After breakthrough season, Tampa Bay Lightning face tough off-season questions

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Tampa Bay Lightning players, fans and front office members probably woke up with some sadness in their hearts today after the team fell just a bit short of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. That being said, there probably weren’t many people who expected them to get this far in just the first full season for new GM Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher.

Yet there might be another reason many people around the franchise have heavy hearts this morning: the Lightning face some tough decisions going into this summer. On the bright side, Yzerman can put his stamp on this team with a ton of salary cap space. Various sources indicate that the salary cap ceiling will range from $60.5-$63.5 million, which would leave the Lightning with about $24-$27 million to work with and 9-12 roster spots to fill. On the not-so-bright side, some of the most important players from the 2011 playoff run (and 2010-11 regular season) need new contracts.

Let’s take a look at the many tough calls Yzerman and his staff face this summer.

Steven Stamkos (restricted free agent – previous cap hit: $3.725 million) – How much will the Lightning need to pay Stamkos, a 21-year-old forward who posted two 90+ point seasons, with 51 goals in 2009-10 and 45 in 10-11? If you ask me, the Lightning would have been better off signing him soon after July 1, 2010, before the league really started clamping down on “loophole” contracts with Ilya Kovalchuk. Don’t be surprised if Stamkos shoots for a Vincent Lecavalier-level $7 million+ salary cap contract, although Yzerman will probably try to point him closer to Martin St. Louis’ $5.25 million annual cap hit.

Either way, the days of getting Stamkos’ production for less than they pay Ryan Malone ($4.5 million) are over.

Dwayne Roloson and Mike Smith (unrestricted free agents – previously registered $2.5 million cap hits each) – Both of the goalies the Lightning started during the Eastern Conference finals will be unrestricted free agents on July 1. The 41-year-old Roloson won’t require a long-term deal while Smith will probably take a pay cut after failing to stick as a No. 1 goalie, so neither netminder should be super-pricey. Neither seem like iron-clad solutions in net, either, though. Will Yzerman opt to shoot for a free agent goalie such as Ilya Bryzgalov or Tomas Vokoun instead?

Simon Gagne (unrestricted – previously $5.25 million) – When healthy, Gagne is an asset, especially in the playoffs (12 points in 15 postseason games in 2011; 12 in 19 in 2010). The questions are: how healthy can the Lightning expect him to be and what kind of term is he looking for? At 31-years-old, Gagne could reasonably ask for a 5-6 year deal and get it (somewhere). I’m just not sure if Tampa Bay would be that place.

Teddy Purcell (restricted – previously $750K) and Sean Bergenheim (unrestricted – previously $700K) – Stamkos, Gagne and the goalies were predictable problems for Yzerman. How many people saw the red-hot playoff runs by Purcell (six goals, 17 points) and Bergenheim (nine goals, 11 points) coming, though? Bergenheim might make more money since he’s an unrestricted free agent and received more buzz from the hockey media (despite scoring six fewer points). Either way, their accountants probably feel more confident now than they did in April.

Eric Brewer (unrestricted – previously $4.25 million) – A lot of people thought Brewer was “done” before the St. Louis Blues traded him to the Lightning, yet he lead a shaky Tampa Bay defense in ice time with 25:42 minutes per game in the postseason. That’s about 3:30 more per game than the second leading skater, Victor Hedman. Brewer is likely to take a pay cut with his next contract, but he probably regained some bargaining power during the playoff run.

Others: Adam Hall, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Randy Jones (unrestricted); Mike Lundin and Matt Smaby (restricted).

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As you can see, the Lightning need to make some tough choices this summer. They also need to factor in the summer of 2012, too, as Victor Hedman, Steve Downie, Dominic Moore and other players will see their contracts expire at that time.

Ultimately, we’ll see if Yzerman can continue the momentum from a great first season in a much tougher second summer. Tampa Bay features plenty of firepower on offense, but have questions in net and problems on defense. It should be fascinating to watch what direction this team takes as the 2010-11 season approaches. We’ll keep you informed along the way.

Willie Desjardins to coach Team Canada at Olympics

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The past two Winter Olympics, Team Canada has been coached to gold by Mike Babcock, currently the NHL’s highest-paid bench boss.

But the 2018 Olympics in South Korea will be a very different animal. The NHL is not sending its players this time. When the Games are on, Babcock will be busy with his Toronto Maple Leafs.

So, today, Hockey Canada announced that Willie Desjardins, recently fired by the Vancouver Canucks, will be the head coach of the two-time defending gold medalists. Desjardins will be assisted by former Team Canada head coach Dave King, as well as Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft.

