After taking care of their own free agents, the Tampa Bay Lightning may have as little as $6 million dollars to work with as they scan the free agent wire on July 1st.
Of course, that won't stop them from looking at acquiring talent.
Before we scan those UFA rosters, let's take a quick look at the Lightning players who could be dealt or bought out for cap room.
Potential Buyouts/Trade Away
Pavel Kubina, D - The Lightning stalwart had a decent season for the Bolts—but was he worth the $3.8 million the Lightning surrendered for his services? He's certainly not the player who scored 14 goals from the blue line in 2008. Is he still a NHL-caliber defenseman? Absolutely. Is he a top four commanding a multi-million dollar salary? Not so much.
Vincent Lecavalier, F - Vinny truly morphed into a Captain this season, showing grit and determination in leading his hockey team. Lecavalier became a complete player on both sides of the ice, really developing his game in his own end. Still, he gets paid to put the puck in the net and the sad reality is, Lecavalier is a shell of the player he once was. His 54 points was his worst in a decade. His 25 goals was an improvement over his previous season, but still no where near the 35-40 goals the team had come to expect out of him on a yearly basis.
If you had asked me two years ago if I would want to see Vinny moved, I would have told you absolutely not.
In fact, I railed against Frick and Frack (OK Hockey Group—the former owners of the Lightning) for considering trading Lecavalier after giving him that ridiculous $7.7 million-dollar-a-year 10-year contract.
In hindsight, they might have had the right idea. He's not that guy anymore. He may never be that guy again and, truth be told, his contract is severely hurting the franchise.
Vinny truly responded to a year of stability and he's a better hockey player now than he was the last few seasons. Unfortunately, he may be a luxury Steve Yzerman simply cannot afford.
Lecavalier does have a no movement clause, so it would be difficult for Tampa Bay to trade him or buy him out.
Mattais Ohlund, D - While he's played well for the Lightning, age is rapidly catching up with defenseman Mattais Ohlund. Ohlund can't skate with the elite players of the league any more. He's become a liability in the defensive zone against speedier teams and he certainly doesn't contribute much in the offensive zone. Ohlund is a top four defenseman and certainly deserves his salary at $3.6 million, but can the Lightning do better? This offseason, they just might.
Ryan Malone, F - The large bodied Ryan Malone showed his value during the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, becoming the harasser of many an opposing goalie in front of the net. Tampa Bay certainly missed him while he recovered from an injury in the stomach region. That's really been the big problem with Malone. His presence is felt when he's on the ice, but there's been far too many instances since his arrival in Tampa Bay where he wasn't there.
In his three seasons with the Lightning, his missed 53 games due to injury. He's seen his point production drop from 51 points in '07-'08 to just 38 points this past season. At $4.5 million a season, the Lightning may not see their return on investment.
So now we talk about potential targets the Lightning might acquire.
You'll notice Brad Richards' name won't be included here. While the Richards camp certainly has been making noise about wanting to come back to the Lightning, realistically, it's unlikely to happen.
Richards, even at 30 years old, is still a $7 million-a-year player and, unless the Lightning can move some money around (namely get someone to take Lecavalier's contract off their hands), the addition of Richards would put the Lightning too top-heavy at the forward position salary wise, with still too many needs to address.
So let's talk some more modest targets for the Bolts. We'll also assume the Lightning won't dip into the RFA pool.
UFA Forward Targets
Michael Ryder, Boston Bruins - Ryder was a pain in the Bolts' side during the Eastern Conference Finals, showing that even at 31 years of age he could still be an offensive force. Scoring 18 goals and 41 points on the season, he may not command the $4 million dollar salary he had last season for Boston, giving the Lightning a chance at an economical but talented forward.
Jussi Jokinen, Carolina Hurricanes - At 28 years of age, the former Tampa Bay Lightning player Jussi Jokinen is coming into his prime. After exploding for 30 goals for Carolina in '09-'10, Jokinen followed that up with a solid 18-goal campaign this past season. While he may never be a prolific scorer, Jokinen has proven he can be a second line producer and is likely going to command a nice raise over the $1.9 million he made last season in Raleigh.
