Lightning keep price down on Johnson, but at what cost?

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Will <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5376/" data-ylk="slk:Tyler Johnson">Tyler Johnson</a>’s seven-year extension come back to hurt the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/tam/" data-ylk="slk:Tampa Bay Lightning">Tampa Bay Lightning</a>? (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Will Tyler Johnson’s seven-year extension come back to hurt the Tampa Bay Lightning? (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

When Ondrej Palat soon signs on the dotted line, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman will have fit all the pieces from a Stanley Cup challenger comfortably under his salary cap, setting the franchise up for competitiveness long term.

Yes, they surrendered Jonathan Drouin this summer. But his exit was precipitated by expansion, not a salary squeeze. Had the Lightning been in a less vulnerable position at the time of the 31st franchise’s arrival, they could have made it all work. And regardless, they have — Mikhail Sergachev is one of the best defensive prospects in the game and a player who could easily out-perform Drouin over the course of their NHL careers.

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Yzerman took the penultimate step in his preservation process on Monday, signing undersized center Tyler Johnson to a seven-year extension. Like fellow cornerstone pieces Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov before him, Johnson signed below market value in agreeing to earn $5 million through the life of a deal that will exhaust his prime seasons.

That’s what the Bolts are banking on, at least.

Yzerman had to weigh significant health concerns in talks last summer with Steven Stamkos, who was diagnosed with blood clots three months before reaching unrestricted free agency. His condition was determined to be a non-issue for the Lightning, who re-signed the captain to a maximum-term contract currently worth 11.33 percent of the pie.

While in no way as serious, health had to be a consideration in the Lightning’s dealings with Johnson as well.

Since he outshone Stamkos in Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, Johnson has been hampered — and his production significantly impacted — by a string on injuries. His problems began in earnest during his postseason breakout, when he played through a broken wrist. The lingering effects from the recovery left him hamstrung the following season, as he was limited to 14 goals and 38 points in 69 games. He rediscovered his form, starring again in another lengthy postseason run, but fell victim to the injury bug again last year. He appeared in fewer games but was ostensibly in better shape to perform while he was in the lineup. But he only saw just a minor uptick in points, contributing 19 goals and 26 assists.

At $5 million, the Lightning are paying Johnson for closer to what he offered over the last two seasons (his 83 points are just enough to slide into the top 150) than what he accomplished in 2014-15 (when he scored a top-15 finish in NHL points in his second full season), or for what he’s done over the club’s last two postseason runs.

This is obviously a credit to Yzerman, and suggests there’s value in the seven-year investment. But because he’s been unable to shake his injury concerns and produce at a rate he’s shown in the past, and because the clock on the contract starts after his 27th birthday, there’s a considerable amount of risk tied to a contract that will stay on the payroll through 2024.

With Brayden Point proving himself in his rookie season, and other centers like Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli and Brett Howden supporting the pipeline, sacrificing annual value before term may have been the safer bet with Johnson in life after Drouin.

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