Is Alex Killorn’s departure from Lightning as a free agent inevitable?

If the career-long Bolt hits the open market on Saturday afternoon, Tampa Bay will have a hard time keeping him.
Lightning left wing Alex Killorn has score 25 or more goals in three of the past four seasons and has missed just four regular-season games over the past eight seasons.
Lightning left wing Alex Killorn has score 25 or more goals in three of the past four seasons and has missed just four regular-season games over the past eight seasons. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published June 30|Updated June 30

TAMPA — The Lightning’s clock on re-signing forward Alex Killorn is ticking, and the closer the team gets to Saturday’s noon opening of free agency, the more likely it becomes that Killorn will wind up wearing another sweater next season.

Killorn can be an unrestricted free agent at noon Saturday without a new deal with the Lightning. He has never tested the free-agent waters in his 11-year NHL career.

Though both parties believe Killorn, who turns 34 in September, wants to remain with the Lightning for the rest of his career, it might not be in the cards due to the team’s salary-cap constraints. This time a year ago, the Lightning had to watch another well-loved homegrown forward, Ondrej Palat, move on in free agency because of cap issues.

Still, the effort to keep Killorn has been one of general manager Julien BriseBois’ top priorities. The Lightning reportedly offered Killorn this offseason a deal with longer term and a lower average salary but were turned down. Killorn is coming off a seven-year deal with an average annual value and cap hit of $4.45 million.

“Like I stated publicly, I really want Alex to stay, as does our organization,” BriseBois said on Wednesday. “All of us want him to stay. He’s a big part of our organization, has played a huge role in the past, but more importantly with regards to his decision, could continue to play a significant role for our team if we’re able to sign him.

“Alex has stated publicly as well that he has a very strong preference to play for the Lightning and continue his career here and end his career with us, which is what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

As a rare player who has improved his all-around play and remained healthy as he has gotten older, Killorn likely would be rewarded in free agency. Add a Stanley Cup-winning pedigree that many teams look for and an unspectacular 2023 free-agent market, and he could draw plenty of interest.

He has maintained that he loves being in Tampa and has long boasted about being the franchise’s longest-tenured player. He was drafted in 2007, one year before the Lightning took Steven Stamkos first overall.

But with the Lightning up against the $83.5 million cap — they have just $7.325 million in available space with only 17 players under one-way contracts — they have a lot of holes to fill. It helped them to trade forward Ross Colton, who was due a significant raise as a restricted free agent, this week. But it still would take an impressive money crunch to keep Killorn and fill out the roster.

NHL statistics website Evolving Hockey has predicted that Killorn would receive a six-year deal with a $6.778 million average annual value in free agency.

Killorn is coming off a 27-goal season, a career high, and has scored at least 25 goals in three of the last four seasons (the outlier being the abbreviated 56-game regular season in 2021-22). And he has been impressively durable, missing just four regular-season games over the past eight seasons.

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“I think there’s a lot of things,” Killorn said after the season. “I did a different job this year analyzing my game, watching video, making sure I was getting better, something that I just started doing this year working with certain people.

“Obviously, as you get older, a lot of the times guys get hurt or they slow down. You still think the game pretty well, and just your legs and your injuries kind of hold you back. I feel like I haven’t had that in terms of injuries, and I feel like I’ve become a better skater, which is kind of weird for a guy at my age, but there’s certain things I’ve done to do that.”

In addition to his scoring ability, Killorn possesses a strong two-way game that allows him to play heavy. He is a strong forechecker who wins puck battles and maintains offensive zone time. His frequent teaming with Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel made as good of a 200-foot line as the Lightning have had dating to the playoffs two seasons ago.

Killorn also can be a key contributor on both special teams, taking up space in front of the net and digging out pucks on the first-team power play while also contributing minutes on the penalty kill. That’s something not even Palat, who last year in free agency signed a five-year deal with the Devils with an average annual value of $6 million, did for the Lightning.

All that likely points to the end of his career in a Lightning uniform, unless BriseBois can pull off some magic before noon Saturday.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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