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By Joseph Justice
Tampa Bay Lightning Writer
The Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting on about 6.5 million dollars in cap space at the moment. Not factored into that 6.5 million are the contract negotiations on Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Nesterov. Kucherov, coming off of back to back excellent offensive seasons is due a raise that should eat up most of that number. There are some additional variables in play depending on depth roster moves, but it appears safe to say that the Lightning will break training camp with little to no salary cap space.
This leads to speculation that the team will move a player to generate flexibility. The two prime points of speculation are Center Valterri Filppula and Goaltender Ben Bishop. But trades involving either player present serious difficulties. For now, let’s focus on the Filppula situation.
Valterri Filppula was signed to a five year deal as a free agent prior to the 2013-14 NHL season. The signing filled a hole in the lineup left by the buyout of Vincent Lecavalier. Slotted to spend the next five seasons as the second line center behind Steven Stamkos, he had a very good first season in Tampa. The problem came in the form of Tyler Johnson. It seems doubtful that anyone within the organization really knew how well Johnson would perform at the NHL level. During the 2014-15 season, Johnson essentially displaced Filppula from the primary role he was hired to fill. With a broad skill set, Filppula has performed admirably in many other spots within the lineup. But those roles have also resulted in a decline in his production.
The Filppula situation now has two major issues that will need to be addressed. The first is simply that he makes too much money for the role he is currently playing. The Lightning have quite a few natural centers on the roster, who should be able to fill in at a reduced cost. The bigger issue is that Filppula also holds a no-movement clause. The clauses usually present some difficulty for GMs in this situation, but the upcoming expansion draft makes matters worse. Filppula will have to be protected (along with fellow forwards Stamkos and Ryan Callahan), leaving only four additional front line slots available. At this point the value of that extra slot is an unknown, but if any other Lightning forward has a breakout year it could turn out to be very valuable. While Yzerman has proven quite adept when it comes to handling these clauses, Filppula holds all the cards here. So what options are out there?
Option 1: Play Filppula. Hey that’s an easy option. The guy is still a strong player who makes Tampa deep down the middle. He can slot in almost anywhere in the lineup and is generally an asset. It also may help re-invigorate his trade value. The past few seasons have shown that Filppula is one of Coach John Cooper’s most trusted players. If the Lightning are all-in for trying to win the cup next season, Filppula helps them in this regard. But it may come at a heavy cost next summer.
Option 2: Though usually a plan of last resort, is a buyout. It is difficult to imagine the Lightning taking this option any time prior to next summer. The Kucherov negotiation does appear to be moving slowly, but there should be enough room available to get him under contract without a buyout of Fillpula. The buyout would also be more palatable with only one year left on his contract. One does have to wonder how ownership would feel about this option since Filppula and Matt Carle represent two of Yzerman’s largest free agent acquisitions.
Option 3: After considering the buyout, a trade that involves salary retention is not the worst idea. While Filppula may still be capable of playing at the level of his contract, his previous season will have his value reduced in the eyes of many GMs. To this end a trade with any retention less than 2 million dollars would still be better than a buyout. The aforementioned No-Movement clause is a major issue here. With many rosters close to set, there are not many teams that can take on his contract at full value. Of those, almost none of them present a comparably competitive roster to the one in Tampa. The Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes could certainly use a quality forward but the NMC would probably stop those. Looking around the league, the two best candidates look to be the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Islanders. Both teams could use an additional center, and Filppula’s two-way ability should appeal to both coaches. The problem in Columbus is that they will want to shed a contract in return and that roster has some surprisingly bad contracts. So by process of elimination, the New York Islanders appear to be the best possible trade partner.
Filppula is remarkable similar to Frans Neilson who they recently lost in free agency and The Islanders should be eager to avoid a step back following their first playoff series win in over 20 seasons. Though his production was down last year, Filppula had four points in the five post-season games against New York making him better showcased for that team than almost any other in the league. If there is a chance of making a deal, this might be the best opportunity.
Which option the Lightning choose will probably depend heavily on the Kucherov contract. Until there is news on that front the smart money is on the Lightning sticking with Option 1.