Mar 22, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning players center Valtteri Filppula (left) and right wing Ryan Callahan (left center) and defenseman Sami Salo (6) and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) talk before a face-off against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

NHL Free Agency: The Best Time of Year

The National Hockey League Free Agency is the best time of the year.

This is the best time of year in the NHL. This is the time of year in the NHL that champions are determined. No, it isn’t the Stanley Cup Playoffs which now have the New York Rangers facing the Los Angeles Kings for the Stanley Cup. You see, this is the time of year that the NHL GM earns his money.

The free agent period, the resigning phase, the NHL draft are all happening in the next few weeks. High stakes decisions will be made, some with the promise of a brighter future and others with the potential consequence of a lost job.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vice President and General Manager, Steve Yzerman has a busy summer ahead of him.

Despite the successful season that exceeded expectations, despite having a first round home ice advantage, the Bolts were swept in four by the Montreal Canadiens. The disappointing first-round exit ensures Yzerman has his work cut out for him this off season.

Just as the playoffs were to start, veteran forward Ryan Malone was arrested in Tampa for a DUI. If that wasn’t bad enough, “Bugsy” as Malone is known, was also carrying cocaine at the time of his arrest. Ironically, he is not particularly known for his on ice speed.

If convicted, Malone could face up to five years in prison. If there is an out clause for Yzerman, he needs to take it.  If the contract has a clause that holds Malone to some morals standard which his arrest could void then Yzerman must break ties with Bugsy.  Rid the team of a $4.5 million dollar salary cap hit and rid the team of a 34 year old winger whose best days are behind him. If Yzerman is able to do this, the Lightning will be $27 million dollars below the cap ceiling and will have the room to make some impactful moves this summer.

After making the final decision on Malone, Yzerman has to pull out all the stops in resigning Ryan Callahan. Coming over to the Bolts in the Marty St. Louis trade, Callahan made a great impression on the Tampa fan base. His grit was on display on both offense and defense. He brings strong leadership to a team that had the youngest average age in the playoffs at 26.4 and the fifth youngest team overall in the NHL. Twelve players of the 23 man playoff roster saw their first playoff action this year.

Callahan can and will bring a steady influence on the youngsters on this team. With Jonathan Drouin expected to make the final roster next season, veteran leadership provided by Callahan and new captain Steven Stamkos will be highly beneficial.

The free agency period begins with the interview process from June 25th through the 30th. The Lightning have some weaknesses that were exposed by the Canadiens in the playoffs – most notably the lack of speed on defense. Yzerman has to start earning his newly renegotiated paycheck by signing one or two free agents.

The free agent that appeals to me the most among defenseman is Matt Niskanen from Pittsburgh. He is 27 years old and has plenty of playoff experience. A plus/minus of 33 is impressive especially with 21.3 minutes of ice time per game. Yzerman needs to make a strong bid to get this guy, as he’d be an ideal addition to the team.

Then it is on to the draft at the end of June in Philadelphia. As for the draft, the Lightning have a great opportunity to add some talent. With the New York Rangers making it into the Eastern Conference finals, the Lightning secured New York’s 2014 first round draft pick as part of the Callahan-Marty St. Louis trade.

To go along with their own draft pick, they now have the #19 and either the #28 or #29 pick in the draft, depending on whether the Rangers win the Cup. This is where Yzerman continues to build the championship team he envisions.

This is definitely my favorite time of year. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the run to the Stanley Cup and will take my hat off to the team that takes it home. However, the moves teams make beginning now through the start of pre-season will determine who we will be watching this time next year.

Steve Yzerman has built not one but two gold-medal winning Olympic teams and won multiple Stanley Cups as a captain for the Detroit Red Wings. I am anxious to see the moves he makes this summer for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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Tags: NHL Free Agency Ryan Callahan Steve Yzerman Tampa Bay Lightning

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