Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cut The Check? Should the Lightning Buy Out Valtteri Filppula

Let’s get two things out of the way before we dive into this post:

1. I liked the Valtteri Filppula deal when it was signed.  Liked, didn’t love.  It was a year too long and a million dollars too much, but the Lightning were signing a creative, veteran playmaker who played responsible hockey and would slot into a top-six position.

2. I don’t like teams buying out contracts.  Done incorrectly it can lead to roster-strangling dead cap space and an endless cycle of overpaying (because, hey you can always buy him out when it goes sideways) for free agents. It might seem like small change, but it can add up.  Buying one player out at $1.7 million and then another at $2 million and then things escalate quickly.  Before you know it you have $4-5 million wrapped up in dead money.

Keeping those two things in mind,  I think the Lightning buying out Valtteri Filppula isn’t the worse thing in the world.  The Finnish forward with the filthy hands is owed $10 million over the next two years.  According to General Fanager if Tampa Bay buys him out before the window ends on June 30th they will save $3.34 million this season and next.  Of course, there are consequences.  For the following two seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20) they will take a $1.67 million cap hit.

Probably not his finest Lightning memory.

Three-and-a-third million dollars is a lot of money to play with on a roster that has a lot of young talent looking for raises.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend some of that money on locking up Nikita Kucherov and his consistent goalscoring as opposed to Filppula and his diminishing flashes of puck-handling brilliance?

I think Filppula has taken a lot of unwarranted flack over the past few seasons, but I’m also aware that he is a 32-year-old forward whose offensive numbers have been declining over the last three seasons. It’s getting harder and harder to justify rolling him out there for 18-20 minutes a game.

In the playoff run this season which forward led the team in ice time?

A: Kucherov with his 11 goals in 17 games?
B. The young Jonathan Drouin and his breakout performance?
C. The steady Tyler Johnson who quietly put up a point a game during the postseason.

The answer to this obviously leading question is - none of the above.

Filppula led all forwards with 20:45 of ice time throughout the playoffs.  Part of that could be explained by the fact that he won 52% of the faceoffs he had.  Coach Cooper threw him out there at the end of games, short-handed and every other time he had an important face-off. Those minutes rack up when you’re doing it game after game.

He did a decent job against the Red Wings and Islanders top lines.

He wasn’t actually that bad in the playoffs (at least until the Pittsburgh series).  He did put up 7 points overall, but against the Penguins his most glaring deficiency was exposed - he just isn’t fast anymore.  Watching him carry the puck into the offensive zone was like watching Jonathan Drouin in slow-motion.  The moves were there, the slick puck-handling was there, it was just at a slower pace.  Even if he was in the zone with numbers, the high-energy Penguins were able to chase him down.

Despite his lack of foot speed it is obvious that he is a player that Coach Cooper trusts.  He is somewhat responsible in the defensive zone and can (at least theoretically) generate offense.  Over at Raw Charge, loserpoints is reviewing the team with a slant towards enhanced stats.  Those numbers place Filppula place just off-center and the writer sums up his season simply saying, “Valtteri Filppula is declining as would be expected of a player his age”.  So…yeah.

Barring injury to other players he is not cracking the top-six next season.  With the Triplets coming back, Alex Killorn, Jonathan Drouin and (hopefully) an extremely rich Steven Stamkos filling out the top of the roster, at best Filppula is going to be looking at another year as a third-line center.

Do the Lightning have someone on the roster that can replace Filppula?  After all, if he’s bought out, someone has to fill that spot. It could be Jonathan Marchessault.  The 25-year-old center is an unrestricted free agent, but could be brought back at a reasonable (under $2 million) salary.  While he doesn’t have the same offensive promise that Filppula brings to the table, he wouldn’t be a total train wreck playing 15 minutes a game.

Also, it might open a spot on the roster for a young player in the organization like Adam Erne or Yanni Goude.  Also, while the free agent market might not be deep, there are third-line forwards available at reasonable prices (P.A. Parenteau maybe?)

Something else to think about that could affect the team a little farther down the road is that Filppula has a no-movement clause in his contract and is signed through the 2017-18 season which means the Lightning would have to protect him in the Las Vegas expansion draft.  Wouldn’t you rather protect Vlad Namestnikov or JT Brown instead of Filppula?

So I just spent a page and a half laying out a case for buying him out.  Should Mr. Yzerman cut him a check and wish him well?  Yes, but after next season.

I think they can get one more serviceable season out of him without handicapping the team out of contention.  Mr. Yzerman should be able to get all of his business done with Stamkos and his restricted free agents and still stay under the cap.  He can then apply the cap savings to Victor Hedman’s extension (let’s start putting the positive vibes out there now) and longer term deals for Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

The Lightning GM has played the buyout game pretty well so far. The only contracts he has bought out have been Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone, both of them were compliance buyouts that didn’t count against the salary cap. He did retain some salary when the Lightning flipped Sam Gagner to the Coyotes for a 6th round pick.  That salary, as well as the cap hit from Vlacav Prospal’s buyout (done under the Brian Lawton regime) fell off this season.

Thirty-one points from a center that can win faceoffs and kill penalties isn’t the worst thing in the world. He has been relatively healthy over his Lightning career (something that was a bit of a worrying point when he signed the deal) and can still contribute.

So don’t trade in those “51” jerseys just yet.

I will miss those platinum locks when he's gone.

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