With just a few weeks left in the 2010 NHL playoffs and 26 teams already looking towards the 2010 summer offseason and free agency market, the buzz for much of the league has been reduced to mostly rumors.
But that doesn't mean the contract discussions aren't heating up around the league, and the "needs and wants" lists aren't already being compiled. With a large number of UFA's and RFA's coming to the last few months of their contracts with teams around the league, the July free agency market may not be crowded with superstars, but it is most definitely crowded with solid players.
In the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division, which only fielded one playoff team, Washington, who was shockingly eliminated in Round One by an upstart Montreal squad, the talks have been looking towards mid-summer for quite a while now.
While there aren't any major stars on the verge of a massive free-for-all free agency battle, it would still be quite an understatement to say the Southeast Division's five teams don't have much to deal with over the next four months.
The Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals, the five teams in the division, are prepared to deal with a whopping combined 45 unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and 33 restricted free agents (RFAs) this summer from their NHL and AHL squads. Those numbers are certainly enough to raise a few eyebrows...and get a couple general managers racking up the cell phone minutes.
So, as we inch closer to July and into contract discussions of teams eliminated from the playoffs, it's time to take a look at who's worthy of staying, which positions need help, and who's available to fit their liking for each of the five Southeastern Division teams.
Today, we'll examine the offseason position of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Although their 2009-2010 season was only a slight improvement over the dismal '08-'09 campaign, the addition of Steve Yzerman as General Manger just might make all the difference. However, it's not like the "Big Y" is going to be able to sit back and get used to the Florida lifestyle for the first few months while he's there. There's plenty of work to be done just re-signing current players, and likely to be more when Tampa gets ready for a makeover.
Tampa Bay's 2010 Free Agency Preview
2009-2010 Finish: 80 points (fourth in Southeast Division, 12th in Eastern Conference)
Notable UFAs: LW Alex Tanguay (age 29), LW Stephane Veilleux (age 27), C Zenon Konopka (age 28), RW Brandon Bochenski (age 27), D Kurtis Foster (age 27), D Mike Lundin (age 24), G Antero Niittymaki (age 29)
Notable RFAs: RW Steve Downie (age 22), RW Teddy Purcell (age 23), C Nate Thompson (age 24), C Blair Jones (age 22), D Paul Ranger (age 24), C Paul Szczechura (age 23)
The Lightning may not have a lot of big names on the market other than Tanguay, and even he's fallen a bit off the map, but their offseason issue is going to be keeping much of their prime-aged, lower-line depth players still in the Bay area.
Under new GM and vice president Steve Yzerman, a new tenure will be started in Tampa Bay. Long removed from their 2004 Stanley Cup Title, the Bolts have struggled more than perhaps any other franchise over the past three seasons. However, with several major rising superstars ready to (and, in some cases, already) taking over the team's youth movement, Tampa seems to be in a better situation than many.
"Steve Y" will enter the offseason signing period with about $17 million of cap space, and 13 possibly-departing players, although many of them will be relatively cheap to re-sign.
The first crucial issue arises behind Martin St. Louis on the right wing side, as the Lightning's three other RW'ers are all soon-to-be RFAs. Even though the oldest of Teddy Purcell, a trading deadline acquisition from Los Angeles, Steve Downie, and Blair Jones is only 23-year-old Purcell, all of them may be tougher than expected to hold on to.
With small cap space left under the salary cap, at least compared to many other teams, and with each one of those three likely anticipating earning at least $1 million per season with their next contract, it's uncertain whether the Lightning want to donate that kind of cash. A second, more proven, veteran presence that could be a more legitimate second liner than any of those three may be the way to go.
Possible ideas to fill that role may be one of Atlanta's Maxim Afinogenov or Evgeni Artyukin, both of which are in their late 20's and shouldn't be expecting an offer of much over $4 million for a three-year deal. Higher-paid, more experienced UFAs like Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi or Colorado's Marek Svatos may also be examined for the position.
If one of those players is brought in, that leaves Tampa Bay with two more remaining spots. If necessary, they could also try out right wing prospect Adam Hall, who had 41 points and a plus-7 rating in 79 games for the Norfolk Admirals, as a starter, but that may be a bit far-fetched for next season, at least. If I were betting, I'd expect Jones to be the most likely to go, but that would be a tough choice.
Moving on the left side, the Bolts are in a different, but just as important, situation. Although Ryan Malone is sticking around, along with Todd Fedoruk and Admirals player Jurej Simek, both Alex Tanguay, the headline UFA for the Lightning, and Stephane Veilleux are entering the unrestricted free agent market.
Tanguay's mere 37 points in 2009-'10, far removed from his young years when he put up three consecutive seasons of 75-plus points with the Avalanche, has now begun to make $2.5 million, one year deal with the Bolts seem like a major waste of money. On the other hand, though, there will still be plenty of interested teams, and the Bolts may be plenty happy to let him go without any further unexpected results from their harmful experiment.
Behind him, Veilleux may also be seeing the last of his days in Florida. Although he made only three-quarters of a million this past year, several team disputes and an severely unproductive nine point, minus-14 season may move the 27-year-old on to a new squad.
