TAMPA — The Lightning front office was quiet all of Tuesday, and with just over 12 hours remaining before the start of free agency, it appears likely that Ondrej Palat will test the market. TSN insider Pierre LeBrun tweeted that’s what he was “hearing” as well.
The Lightning have had multiple discussions with Palat’s representation, but a deal has not materialized. Palat, a core member of a Lightning team that has been to four Stanley Cup finals and six conference finals in the past eight seasons, should draw interest from several teams as one of the top two-way wings available when free agency opens at noon Wednesday.
Palat ranks second in franchise history in postseason goals and is third in the league among active players in playoff game-winners.
It’s not to say that the Lightning can’t still re-sign the 31-year-old, but given the team’s salary-cap crunch, he’ll likely receive a better multi-year offer elsewhere.
This year’s free-agent crop is rich in forwards and is also expected to include Calgary wing Johnny Gaudreau, Florida center/wing Claude Giroux and Colorado center Nazem Kadri.
After trading defenseman Ryan McDonagh, the Lightning have about $5.9 million in cap space and aren’t looking to unload another veteran contract to free up more.
If Palat doesn’t re-sign, the Lightning will have to dig deep for some bargains to replace him, as the team’s blue line will need restructuring with McDonagh gone and defenseman Jan Rutta, the team’s other unrestricted free agent, also potentially leaving.
Last offseason, the Lightning had to fill big holes in replacing their entire third line — Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow — and made savvy team-friendly free-agent signings by giving two-year contracts to forwards Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare for an average annual value of $1 million each.
The Lightning are also prioritizing keeping young core players like forward Anthony Cirelli and defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak in Tampa Bay beyond next season, when all three become restricted free agents.
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