Forward Waltteri Merela leaving Lightning, returning to Europe

Forward Waltteri Merela leaving Lightning, returning to Europe

TAMPA — Forward Waltteri Merela won’t return to the Lightning next season, instead opting to go back to Europe to play for SC Bern in Switzerland’s top-tier professional league.

The 25-year-old Finn wowed the Lightning last preseason, earning an opening-night roster spot out of training camp for his first taste of North American hockey after the team signed him to a one-year, two-way contract.

And the Lightning wanted Merela to return as a valuable depth piece, but ultimately couldn’t offer him the one-way deal — and the guaranteed NHL money that he could get abroad — due to their salary cap crunch and need for roster flexibility.

Merela played in 10 of the Lightning’s first 11 games without a point, and as the team’s only waiver-exempt forward, he found himself shuttling between Tampa Bay and AHL Syracuse twice over a two-week stretch in November. He finished the season with just one goal in 19 games but his size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) translated, and he showed he could skate and play responsible hockey at the NHL level. The Lightning believed he wasn’t far off from becoming an NHL regular.

Merela spent the majority of last season in Syracuse, where he had a 15-goal, 34-point season with the Crunch in 55 regular-season games, tied for third most in points on the team. He finished strong with three goals — including two game-winners — in eight Calder Cup playoff games.

Because he signed his entry-level contract at age 25, Merela was an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent this offseason, meaning the Lightning needed to make him a qualifying offer to retain his rights. And the Lightning plan to do so before this year’s qualifying offer deadline on July 1, so they can keep Merela’s NHL rights until he is 27. His contract with SC Bern is for one season.

Merela was a surprise standout in training camp and showed he could quickly adjust to the speed and smaller rink size of the North American game. He came to the Lightning after playing the previous four seasons in Finland, winning back-to-back championships in the top-tier Liiga, and his competitiveness showed from the first time he put on a Lightning jersey during the team’s developmental camp last July.

“We watched a lot of video, watched a lot of live games (when scouting Merela),” said Lightning assistant general manager/director of player development and AHL Syracuse general manager Stacy Roest before last season. “And just the way he plays straight-line hockey, he’s won a lot, he plays hard. … He’s big, strong and can really shoot a puck.”

Playing on a two-way deal, Merela made a prorated portion of the $775,000 base salary for the NHL games he played (he also had a $95,000 signing bonus), but made only a prorated cut of his $82,000 minor-league salary for the games he played for Syracuse. The terms of his deal with SC Bern weren’t disclosed, but it is believed he will make much more there.

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