Five questions the Lightning must answer moving forward

While fans look back at the team’s collapse, management looks ahead to a future with a degree of uncertainty
One of the biggest offseason decisions the Lightning has to make involves right wing Ryan Callahan (24). A healthy scratch for a good part of the season, they can keep him and his leadership at $5.8 million or choose to trade or release him. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
One of the biggest offseason decisions the Lightning has to make involves right wing Ryan Callahan (24). A healthy scratch for a good part of the season, they can keep him and his leadership at $5.8 million or choose to trade or release him. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published April 27, 2019|Updated April 27, 2019

Almost two weeks removed from the culmination of the worst sports collapse in recent memory, we start looking toward the Lightning’s future.

The 62-win Lightning’s first-round playoff sweep by the Blue Jackets calls for answers about what went wrong. But Tampa Bay already has pressing issues for next season.

Here are the five biggest Lightning topics for the offseason:

How much will Brayden Point cost?

Brayden Point has established himself as one of the top two-way centers in the game, and his salary this season was $686,667. To say he’s due a raise is an understatement.

The 23-year-old can be a restricted free agent July 1. He wants to return. The Lightning wants him back. But what will it cost?

The Lightning and Point could land anywhere in the range of $6 million to $8.5 million a season.

He wouldn’t be the highest-paid player on the Lightning roster. Nikita Kucherov’s raise next season kicks him up to $9.5 million. Point probably wouldn’t pass Steven Stamkos at $8.5 million, but it could be close.

Point didn’t do much against the Blue Jackets (one goal), but few on the Lightning did, so that probably won’t hurt him. In the regular season he was often arguably the best skater on the ice.

Prediction: Point gets a big signing bonus to re-up and a salary averaging about $8 million annually.

How does the Lightning manage the salary cap?

Tampa Bay was roughly $1.5 million under the $79.5 million cap this season, and next season’s cap is projected to increase to roughly $83 million.

The Lightning has four players with multimillion-dollar contracts headed to unrestricted free agency: Braydon Coburn ($3.7 million this year), Dan Girardi ($3 million), Jan Rutta ($2.2 million) and Anton Stralman ($4.5 million). If all those salaries come off the books, nearly all of the total would go for scheduled raises for Kucherov, Yanni Gourde and Ryan McDonagh.

General manager Julien BriseBois needs to find money in other places to replace or bring back some of those defensemen and pay other pending free agents. Forwards Adam Erne, Danick Martel and Cedric Paquette are can be unrestricted free agents.

Ryan Callahan has played an important role on the team, particularly as a leader, but he was mostly a healthy scratch after the All-Star break, and the $5.8 million he is due next season — the last of his contract — is a lot to pay a player not in the regular lineup. He has a modified no-trade clause, but Callahan, 34, could be on the trading block or even a buyout.

There is a trade market for Callahan. He probably wouldn’t be the odd-man out among forwards on many teams with less depth. But given his price tag, the Lightning may have to retain some of his salary in a trade.

Tyler Johnson ($5 million), Ondrej Palat ($5.3 million) and Alex Killorn ($4.4 million) have modified no-trade clauses. J.T Miller ($5.2 million) has a modified no-trade clause that kicks in July 1.

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Prediction: The Lightning makes a couple of trades/cuts that hurts, including Callahan, but fills some holes.

What will the defense corps look like?

Four of the eight defensemen the Lightning finished the season with have expiring contracts: Coburn, Girardi, Rutta and Stralman. The other four are still under contract: McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev.

The Lightning likely lets Rutta walk. If Coburn, Girardi or Stralman — all of whom have families established in the Tampa area — is amendable, it might bring back one or more at a lower salary.

But Stralman is 32 (33 on Aug. 1), Coburn is 34, and Girardi turns 35 on Monday. The Lightning could use some younger defensemen, so it probably wouldn’t bring back all three.

Plenty of free agents are scheduled to come on the market. The biggest name is two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, 28, who has been linked to the Lightning in the past, but he would come with a large cap hit, and Tampa Bay needs to figure out Point’s contract before looking at free agents.

In the Lightning system, Cal Foote and Oleg Sosunov are promising young defensemen. The Lightning has been good about not rushing prospects, so opens spots wouldn’t necessarily mean one or both joins the NHL team.

Prediction: One of Coburn, Girardi and Stralman returns and the Lightning brings in at least one free agent in his mid 20s.

How much will the front office change?

Al Murray is one of the most underrated, least-known pieces of the front office. As director of amateur scouting, the development system, an organizational strength, goes through Murray.

So now that former GM Steve Yzerman is Detroit’s GM, there’s speculation he might hire Murray away. If he does, that would be a big blow.

Yzerman hired most of the Lightning staff and could want to keep working with some of them.

Another question is will BriseBois want to hire some of his own people. BriseBois took over as GM when Yzerman stepped down at the start of the season, and that’s not a good time to shake up the front office. Now BriseBois could decide to make changes.

The Lightning also may be looking at losing assistant general manager Pat Verbeek. Verbeek got permission to interview with teams in 2017. He and Yzerman have spent their whole management careers together. He could go to Detroit.

Verbeek also could stay. One of the few marks against him as a GM candidate is that he hasn’t managed a minor-league team. BriseBois spent this season managing the Lightning and AHL Syracuse, but he likely will want to put an assistant general manager in charge of the Crunch.

Prediction: Front-office changes won’t be numerous. Murray stays. Verbeek stays if he is the Crunch GM.

How does the Lightning get its stars to perform in playoffs?

This is perhaps the biggest question after two straight years of being eliminated in an embarrassing fashion.

Stamkos, Kucherov and Point have combined for five points in the Lightning’s past six playoff games, going back to the shutout losses to the Capitals in Games 6 and 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference final. Andrei Vasilevskiy has not been up to his two-time-Vezina-Trophy-finalist standard. Hedman and McDonagh were sloppy this year (though Hedman missed the final two games against the Blue Jackets with an injury).

This is also the hardest question to answer. Is a mental block affecting play in the playoffs? Does the coaching staff need to make adjustments? The answer probably involves a combination of the two.

The Lightning don’t necessarily need to have an answer in the offseason, but it needs one before its next playoff game.

Prediction: TBD next season.