Sean Burke, who rose to prominence as a goalie in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics — which didn’t feature NHLers, either — will be Canada’s general manager. Burke will be aided by Martin Brodeur.

“This is an exciting time for Hockey Canada and for our National Men’s Team program, and it will be an exciting season for Canadian hockey fans,” said Tom Renney, Hockey Canada’s CEO. “The goal is always to field the best possible team in all upcoming competitions, including this February when we hit the world’s biggest sporting stage in Pyeonchang. The faces on our Team Canada rosters may be different than in previous years, but the expectations will be the same; with the addition of Sean, Martin, Willie, Dave, Scott, and Craig, we have assembled some of the best hockey minds out there to help us meet those expectations of on-ice success.”

Today’s announcement is yet more evidence, if you still required it, that the NHL isn’t bluffing about not sending its players to South Korea.

In an email to The Hockey News, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly refuted a report out of Russia that suggested the league had a backup schedule with an Olympic break in it.

“There is not an alternative schedule,” Daly wrote. “Having NHL Players participate in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games is not an available option. All of the international federations are planning appropriately for constructing teams that will not include NHL players. I anticipate there will be federation announcements in the coming days that should eliminate any and all continuing doubt or skepticism about the issue.”

The NHL released the 2017-18 schedule a month ago.

Related: Tampa awarded the 2018 All-Star Game, further dampening Olympic hopes

Preds expect answer from Fisher next week

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We should find out next week if Mike Fisher is going to retire or keep playing for the Predators.

Fisher, Nashville’s 37-year-old captain, is an unrestricted free agent. He confirmed last month that he was considering retirement. But first, he needed some time to think.

Yesterday, Preds GM David Poile said he expected an answer soon.

“I’m hoping to talk to him later this week to see where he’s at,” Poile said, per The Tennessean. “I’d say by next week, we should have an update.”

Fisher had 18 goals and 24 assists in 72 games last season, but then had just four assists in 20 playoff games as the Preds reached their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.

If Fisher re-signs, he’ll likely be in the bottom six next season, with Ryan Johansen and newly signed Nick Bonino expected to center the top two lines. Fisher could even be the fourth-line center or a winger, allowing the likes of Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons, and Frederick Gaudreau to take on bigger roles.

But for Fisher, hockey isn’t everything, and after more than 1,000 games in the NHL, he may simply opt to hang up the skates.

“Everyone wants to win in this game, no one probably more than me,” Fisher said. “But there’s other things. At the end of the day, this is a game. It’s an important part of my life, but it’s not everything.”

Related: Predators take Stanley Cup loss with grace and optimism

Habs sign Mark Streit — is he Markov’s replacement?

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The Montreal Canadiens have signed 39-year-old defenseman Mark Streit to a one-year contract worth a reported $700,000.

This will actually be Streit’s second stint with the Habs. He started his NHL career in Montreal, all the way back in 2005.

Streit split last season between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In the playoffs, he only appeared in three games for the Penguins, all of them in the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa when Justin Schultz was hurt.

What the Streit signing means for Andrei Markov remains to be seen. Streit, like Markov, can run a power play, so it’s tempting to conclude that Streit is Markov’s replacement.

That being said, almost all of Streit’s contract could be buried in the AHL if necessary, so that conclusion may be premature. This could even be a move by GM Marc Bergevin to gain leverage and convince Markov to sign.

Markov, 38, remains an unrestricted free agent. The Canadiens want him back, but only at a certain price.

Devils give Mirco Mueller two-year extension

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The New Jersey Devils have signed defenseman Mirco Mueller to a two-year contract extension with a cap hit of $850,000.

Mueller, a first-round draft pick of the Sharks in 2013, has only played 54 NHL games, scoring two goals with four assists. In June, after spending most of 2016-17 in the AHL, San Jose traded the 22-year-old to the Devils.

In New Jersey, Mueller should get a good chance to crack a rebuilding roster.

“Mirco is adding another piece to what we’re trying to build here,” Devils coach John Hynes said, per NJ.com. “He’s a young player, he can play with pace. He’s a very good skater. He’s got size, which is something we need on the back end. He makes a good first pass. He allows you to get out of your own zone because he can break out, he can end plays defensively, get possession, make the pass to be able to transition yourself out of defensive situations.”

The Devils have also re-signed goalie Scott Wedgewood and forward Joseph Blandisi.