TAMPA - How quickly the hockey offseason begins. Champagne bubbles no doubt still sit at the bottom of the Stanley Cup that was hoisted Monday night by the Chicago Blackhawks, yet talk of trades, the draft and free agency quickly dominate the conversation as the focus shifts toward September training camps. The offseason officially begins today, when the window opens for teams to utilize the buyout option that gives general managers the chance to rid their rosters of a cumbersome contract or two. Certainly, Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier's name will come up often as a candidate. Lecavalier, 33, has seven years and $45 million remaining on the 11-year, $85 million contract extension that went into effect with the 2009-10 season.
"I understand due to the contract they could elect to do so, but I haven't heard (of the team's intentions),'' Lecavalier said. "But one way or the other we will all know in the next seven to nine days.'' Contract buyouts are not new, but there is a new wrinkle. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players' union, a team could buy out a player's contract by paying two-thirds of the remaining value over twice the number of years left on the deal. The average yearly payout, however, counted against the team's salary cap each year. Tampa Bay, for example, bought out the final three years of Vinny Prospal's contract in 2009-10, creating a $1.167 annual salary cap hit through the 2014-15 season. In the current CBA, agreed upon in January, there is an enticing twist. With the salary cap dropping from $70 to $64.3 million for the 2013-14 season, each of the 30 teams has two amnesty buyouts that allow it to buy out the contracts of up to two players this summer or next without them counting against the salary cap. This year's window to take advantage of this clause opens tonight and remains in effect until 5 p.m. on July 4, the day before free agency begins. Any player who is bought out immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent. So, what does that mean for the Lightning and Lecavalier? It means, with Tampa Bay roughly $2.4 million under the salary cap heading into the summer, owner Jeff Vinik and general manager Steve Yzerman have a $30 million decision to make. Yzerman has kept his intentions under wraps, but has never ruled out any option to improve a team that finished 28th overall last season. At the two-thirds amount, Tampa Bay would have to pay Lecavalier $30 million over the next 14 years to buy out his contract. By utilizing the buyout, Yzerman would free up $7.7 million of the annual salary cap. But that option would not come without consequences. Lecavalier is a Lightning icon, one of the most popular players in franchise history and a pillar in the community with his charity work. He has been with the Lightning since being selected with the first overall pick in the 1998 draft at age 18. He is one of only two remaining players - with forward Marty St. Louis - from the team's 2004 Stanley Cup championship team. Parting ways with Lecavalier also would open up a hole at second-line center that would have to be filled. Signing a free-agent could cost upwards of $5 million, making the salary cap savings marginal. There is a certain amount of uncertainty over the coming days. "Everybody is looking for a little bit of direction with those contracted players that people believe have the established deals,'' said Kent Hughes, Lecavalier's agent. "With somebody like (Vinny) that has played a long, lengthy career in one city that he considers his home that he will live in beyond his playing contract, who also has a young family, it's probably a little unsettling. ... but he wants to stay in Tampa.'' Should Tampa Bay elect to use the amnesty opportunity next summer on Lecavalier, the cost would be apporximately $23 million over 12 years. Certainly, teams will take advantage of the rare opportunity to reshape their rosters. Philadelphia already announced plans to buy out the contracts of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and veteran Danny Briere. There are limitations to using the buyouts. Teams cannot buy out a player who is injured, so Lightning fans can cross defenseman Mattias Ohlund - who has not played in two seasons because of a knee surgery - off the list of potential candidates. Also, any player whose average annual salary is less than $3 million is not eligible. A team cannot re-sign or acquire via trade for one year any player whose contract it bought out. Though the size of Lecavalier's contract creates buyout buzz, other Lightning players also could be candidates. Ryan Malone has been bantered around as a possible candidate as well, which would save the Lightning a salary cap hit of $4.5 million for two years and cost Tampa Bay approximately $3.3 million over four years. Malone's name has cropped up in trade rumors in previous years, and he has a modified no-trade clause this season that kicks in July 1, and if Yzerman is unable to move Malone in a trade before then, using the buy out route might be a viable option. Veteran defenseman Eric Brewer, who has two years left on his deal at $7.75 million with an annual cap hit of $3.875 million, might also be a consideration. [email protected] (813) 259-7835 twitter: @erlendssontbo