The Lightning started their offseason moves by re-signing forwards Mitchell Stephens and Gemel Smith on Wednesday.
Bringing back young players — and those on reasonable contracts — will be important for the Lightning as they face a tight, $81.5 million salary cap.
Stephens, 23, who played seven games in the playoffs, signed a two-year, one-way deal carrying an average annual cap hit of $737,500.
Smith, 26, started the season with the Lightning but spent most of the year in the AHL. He signed a one-year, two-way deal. The team did not release its value; the league minimum is $700,000. A two-way contract means the player will receive a lower salary if he plays in the AHL.
Both players were due to become restricted free agents and would have been issued qualifying offers if the Lightning wanted to maintain their contract rights. By signing the players before the qualifying offer deadline, the team was not beholden to the same salary minimums.
A qualifying offer must be 110 percent of the previous year’s salary for players making under $1 million; Stephens and Smith fell under that category.
Stephens' $737,500 is a decrease from his three-year entry-level contract worth $919,166 a season. But he never made that amount, spending his first two seasons and half of this year in the AHL at $70,000. The lower salary could be a tradeoff for the one-way contract.
The Lightning issued qualifying offers to eight of their 11 remaining players due to become restricted free agents.
Center Anthony Cirelli and defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak highlight that list and will look for bigger contracts. The others receiving qualifying offers: forwards Alex Volkov, Mathieu Joseph, Ross Colton and Ben Thomas, and defenseman Dominik Masin.
The Lightning did not give qualifying offers to forwards Carter Verhaeghe and Dennis Yan, and defenseman Devante Stephens, which means they can become unrestricted free agents Friday. The Lightning could still re-sign them.
Verhaeghe, who played the whole season, is eligible for arbitration, and the Lightning wanted to avoid a situation in which they did not have control over the salary given their cap situation.
General manager Julien BriseBois called that the first of the hard decisions he has to make this offseason.