BRANDON — Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois called Ondrej Palat on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the left wing was about to test free agency, to thank him for his years in a Tampa Bay uniform.
BriseBois knew retaining Palat would be difficult, but if there’s anyone who can maneuver cap space to keep a team intact, it’s BriseBois. But despite their best efforts, the Lightning had to part ways with one of the key pieces of their Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Late Wednesday night, after a busy opening day of free agency around the league, Palat was closing in on a five-year deal with the New Jersey Devils, according to ESPN and other news outlets.
BriseBois wanted to re-sign Palat, a core member since he became a full-time player in Tampa Bay nine seasons ago.
“We knew it was going to be hard from the get go,” BriseBois said Wednesday. “From before even the first conversation ... you have an idea of what he should be getting on the open market, you get an idea of the cap space I have available and all of the positions that need to be filled, all the holes that need to be filled.
“So I knew that was going to be challenging, but there was, I think, a very strong willingness on both sides to explore all the possibilities. So we did work with them until so we kind of ran out of ideas that were worth exploring.”
BriseBois said that by Monday afternoon, it became clear a deal with Palat wasn’t going to get done.
The Lightning also saw right-side defenseman Jan Rutta, the team’s other unrestricted free agent, receive a three-year, $8.25 million deal with the Penguins with an average annual value of $2.75 million, which is double what he made last season with Tampa Bay ($1.3 million).
“(Tuesday) night I was advised that he was going to go to market,” BriseBois said of Rutta. “Pittsburgh signed a really good player.”
Despite parting ways with Palat and Rutta, the Lightning were busy Wednesday, investing nearly $160 million on eight-year extensions for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, center Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Erik Cernak.
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The Lightning also signed defenseman Ian Cole (one year, $3 million) to help replace Ryan McDonagh as a left-side defenseman and signed forward Vladislav Namestnikov (one year, $2.5 million) to help offset the loss of Palat as a top-nine forward.
In the 33-year-old Cole, the Lightning get a big, physical defenseman who can kill penalties. He has been to the playoffs nine times in his 12-year career and won back-to-back Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. He will likely slot into the team’s third defenseman pairing on the left side.
“He’s played on really good teams year after year and been a big player on those teams, so he really kind of fit the mold of what we were looking for,” BriseBois said.
Namestnikov — who came up with the Lightning after he was drafted in the first round in 2011, playing for Tampa Bay from 2013-18 — provides versatility. He has the ability to play all three forward positions and BriseBois said he could play on any of the team’s the first three lines and contribute on both special teams units.
“The versatility, the familiarity, the price point, all of those elements kind of pointed us in his direction,” BriseBois said.
Wednesday night the Lightning added free-agent defenseman Haydn Fleury to a two-year, $1.525 million deal ($762,500 average annual value) to add blue-line depth.
The Lightning will use retired defenseman Brett Seabrook’s $6.875 million salary for long-term injury exemption to help them get under the $82.5 million cap for this upcoming season.
Palat certainly raised his free-agent stock during the playoffs — scoring 11 goals, tied with captain Steven Stamkos for the team lead. Palat scored 27 goals over the Lightning’s past three postseason runs and has 12 career game-winning goals in the playoffs, third most among active players. Palat’s 48 career playoff goals rank second on the Lightning’s all-time list, trailing only Nikita Kucherov (52).
He was a member of the Lightning core that went to four Stanley Cup finals and six conference finals in an eight-season stretch.
Palat first was a member of the famed “triplets” line along with Kucherov and Tyler Johnson. More recently, he skated alongside Kucherov and center Brayden Point on the team’s first line, and later with Kucherov and Stamkos during the postseason.
Palat defied the odds, going from the fourth-to-last pick in the 2011 draft to a two-time Cup champion who sits in the franchise’s top 10 in goals, assists and points. In January, Palat became the seventh Lightning player to reach the career 400-point mark.
“He’s going to go down at an all-time great Lightning player who was part of a lot of our winning,” BriseBois said.
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