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Lightning GM working on balancing act

Steve Yzerman not giving up on season while planning for tomorrow

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- We boil down the NHL Trade Deadline to a binary decision: Buy or sell? We imagine a general manager studying the standings, calculating the odds of his team making the Stanley Cup Playoffs and reaching a tipping point.

But for Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, it wasn't that simple when he traded Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline on March 1. He didn't wait until a certain moment and decide to sell because the Lightning weren't in a playoff spot.

Yzerman had salary-cap issues to address no matter what, and though he considered the standings and the short-term impact, he took it one trade a time and acted when he found trades that fit for the longer term.

"We have a plan, but 29 other teams don't necessarily want to follow your plan, you know?" Yzerman said at the NHL general managers meetings Tuesday. "You've got to work within your plan and just try to make things work."

The Lightning came within two victories of winning the Stanley Cup in 2015 and one win of returning to the Final last year. Then Yzerman signed four key players: Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Video: Yzerman on Trade Deadline

The feeling entering the season was that the Lightning had the ability to win the Cup but needed to do it soon because of looming salary-cap issues. Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Andrej Sustr are pending restricted free agents and will want raises. Hedman's extension will boost his cap charge from $4 million this season to $7.875 million next season. Vasilevskiy's will boost his from $925,000 to $3.5 million.

The Lightning have been plagued by injuries and struggled more than expected. They were six points out of a playoff spot when Yzerman traded Bishop on Feb. 27; Bishop was a pending unrestricted free agent whom Yzerman wasn't going to re-sign with Vasilevskiy ready to take over as the starting goaltender. But Yzerman didn't just conclude the Lightning were unlikely to win the Cup so they had better get something for Bishop before he left for nothing.

"Ultimately the decision was made when I could find [a good trade]," Yzerman said. "What we were trying to accomplish was specific."

The Lightning needed to clear cap space to fit entry-level bonuses this season so they wouldn't carry over into next season. Bishop had a $5.95 million cap charge (all figures are from CapFriendly.com). Yzerman sent Bishop and a fifth-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for goaltender Peter Budaj, a seventh-round pick, a conditional pick and prospect Erik Cernak. He retained 20 percent of Bishop's salary and took back Budaj, a pending UFA with a $600,000 cap charge, but the net effect was clearing space, replacing Bishop with a goaltender who could back up Vasilevskiy at least for the rest of the season, and getting assets for Bishop.

Yzerman still needed to clear more space. Boyle had a $2 million cap charge. Yzerman traded Boyle to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 28 for forward Byron Froese and a conditional second-round pick, clearing more space and getting more assets for another pending UFA.

Then Yzerman traded Filppula, a fourth-round pick and a conditional seventh-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Mark Streit, whom he quickly flipped to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a fourth-round pick, all on March 1, deadline day. Filppula was signed for one more season at a cap charge of $5 million. In the end, Yzerman essentially traded Filppula and a conditional seventh-round pick for cap space.

Trading Filppula also freed up a spot on the protection list for the NHL Expansion Draft. Filppula, who had a no-movement clause in his contract, would have had to have been protected.

"Really, [Filppula's] trade is more about next year because he is signed for another year and we have our players to sign," Yzerman said. "Our decision was, 'OK, we have an opportunity to move him here. Do we want to do that now, or should we wait until the summer and do it?'

"We decided we have an opportunity now, so we should do it, because you don't know what's going to happen in the summer. Potentially we're in a position where we might have to move somebody else or might have to give up assets to move someone. We felt like we should exercise this opportunity now, and we did that."

Yzerman is not done making hard decisions.

"The cap is going to be an issue again for us next year," he said. "It will dictate some of the decisions we make between here and the start of next season."

But the Lightning are not done competing, now and in the future. Entering Tuesday, they were two points behind the New York Islanders for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, with two teams in between. Yzerman wants more leadership from Drouin. He wants more from players like Adam Erne and Vladislav Namestnikov.

"It doesn't mean we're just giving up on the season," Yzerman said. "We try to look at it and say, 'You know what, guys? We're still trying to make the playoffs here. We're going to try to win every night. You younger guys, you're going to get more opportunity. Take advantage of this opportunity.' "

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