TAMPA — Nick Paul remembers the moment he felt part of the Lightning.
The forward’s head was still swirling, trying to digest a March trade from Ottawa to Tampa Bay, where he had to adjust to a new team in the middle of a push to the postseason.
About two weeks into his time with the Lightning, while the team was on an up-and-back road trip to Washington, he went to dinner with some of his new teammates, including many of the veteran leadership group.
“There’s like eight of us, and they just made me feel so comfortable,” Paul said Friday after forgoing unrestricted free agency to sign a seven-year, $22 million deal to stay with the Lightning. “I just started telling jokes. I wouldn’t say (I was) quiet but just kind of feeling my way around. Then I started getting my personality going a little bit, and it just made me feel really at home.
“It was like I was going for dinner with everyone for the last two years. There was no judgment. There was no feeling of not fitting in. It was just a good connection. They were telling jokes. I was telling jokes. It just felt like family, like I’ve known them forever.”
As the Lightning try to keep together a group that took the franchise to a third straight Stanley Cup final this year while maneuvering through their salary-cap constraints — with Paul’s signing, the Lightning are more than $5 million over next season’s $82.5 million cap, according to NHL contract website CapFriendly — comfort might be their best negotiating tool.
Before Paul was traded to the Lightning, he reportedly declined a four-year, $10 million deal from the Senators. At that point, Paul, in his seventh season with the Ottawa organization and who turned 27 right around the trade deadline, figured he’d bet on himself and test free agency after the season.
After being dealt to the Lightning, Paul did all he could to raise his stock under the playoff spotlight, showing versatility and skill beyond what the Lightning expected.
“I had never played in the playoffs before,” Paul said. “I’m on a new team. I want to show that I’m good, but the calmness and trust and confidence that they have in you just kind of eases your nerves a little bit and you get back to playing hockey. It’s just something that I’ve never felt before, and it was awesome.”
Paul likely could have received more than the $3.15 million annual average salary he got from the Lightning in this deal. Compare that with the six-year, $29.4 million deal ($4.9 million average) that former Lightning wing Blake Coleman received from the Flames in free agency last offseason.
The Lightning’s ability to make new players — whether free-agent signings or trade acquisitions — feel at home is nothing new. It’s a part of their winning culture. They preach that they’re a family. The bond among the players makes them push harder for each other when things get tough in the postseason.
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But it also gives general manager Julien BriseBois negotiating power, and it should help in his attempts to retain the team’s two remaining potential unrestricted free agents, wing Ondrej Palat and defenseman Jan Rutta.
“It’s a busy time of the year,” BriseBois said Tuesday. “It’s a challenging time of year. It’s a somewhat exhilarating time of the year, and hopefully we can catch some breaks here and get some good contracts signed.”
Palat has been part of the Lightning’s core group since 2013-14 and has been to four Stanley Cup finals with Tampa Bay. Coach Jon Cooper is the only coach he has had professionally, dating to the AHL. Cooper knows better than anyone how to place Palat in situations to succeed.
Palat, 31, has been one of the Lightning’s top playoff performers. He scored 11 goals this postseason and 27 over the past three playoff runs. His 12 winning goals in the playoffs are third most among active players. But Palat would be the first to say that his success is a by-product of playing on lines alongside great players such as Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point.
Rutta, who turns 32 on July 29, is coming off his most productive season since his rookie outing four years ago while finding his niche playing yin to Victor Hedman’s yang. He is a dependable right-shot defenseman who can cover the ice while Hedman freestyles in the offensive zone.
BriseBois likely will have to unload a veteran player or acquire an inactive player’s contract, as he did with defenseman Brent Seabrook last offseason when sending Tyler Johnson to the Blackhawks, a move that allows the Lightning to go $6.875 million over the cap for the next two years through long-term injured reserve.
It won’t be easy, but at least the Lightning have sentiment on their side.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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