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Top Offseason Stories to Watch: Looming Decisions on Free Agents

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman knows that the only thing that stands between the team and its rights to hold on to its restricted free agents this summer comes down to dollars and cents.

Or, better yet, dollars and sense.

With the July 1 free agency period looming, stamping an expiration date on several players’ contracts, the issue is forcing Yzerman’s hand to make judgments about what players fit into the team’s future plans.

Among those with restricted status include Keith Aulie, Brian Lee and Brendan Mikkelson, all defensemen no older than 25 who joined the Lightning at various points throughout this past season via trades. More importantly, each is thought to be a key component of a young defensive core that is built for success at some point down the road.

For the Lightning, the blue line is an area in need of improvement, so if Yzerman is to continue going forward with his long-term plan of developing young players, he could extend each a qualifying offer to retain the individual’s respective negotiating rights.

However, the deals have to make sense in terms of what is in the best interest of the hockey club and its payroll, so Yzerman does have an out should he feel so inclined not to tender a player such an offer, thus rendering him an unrestricted free agent. Likewise, if the player rejects the offer which he is given, he remains a restricted free agent.

So, how much will it take to keep the blossoming young trio of defensemen?

That’s what the Lightning are currently trying to figure out.

Given the upside of all three, it would be ideal if the roster could remain intact. The Lightning may even have enough cap room to work it, as mid-summer projections from the web site indicate the Bolts will be approximately $22.5 million under next season’s salary cap.

But Yzerman, at least publicly, has not indicated which direction he wants to go. One consolation, however, is that unlike last summer’s speculation surrounding the submission of offer sheets from other teams to star center Steven Stamkos, a reoccurrence of that happening again with concern to the team’s current class of restricted free agents is slim to none.

No complaints there, as Yzerman did go on the record with Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times earlier this week to express his public dislike of the practice, all but ruling it out as a strategy for himself to lure attractive players away from an opponent.

Bolts D Brendan Mikkelson is among restricted free agents this summer. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

It is somewhat of an ill-advised tactic after all, resulting in two caveats.

First, a team is almost forced to overpay for the player of interest solely to avoid the individual’s current club from matching the offer, and thus placing a large, burdensome contract on the books.

But, if a club were to extend an offer sheet that contained the right value of a player, chances are that the other team would likely match it, and thus kill the offer.

Pretty much, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Even in the rare instance where offer sheets are accepted – Dustin Penner, who left the Anaheim Ducks for the Edmonton Oilers in the summer of 2007, is the only player to move by way of an offer sheet since the current collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2005 – they come with a hefty price that teams are often not willing to pay.

In return, the team losing the player must be compensated, which means the higher the offer sheet, the more draft picks, including first-rounders, go the other way. While the Lightning certainly have an ample number of picks through the first two rounds of this month’s upcoming draft to get a deal in the works, perhaps even for a potential No. 1 goaltender such as Vancouver’s Cory Schneider, it still doesn’t sound as if Yzerman would be willing to go that route.

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