Every NHL General Manager has a blueprint or vision about how they would like to construct their roster with the goal of being a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman is arguably one of the top GM’s in the National Hockey League today. He has earned this reputation after his blueprint has had the Lightning within a few games of hoisting the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons, despite his club dealing with numerous injuries, player personnel issues, and trade demands in a non-traditional hockey market. For fans, the offseason has become the time of year where they shift from pretending what they would do as a player or coach and transition to the perspective of fantasy sports. The continued popularity of sports video games and their “franchise” modes have now allowed even the common fan to get a small taste of what the general manager experience might be like, as they tinker with rosters, utilize salary caps, and jump into free agency to build their own virtual dynasty. Tampa now faces many off-season questions about what the team will look like going forward due to the nature of several key players in the Lightning’s foundation in line for a significant raise. If I was the Lightning’s general manager, these are the core pieces of the foundation I’d construct the team around going forward. I rank them in order of importance to the foundation. For the sake of this article, let’s assume the players listed wish to sign long term in Tampa for the estimated market/projected salary.
1. Victor Hedman – Defenseman
Current Contract 2016-2017: $4,000,000+ $1,500,000 Bonus/UFA in 2017
Hedman has become everything the Lightning could have hoped for when they selected him with the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Coming into the league, he was known as a huge defenseman with an offensive streak, who scouts hoped would learn to use his 6’6’’ frame and skating to become a defensive stopper. After watching the last two years of Hedman’s development, it would be hard to say he isn’t one of the top defensive stoppers in the league along with his already above-average offensive skills on the blue line. Hedman finished with a 5.77 Defensive Point share, the highest of his career and 7th overall in the league. Many defensemen develop later in their careers, so for Hedman to arguably be one of the top three two-way defensemen in the league at the age of 25, it’s a perfect piece to start when building a foundation for a contending team.
Projected/Estimated Future Salary: $7-9 million per year
2. Nikita Kucherov – Right Wing
Current Contract 2016-2017: Unsigned/RFA
Any successful foundation needs a dynamic goal scorer on the wing who can change the game with a single shift. Kucherov is already that player and he’s only 22 years old. Kucherov, like Hedman, posted his best “offensive point share” of his career with a 7.2 putting him at 16th overall in the league. More importantly, he demonstrated that even without Steven Stamkos in the line-up, he could carry the offense during the playoffs where he scored 11 goals and finished sixth overall in points despite playing only three series and drawing most of the opponents’ top defensive pairings. The scary part for the rest of the league is how great Kucherov appears to be and he has yet to enter his prime. Locking Kucherov up long-term is a must if the Lightning wish to continue being a contender.
Projected/Estimated Future Salary: $6-8 million per year
3. Ben Bishop – Goalie
Current Contract 2016-2017: $5,950,000/UFA in 2017
Some people may disagree or believe it to be a mistake putting Bishop as part of the Core 6, let alone the 3rd most important player in that foundation. However, I’ve already shown a more in-depth analysis in a previous article why Ben Bishop is superior to his younger back-up Andrei Vasilevskiy. A dominant goalie can single-handedly carry a franchise to a Stanley Cup, so any foundation must include a great option in net. The Lightning have that dominant presence in Bishop. A Vezina Trophy finalist, Bishop led the league in goals against at 2.06 per game in the regular season and is a luxury for a team with a depth of offensive talent as long as they keep him. Age is not a factor, as many NHL goaltenders play well into their mid to late 30’s, allowing the Lightning to commit to him long-term without a fear in decline of play. The only real question marks about Bishop are his injury history and potential huge salary cap hit they’ll have to take to keep him. Great goalies cost money, and the Lightning have one in Bishop, so it is money well spent.
