Amid Tavares push, Lightning give J.T. Miller big contract

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One J.T. down, one to go?

The Tampa Bay Lightning raised some eyebrows on Tuesday by signing J.T. Miller to a five-year, $26.25 million contract, which means he’ll carry a $5.25M cap hit from 2018-19 to 2022-23. This lofty deal surfaces despite the already-cap-challenged Lightning reportedly being a part of the bidding war for John Tavares‘ services, which makes this substantial investment doubly surprising.

That’s not to take anything away from Miller, 25, who’s coming off three consecutive seasons of at least 22 goals. He generated a career-high by a small margin with 23 this past season, also accruing 58 points. He fit in very nicely in Tampa Bay, essentially filling trade partner Vladislav Namestnikov‘s spot alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

(This deal is the latest reminder that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman sure loves ex-Rangers. See: Ryan McDonagh being in that trade, not to mention commitments to Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan, and Anton Stralman over the years.)

This only strengthens the impression that Yzerman will need to pull some strings – maybe trade Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Braydon Coburn, etc.? – to make Tavares fit into the salary structure, even for a season.

The five-year term stands as one of the most interesting things to consider, as the Lightning face some steep potential raises in the near future. Consider these situations:

  • Nikita Kucherov’s almost-scandalous bargain of $4.767M expires after 2018-19. Yzerman deserves credit for squeezing Kucherov’s RFA status for all it was worth there, but even as an RFA again, Kucherov’s going to get paid … one way or another.
  • Andrei Vasilevskiy is due for a big raise from his $3.5M cap hit. On the bright side, Tampa Bay has him on the hook for two more seasons.
  • Two exceptional young players will be eligible to become RFAs during the 2019 summer: Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde.

All things considered, it sure seems like the Lightning are primed for an all-in season in 2018-19, and then they’ll need to pivot. Some of that cap crunch is likely to strike much sooner, and there’d be some serious gymnastics required if Tavares becomes a genuine possibility.

If anyone can do it, it’s Yzerman and the Bolts.

Will we look back at this contract as one Stevie Y will regret, or this yet another ahead-of-their-time bargain? It should be fascinating to find out.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, “J.T.” stands for “Jonathan Tanner.” At least when it doesn’t stand for John Tavares.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.