TAMPA — Aside from hoisting the Stanley Cup, Nick Paul couldn’t have asked for much more in his first taste of the playoffs.
And while the disappointment of not winning it all leaves the forward wanting more opportunities, staying with the tight-knit Lightning group for another year (or longer) is easier said than done. Paul will be an unrestricted free agent starting July 13.
“I obviously love it here,” said Paul, wearing a hat bearing the state flag during Tuesday’s season-ending interviews. “A free agent this summer, but Tampa is definitely a spot that I really enjoyed, and I liked the guys on the team. I don’t know where else to go from there. So right now, I’m speaking to my agent ... and he knows my thoughts. We’ll see.”
The Lightning again are facing a tough salary-cap situation, being forced to stay under the $82.5 million limit while also trying to find room to re-sign key unrestricted free agents like Paul, veteran forward Ondrej Palat and defenseman Jan Rutta — all players general manager Julien BriseBois said he’d like to have back.
Over the past 36 hours, BriseBois and the players’ agents have held preliminary discussions.
“We’re going to do our best and I know all three of them would like to stay here, and we’d like to keep them,” BriseBois said. “...We’ll know more in the coming days, weeks, but we’d like to bring those guys back to the team.”
Paul’s career-high 32 points in the regular season were a precursor to a prolific postseason. He tallied 11 goals and seven assists with Ottawa before joining the Lightning via a trade on March 20. He then logged another 14 points (five goals) with Tampa Bay, often moving up and down the lineup, especially as injuries piled up toward after the trade deadline.
Like many of his teammates, he battled through injury during the playoffs — specifically, a shoulder AC joint sprain during the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers and an MCL sprain during the Cup final against Colorado — but he still had five goals (nine points) during the run.
Some of Paul’s biggest moments came during the opening round against the Maple Leafs, which included a two-goal night at Toronto in the Game 7 win.
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When Brayden Point left the lineup at the end of the first round, Paul’s play elevated as a top-six forward. He also stepped up in the circle without Point and eventually Anthony Cirelli, who wasn’t taking any faceoffs after dislocating his shoulder in Game 4. Paul’s 44 faceoffs in the final two games against Colorado were the second-most on the team behind Steven Stamkos’ 58. He also played on the team’s second penalty-kill unit.
“I think we had a good read on him as a player (when we acquired him),” BriseBois said. “I think him getting to play in the NHL playoffs, which he hadn’t done before, allowed him to showcase how much of a gamer he is, and, if anything, that’s probably the quality that stands out to me. He’s a gamer, he fought through a lot of injuries for a long time, and was still playing at a really high level all the way up to that Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. It was really impressive.”
If Paul has it his way, he stays in Tampa Bay for at least another year with another good chance at a Cup run.
“I want to be in more playoffs,” Paul said. “...It was a lot of fun, not the outcome we wanted, but getting those playoff games under my belt and seeing how I fit in and seeing what that game is is definitely something I want to be back in and be a part of next year.”
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