That leaves two spots on the top-four-forwards rotation empty. Although the UFA and RFA market have a few scattered players who might be able to fill these rolls, such as Alexander Frolov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, or even Dan Carcillo, it appears one of the two holes to be filled may be a possible place for a trade acquisition. However, who could be headed out in exchange? We'll get to that later.
Meanwhile, in the center of the ice, the Bolts have perhaps their least-needy unit to deal with. Since Steven Stamkos, also known as the Ovechkin, and Vincent Lecavalier probably aren't going to be going anywhere for a very long while, just a few lesser players remain waiting for a new deal.
Although neither Nate Thompson, Paul Szczechura, nor Zenon Konopka recorded a double-digit point total for the entire season, that trio is not only the extent of the Lightning's depth beyond Stamkos and Lecavalier, but are also all UFAs. Furthermore, Admirals scoring leader Ryan Craig is unrestricted as well, but since he's already reached age 27 and is still in the minor leagues, may not be a very hot commodity.
Frankly, Bolts fans shouldn't be surprised if only one of those three returns for 2010-2011. But someone is going to have to replace them, and it's going to be hard to find a candidate out of their AHL farm system. That means the jobs will be left to a couple newbies to Tampa Bay. While free agents Tom Pyatt, Jim Slater, Vladimir Sabotka, or Manny Malhotra could be considered, this is another place where a minor trade purchase could fit in.
However, from the looks of their pool of forwards, it's hard to find someone who might be a worthy trade bait. Thankfully, there's still the defense left to consider, and there are several blueliners who could be shipped for a decent handful of loot.
With D-men Andrej Mezaros and Victor Hedman both young and under contract for at least several more years, the focus can shift to their older group of talent.
First is Kurtis Foster, who had an incredible breakout year for the Bolts despite only earning $0.6 million. With Foster as a UFA, a lot (and I mean a lot) of GM's will be licking their chops over this cheap, 42-point-producing options, so the Lightning will have to negotiate quickly or pass him on to the competition.
Additionally, 25-year-old Mike Lundin is planning to become free on July 1st, and given that Lundin had a solid season, eventually moving up to the top defensive pairing, Yzerman may also want to try to strike a deal with Lundin as soon as possible.
This leaves Matt Walker, 29, and Matthias Ohlund, 32, left in Tampa Bay's starting-six defensive unit. Although both are signed through 2013 and 2016 earning $1.6 and $4 million per season, respectively, I figure both are good ideas to deal out.
Ohlund had been a stone-wall defenseman with the Canucks for six years before now, but his goal-less, 13-assist '09-'10 campaign was everything but what was anticipated from him. Similarly, Walker didn't really find his groove in Tampa, either, after coming in from Chicago.
The one issue that could make them hard to trade is their price, but I do expect at least a few teams could be interested in this definitely-capable defensive pairing, wrapped up in a gift box. Given that the Bolts are probably going to be looking for a solid third-line center and second-line left winger, their search query might yield some intriguing results.
The first team to jump out is the Carolina Hurricanes, where Ohlund and Walker would fit right in perfectly. In exchange, the Lightning might be able to get RW Sergei Samsanov and center Patrick Dwyer if they toss in a mid-round draft pick.
If the Bolts can put in even better pick, as in a first rounder or several mid-level ones, or a good prospect, several other squads might be interested. Phoenix's combination of winger Wojtek Wolski and centers Martin Hanzal or Daniel Winnik, Calgary's combination of left winger Niclas Hagman and center Daniel Langkow, or Dallas's duo of Brendan Morrow and Toby Petersen may all be available if Tampa Bay can throw a bit more in.
Supposing they do manage to fill their needy offensive spots through this trade, it would still open up a couple holes on the defensive end of things. While their farm system could be examined for a couple prospects ready for an NHL tryout, low-level, inexpensive free agent ideas like Ryan Parent, Alexandre Picard, Jay McKee, Martin Skoula, or Sami Lepisto are all worth talking with.
Finally, only goaltender remains to be examined. However, with Antero Niittymaki as an upcoming UFA and Mike Smith just becoming far too inconsistent, it might be time for a change. Niittymaki is only 29, so a new contract for him could work as an alternating starter, but either way, Tampa Bay is still going to need to bring in a second netminder.
If they added in Mike Smith to a trade, or bought out his contract, it might be able to free up enough cap space so that someone similar to Colorado's Peter Budaj or Edmonton's Devan Dubnyk.
All in all, Tampa Bay's situation is unflattering but more complicated than one could ever imagine. It's a good thing Steve Yzerman is here, or the Bolts' seemingly-quiet and on-the-rise roster might get dismantled like this season's management staff.
Check out other Southeastern Division team offseason previews (editors, please don't remove links)! Florida: Coming Soon
Check out other Southeastern Division team offseason previews (editors, please don't remove links)!
Florida: Coming Soon
All contract length and salary information, as well as upcoming free agents, courtesy of nhlnumbers.com. All positional information and statistics courtesy of nhl.com or msn.foxsports.com/nhl.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the Carolina Hurricanes as well as an avid hockey follower around the NHL. In his 20 months so far with the site, he has written over 195 articles and received over 140,000 total reads.
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