There are many worried Tampa Bay Lightning fans that the recent signing of veteran defender Dan Girardi, to a two-year, $6MM contract, will only get in the way of the team’s blueline youth movement. Once considered a major weakness on their team, the Lightning have rebuilt the defense over the last few years. They have even protected several of those young defensemen like Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin by giving up a top offensive prospect in Nikita Gusev and several draft picks to Vegas to convince them to take veteran defender Jason Garrison off their hands, not only to free up cap space, but also to open up more playing time on the blueline.
The team also has a new core of young defensive prospects in the pipeline as well, including newly acquired Mikhail Sergachev, who they received from Montreal for Jonathan Drouin. They have focused their drafts on defense as well. They drafted the WHL’s Cal Foote with the 14th overall pick in this year’s draft. Before that, they spent a slew of second-rounders on defense, drafting Libor Hajek with their second round pick last year, Matt Spencer in the second round in 2015 as well, and Dominik Masin in the second round in 2014. They even added 2015 second-rounder Erik Cernak when they sent Ben Bishop to Los Angeles in February. The team even inked their sixth-round pick from 2016 yesterday in Oleg Susanov, at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds at age 19.
With all this talent though, the Lightning still invested $3MM per year to Girardi, which means the team isn’t likely to have the veteran mentor the youth. It’s more likely that the team is doing everything it can to bolster its roster for a playoff run and will force players like Koekkoek, Dotchin, and Sergachev to battle it out for a roster spot or be sent back to the AHL. Koekkoek, a former tenth-overall pick in 2012, only managed to get into 29 games last year, playing the majority of the season with the Syracuse Crunch. Dotchin split his time evenly between the two, having played 35 games for each squad.
Sergachev might be ready for Tampa Bay soon as well, but a Girardi deal could benefit the team as well. The former ninth-overall pick in 2016 had conditions linked to his trade with the Canadiens that would allow the Lightning to acquire a 2018 second-round pick if Sergachev doesn’t play more than 40 games for the NHL squad during the regular season and the playoffs. Otherwise, Tampa Bay would get no extra pick. Perhaps that may be an extra incentive to keep him in the minors for a little while longer.