Eric Cole, Carolina Hurricanes - After two injury-plagued seasons, Eric Cole played all 82 games for the Hurricanes last season. The increased playing time allowed him to return to scoring, putting in 26 goals and 52 points this past season. At 6' 2" 205 lbs, Cole could provide the Lightning a little size on the wing. If he stays around $3 million, he could definitely be an affordable addition.
Brooks Laich, Washington Capitals - One young forward who can expect to get a hefty pay raise is Laich. After earning $2.4 million last season in Washington, Laich should command at least $4.5 million on the open market. A steady 20-goal scorer who is just entering his prime at 27 years old, Laich would be an excellent addition on one of the top two lines.
Patrick Eaves, Detroit Red Wings - A guy who GM Steve Yzerman is very familiar with, Eaves could be a Dominic Moore/Nate Thompson-type restoration project. At just 27 years old, Eaves has plenty of good hockey ahead of him. Like Moore and Thompson, he's not known for lighting the lamp, but under Guy Boucher's system he could become a valuable asset.
What position should the Lightning address in Free Agency
UFA Defensive Targets
Ian White, San Jose Sharks - A young, solid defenseman for the talent-rich Sharks, White was a steady contributor in San Jose. With 26 points (four goals) and a +3 plus/minus, White could give Tampa Bay a younger (27 years old), affordable top six defenseman.
Anton Babchuck, Calgary Flames - Another young defenseman who could provide some value to the Lightning, the former Hurricane Babchuck showed some offensive touch with a combined 11 goals and 35 points with posting a solid +14 plus/minus. At 6'5" he would give Tampa Bay some size and, at his previous $1.4 million dollar salary, he can definitely be an affordable option to upgrade the blue line.
Joni Pitkanen, Carolina Hurricanes - If the Lightning want to dip their toes a little deeper in the defensive free agent pool, Carolina's Pitkanen is a great player to do it with. A solid two-way defenseman, Pitkanen had 35 points (five goals) for the Hurricanes last season and was second on the team (among defensemen with at least 50 games played) at a minus-2. It's doubtful he'd still command his $4.5 million dollar salary but, at age 27, stranger things have happened.
Steve Montador, Buffalo Sabres - If the Lightning want more of a veteran presence on their blue line, it's tough to argue with the likes of the 31-year-old Montador. He put up an impressive +16 plus/minus while contributing 26 points on offense. Coming off a season where he made $1.5 million, it's hard to imagine him doing much better than that in the open market.
Kevin Bieska, Vancouver Canucks - One player who just may be out of the Lightning's price range is the solid Bieska. The long-time Canuck and Grisby, Ontario native was an impressive +32 plus/minus while contributing 22 points on offense. After making $3.5 million this season, the 30-year-old can expect to command a lot more than that this offseason.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes/Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers traded for the rights of Bryzgalov in hopes of securing him before the July 1st deadline, but as of this writing they have not consummated a deal. If Philadelphia fails to sign him and he hits the open market, he will be the top prize in free agency. He won 36 games and posted a sparkling 2.41 GAA and .921 save percentage. He has mentioned an interest in coming to Tampa Bay, but there will be no discount—he'll command top money for his services. It's up to the Lightning whether they're willing to meet his price tag.
Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers - The other big fish in goaltending free agency is the extremely talented Vokoun. He put up solid numbers this past season, winning 22 games with a 2.55 GAA and .922 save percentage. Like Bryzgalov, Vokoun will likely command upwards of $6.5 million for his services. Are the Lightning willing to pay that price for a top line goalie?
Jose Theodore, Minnesota Wild - If the Lightning want a cheaper option, Theodore could be worth a look. He played well in limited action for the Wild, putting up a .916 save percentage and a 2.71 GAA. At 34, he's seven years Dwayne Roloson's junior.
Johan Hedberg, New Jersey Devils - Another potentially affordable option for the Lightning is Hedberg, who played well in relief of Martin Brodeur for the Devils. Hedberg had a 2.38 GAA and a .912 save percentage.
At most, this will be one of the most fascinating offseasons for the Lightning in recent memory.
Who stays? Who goes? Who arrives? We'll find out, starting July 1st.