TAMPA — The Lightning started off the summer season with a bang Wednesday.
Tampa Bay re-signed veteran winger Ryan Callahan to a six-year contract worth $34.8 million for an annual salary cap hit of $5.8 million per season.
Some of that cap space opened up when Tampa Bay exercised its second compliance buy-out Wednesday on forward Ryan Malone, which freed up $4.5 million against the cap. Malone, 34, was due $2.5 million in the last year of a seven-year contract, and will be paid $833,333 each of the next two seasons, which will not count against the Lightning’s salary cap. Tampa Bay used the first of two compliance buy outs permitted under the CBA on Vinny Lecavalier last summer.
The Lightning also announced the signing of forward J.T. Brown to a two-year contract. Brown, 23, was scheduled to be a restricted free agent on July 1. The deal will pay him $925,000 in 2014-15 and $975,000 in 2015-16.
Tampa Bay has 11 remaining restricted free agents — most notably Richard Panik, Andrej Sustr, Brett Connolly, Mark Barberio, Keith Aulie and Cody Kunyk — though the team has already announced goaltender Anders Lindback will not receive a qualifying offer and will be an unrestricted free agent.
Retaining Callahan was one of the bigger summer story lines regarding the Lightning, as the 29-year-old former captain of the New York Rangers was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Tampa Bay acquired Callahan from the Rangers on March 5 along with a pair of first-round draft picks in exchange for Marty St. Louis. By signing Callahan to an extension, the Lightning will send their second-round pick in 2015 to the Rangers and will receive a seventh-round pick in 2015 from New York.
Once Montreal eliminated Tampa Bay from the playoffs, Callahan was sold on the idea of remaining with the Lightning and took less money to stay than he was reportedly seeking from New York.
“As soon as I finished the season in Tampa and the last two months I experienced there, I knew that’s where I wanted to be,’’ Callahan said. “My goal from that day moving forward was trying to get a deal done with the Lightning. So, to have the next six years there, to start this new chapter of my career with this organization and this team, it’s an exciting time for me and my family.’’
Callahan’s deal includes a modified no-trade clause and will pay out $6 million in the first year, $6.4 million the second year, $6.5 million each in the third and fourth years and $4.5 million each for the final two years.
In his 20 games with Tampa Bay last season, Callahan finished with six goals and 11 points after registering 11 goals and 25 points in 45 games with the Rangers. His gritty style of play was often praised by Lightning coach Jon Cooper during the final two months of the season and his leadership skills are a welcome addition to a Lightning locker room loaded with younger players.
“He plays the game hard every night, practices the right way, conducts himself the right way off the ice,’’ Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “I believe it’s extremely important that young players come in and learn how to be professional on and off the ice. So the more people you have like that around it’s only going to benefit the culture. You have to have the right people there and he fits into what we are trying to accomplish.”
Though teams were permitted to reach out to pending unrestricted free agents at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, Callahan said he agreed to the terms of the contract late Tuesday before signing the contract Wednesday morning. Though the idea of testing the free-agent market was enticing, remaining with the Lightning was always his first priority.
“Being a couple of days away from July 1 is tough, but considering how much I like the Lightning organization, how much I enjoyed my time there, that didn’t really creep into my head too much,’’ Callahan said. “There is my family, there is trying to win and then there is the money. I felt like the direction this team is going, the talent they have in that room, (winning) is something they are working towards and is attainable.’’
In cutting ties with Malone, Tampa Bay removes a player from its roster that had been diminishing in role and productivity. Malone, who missed nearly two months with a non-displaced fracture in his ankle, was a frequent healthy scratch in the second half of last season and scored just five goals and 15 points in 57 games.
“Over the course of the last year, Ryan’s role and ice time our team was reduced,’’ Yzerman said. “He and I had talks about it throughout the course of last season, and he wants to play and be given a greater opportunity. That wasn’t going to happen in Tampa and that made him a buyout candidate. I was not able to trade Ryan during the season, so we felt it was best for everybody involved to use the buy out and we both move on.’’
On April 10, the day before the regular-season finale, Malone was arrested in South Tampa and faces charges of DUI and possession of cocaine. He was immediately admitted into the joint NHL/NHLPA substance abuse program. Malone entered a not guilty plea on those charges last week.
Malone was acquired from Pittsburgh in 2008 and signed to a seven-year, $31.5 contract.
In addition to the moves Yzerman executed on Wednesday, he added that the team has utilized the opportunity to speak with pending UFAs on other teams and reached out to some of the potentially available defensemen. Though teams are allowed to speak to players, no contract offers are allowed to be submitted and no agreements may be reached until July 1.