While recency bias has hockey fans looking back on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s season as a failure due to their shocking early playoff exit, in reality the team was historically good, winning 62 games en route to 128 points and an easy President’s Trophy win. In general, most teams who enjoy that level of success would look to change as little as possible, even with the postseason disappointment. Last year’s Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals have become the standard for staying the course and, by all accounts, the Lightning expect to follow in their footsteps and avoid the temptation to make sweeping changes.
However, it’s not that simple. As Joe Smith of The Athletic writes, the Bolts will have to undergo a major makeover on their blue line. Tampa Bay is already committed to over $73MM for 16 players next season. That list includes top defensemen Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, as well as most core forwards like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Miller, and Yanni Gourde and starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. However, it does not include half of the eight defensemen used regularly by the Lightning this season: Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, and Jan Rutta. More importantly, it also doesn’t include sophomore breakout forward Brayden Point. Even with the salary cap expected to climb north of $80MM this off-season, re-signing Point will eat up most of that space and extending fellow RFA forwards Cedric Paquette and Adam Erne will add up as well. Without a considerable cap dump, it would seem re-signing even one of those UFA defensemen, nevertheless most of them, will be incredibly difficult.
So what does Tampa do about this situation? The aforementioned cap dump seems a near certainty, as veteran forward Ryan Callahan is expected to be traded or bought out this summer. A buy out could give the Lightning the wiggle room to re-sign one of the four pending UFA’s, while a trade could either open up cap space or allow the team to bring in a blue liner with a bad contract like Callahan’s. Yet, Callahan alone is not the only move that the Bolts could make before next season. Smith mentions Miller as the easiest forward to trade away, as his trade protection does not kick in until the new league year on July 1st. Johnson, Palat, and Alex Killorn all have full or limited No-Trade Clauses, making them harder to deal, but still expendable regardless. In moving any of those four valuable forwards – or even Point if negotiations reach an impasse – the Bolts would likely be able to land a talented defenseman in return.
Outside of Callahan though, the Lightning do not have to make other trades to form a capable defense. Internally, they already have a promising top-four in veteran stars Hedman and McDonagh and promising young rearguards Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. AHL standout Cal Foote will also challenge for a job in camp, while the team will almost certainly target a defenseman with the 27th overall pick in the first round this year, who could push for an NHL spot right away if they’re lucky. Moving Callahan, if salary does not come back in return, could enable the team to re-sign Rutta, likely the cheapest option of the four, or perhaps Coburn or Girardi on hometown discounts. It is hard to imagine Stralman being within their price range or any two returning. Yet, affordable options will also exist on the free agent market, as many players may be willing to sign for less for a shot at the Cup in Tampa Bay. Veteran UFA options who could come in under $2MM or so include Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid, Ben Lovejoy, and Roman Polak, among others.
The only certainty when it comes to Tampa’s defense this season is that it will not look the same as it did last year. There is simply no financial way for the team to maintain the depth and balance on the blue line that this unit had, but some savvy moves this off-season could still keep the defense just as strong. How the team handles Point, Callahan, and the free agency and trade markets will be one of the more intriguing story lines this summer and could dictate whether the Bolts are able to follow the Capitals’ model and stay the course toward a championship following postseason disappointment.