Projected/Estimated Future Salary: $7-9 million per year
4. Steven Stamkos – Center
Current Contract 2016-2017: Unsigned/UFA
Many fans and pundits believe the Lightning will choose to move on from their captain and perennial All-Star, who will enter unrestricted free agency this offseason. However, if you take Stamkos at his word, it sounds like he wants to finish what he started with his teammates in Tampa Bay. Despite having an uneven regular season that was eventually cut short due to a blood clot, Stamkos still managed to post an 7.3 Offensive Point Share (OPS) putting him at 15th in the league overall, following the previous year that saw him finish 6th in the league with a stellar 8.6 OPS. Stamkos is still only 26-years-old and capable of putting up 50+ goals, which is not something easily found around the league. The worries over his contract I think are mistaken, as retaining two 20+ goal scorers like Palat & Killorn would likely cost close to what it would take to keep Stamkos in Tampa. Anyone watching the Pittsburgh Penguins hoist another Stanley Cup this year understands a team may get you to the playoffs but your all-stars like Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby are what help you hoist the Cup. Stamkos is the most dynamic offensive player currently on the Tampa Bay Lightning, and his veteran leadership going forward would be a huge asset for a team looking to capture another Cup for their franchise.
Projected/Estimated Future Salary: $9-11 million per year
5. Jonathan Drouin – Left Wing
Current Contract 2016-2017: $832,500/RFA in 2017
If you had told me four months ago that Jonathan Drouin would be a critical piece of the Lightning’s future and foundation, I may have questioned your sanity. What a difference a couple of months makes, as Drouin embraced the team culture that Yzerman and Head Coach Jon Cooper have built in Tampa Bay. Drouin took the Stanley Cup Playoffs by storm, scoring five goals and notching nine assists while providing a needed offensive spark to a Lightning offense looking to fill the void left by Stamkos’s injury. The 21-year-old prospect showed why the Lightning did not give up on him, despite the tumultuous regular season that saw him wind up back in the minors for most of the regular season. Drouin’s cap-friendly number (he’s currently making less than $1 million and is under team control for the next three years), coupled with his amazing puck handling ability, quick skating, and tremendous vision, make him an extremely valuable piece to build around. He can potentially fill the talent void and maybe exceed it, when one of the Lightning’s wingers eventually goes via free agency or trade. The thoughts of Drouin developing alongside Kucherov or being linemates with Stamkos should have Lightning fans excited and the rest of the league extremely nervous.
Projected/Estimated Future Salary: $3-4 million per year
6. Tyler Johnson – Center
Current Contract 2016-2017: $4,000,000/RFA in 2017
Johnson nearly didn’t make the list of the Core 6 due to his injury-riddled and underachieving 2015-2016 regular season performance. Johnson only managed to tally 14 goals and 24 assists through 69 regular season games. However, his previous two seasons saw him top 20+ goals, including a stellar 7.7 Offensive Point Share last season, ranking 10th in the league, which can hardly be written off as a fluke. Johnson’s ability to create his own shot and facilitate on the power play make him a valuable 2nd line anchor. Another reason Johnson is essential to the Lightning’s core going forward is his youth, with the potential to still get better at a relatively decent price. Coming off a down season, the Lightning could potentially be able to get a hometown discount to keep him long-term, allowing for some salary cap relief for a talented young player who normally would not do so. If Johnson can return to his 2014-2015 form or even exceed it, he would round out a team that can absolutely compete for a Stanley Cup title every year they can stay healthy and stay together.
Projected/Estimated Future Salary: $5-7 million per year
Projected/Estimated Future Salary Cap Hit For Core 6: Low Side $36 million to High Side $48 million
2016-2017 Possible Estimated Salary Cap: $71.4 million to $74 million
Factors Considered When deciding Core 6:
Age, performance, potential vs. ability ceiling, difficulty in finding a potential replacement at the same position, and contract vs. the salary cap considerations were the main methodology in determining the Lightning’s possible foundation going forward. The projected and estimated future salary calculated by taking positional averages for five players in similar age, experience, and performance.
*All statistics compiled from hockey-reference.com and all salary information compiled from spotrac.com
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