Mar 6, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan (24) skates on the ice prior to the game against the Buffalo Sabres at Tampa Bay Times Forum. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Callahan: To Sign or Not to Sign?

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Like everyone else in Lightning land, when news came down that Martin St. Louis (known also as He Who Shall Not Be Named) was indeed being traded to the New York Rangers, there came a very long, and very powerful moment of despair for me. In hindsight, the Lightning did well in the deal, nabbing a couple of good picks for a thirty-eight year-old. And also, nabbing Ryan Callahan.

Of course, to most of us, the picks were the important part of the deal. Callahan’s contract is up at the end of the season and his demands have been labeled everything from outlandish to psychotic.

At the time of the trade, he was asking the New York Rangers for something in the neighborhood of $6.5 million, while the Rangers were offering just north of $6 million. Rumor has it, the two camps got within a couple of hundred thousand of each other, but when they couldn’t agree on a No Trade Clause, Rangers’ GM Glen Sather pulled the trigger on the deal and sent Callahan packing.

And to Lightning fans, the world had effectively and suddenly ended.

That was then. Now that Lightning fans have seen Callahan with some regularity, and now that we’ve seen what he can bring to the team, and also, it must be said, now that we’re so sour on Marty St. Louis that we are, yes, revelling in his current struggles in New York, it suddenly feels like we might just have won the trade both in the long-term (which we knew) and in the short-term (which none of us would ever have guessed).

While St. Louis has struggled to find any offense in New York, Callahan has been a model of consistency in Tampa Bay. He’s scoring, hitting, digging for pucks in the corners, and there are times when it feels like he’s the only guy on the team giving it his all. Reports say he’s very popular with both his teammates and the coaching staff.

But there is still that obstacle. The fly in the ointment.  The contract. In order for Callahan to remain a Lightning beyond this season, and thus graduate from “rental player” to “core player,” the Lightning are going to have to pony up some serious dough. And also, some serious years.

It’s the years that might prove the bigger obstacle. Callahan apparently refused to budge from his demand of six years when negotiating with the Rangers. For many Lightning fans, this is where we have to dig our heels in. We’re currently burdened by one good contract gone bad, Ryan Malone‘s, and, let’s not forget, the wounds of the Vincent Lecavalier debacle are still pretty fresh.

And then there’s the money. Callahan is still reportedly asking for something north of $6 million, but the Lightning may get a discount on that because there is no state tax in Florida, and therefore, Tampa dollars are worth a little bit more than dollars in most NHL cities. On top of that, it would appear that Callahan is enjoying his time in Tampa Bay. He’s meshed instantly with his linemates, Val “Flip” Filppula and Ondrej “Dr. Drej” Palat, the fans have embraced him, and Jon Cooper has already made him a key part of every situation’s drawing board.

So the question becomes: to sign, or not to sign.

Let’s assume the Lightning can get this deal done for six years at $six million per. Fellow Lightning fans, I think this is one of those moments where we just have to bite the bullet and get it done.  Contrary to reports out of New York, Ryan Callahan is a $6 million dollar player. There have been nights since his arrival where he’s been the best Bolt on the ice, and he’s never been worse than the fifth or sixth best in any given game. In the immortal words of Teddy KGB: “Pay him. Pay that man his money.”

Of course, there’s no telling what kind of player Callahan will be in six years. His playing style, admittedly, does not exactly forecast a long and healthy career. Callahan plays with a sense of recklessness that you don’t see a lot these days. He turned 29 this month and has already struggled with injuries in his career. What will he be like at 35?

Here’s where the “biting the bullet” part comes in. I think the Lightning have to sign Callahan knowing full well that there’s a good chance he’ll be a shadow of his current self by years five and six of the contract. It could well look a lot like the current situation with Ryan Malone. But all of that, in my opinion, is trumped because of one thing Ryan Callahan brings to the table that is going to be vital to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s success in the coming years.

Leadership. Callahan sets an example on the ice. And you can see that it’s contagious. There are nights when the team is flat, and one shift from Callahan turns things around. With a plethora of skilled prospects breaking onto the main roster, both now and in the years to come, it’s imperative that someone teach them that skill alone isn’t enough to win in the NHL. Want proof? See Edmonton.

To win in the NHL, you need to work. Every night. Personally, in the coming years, whenever I see Jonathan Drouin or Nik Kucherov or Brett Connolly have a bad shift, I want them to be able to look on the ice and see the kind of effort a guy with half their skill is giving. And I want them to see what he can make happen with a limited skillset and a limitless supply of heart. And then I hope it rubs off on them.

The truth of the matter is this: the cap is going up. Today’s $6 million contract is not equal to tomorrow’s. Each year’s free agents are worth more than the previous year’s free agents because someone is willing to pay them more. If you think Ryan Callahan is too expensive right now, wait until 2017 and see what that kind of player is bringing in.

Offensive production is great, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of a hockey player. Callahan might never score 60 points with the Lightning (then again, he might), but he brings intangibles that no one else on this team is bringing right now. We’re better with him than without him. And, even more importantly, there’s no way we can replace him.

So pay him.  Pay that man his money.

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