what's going to happen, but I would definitely be interested."

Keeping Budaj makes a lot of sense. There are no obvious internal options. Prospect Connor Ingram is entering his first year as a pro and is expected to play for AHL Syracuse next season. Veteran Mike McKenna, who has buoyed the Crunch's run to the Eastern Conference final, can be an unrestricted free agent. Kristers Gudlevskis can be a restricted free agent.

Budaj can still play (2.18 goals-against average last season). He won three of four starts down the stretch. He knows the backup role and is comfortable in it. If Budaj doesn't get a chance to start somewhere next season, you could see him back in Tampa. Several Lightning teammates went out of their way to rave about Budaj's work with Vasilevskiy.

"He's a true veteran player, true leader," goalie coach Frantz Jean said. "He's a positive guy, great guy to be around for (Vasilevskiy). (Budaj) helps him out. He's been around the league for so long, and (I) heard a lot of great things about him. He hasn't disappointed."

Slap shots

• Keep an eye on the Wild as a potential trade partner for the Lightning this summer. It will likely expose several quality defensemen in the June expansion draft. Might right-shot Matt Dumba be available? GM Chuck Fletcher, speaking in general, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "If someone's going to offer me a good deal right now, I'm all ears."

• Though Tampa Bay hosting the 2018 All-Star Game is not a done deal, both sides are confident something will be worked out. A conflict with Gasparilla weekend is part of the conversation. Tampa hosting a special NHL event is overdue. Its last was the 1999 All-Star Game. Next year's event would be a fitting reward for owner Jeff Vinik's role in the franchise's resurgence.

• GM Steve Yzerman said he sees RW Nikita Kucherov as an elite forward like Steven Stamkos. In a few years, Yzerman will likely have to pay Kucherov like Stamkos, maybe more. Kucherov, coming off a 40-goal season, has two more years left at a $4.76 million salary cap hit each. Stamkos has an $8.5 million hit. "We'll have to make sure we have the cap space available, assuming he continues on the career path he's on," Yzerman said on WDAE-AM 620 on Thursday. "I expect him to be even better. We'll be prepared for that when the time comes."

• The Lightning's biggest outside acquisition last summer might have been Benoit Groulx. The first-year AHL Syracuse coach has the Crunch in the Eastern Conference final, which began Friday with a 6-3 Syracuse win over Providence (Bruins). And Groulx has done so while losing a lot of his top players to Lightning callups during the season. Ask any of them and all credit Groulx with some part of their game. D Jake Dotchin said Groulx taught him how to move his feet and get shots through from the point. LW Adam Erne said Groulx helped his consistency. "He expects a lot. He's pretty demanding," Erne said. "He's tough on the guys, and it brings the best out of them."

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