With Tyler Johnson inked to a new three-year, $10 million dollar deal, there remains a few free agents to deal with - both restricted and unrestricted - on the Lightning roster and in the system. It's subjective on fan wants who will be retained and who will be let go, though it seems certain at least one player will be out (Brian Lee). You need to remember though that some raises are going to be forthcoming to players (hello, Ondrej Palat, Andrej Sustr, Alex Killorn) while others are going to be pricey to retain (Ryan Callahan.) That's going to chip away from money coming off the books (such as Sami Salo's contract).
One of the repeated goals that's been stated by fans and certain media types is the need for Tampa Bay to acquire a top-4 defenseman, someone to compliment Victor Hedman in the top defensive pairing; a righty-shot at that. This is not new speculation either, it's been lingering for months now, if not years as the same talk was ongoing last summer. Part of that talk is the idea of dangling Brett Connolly in an attempt to obtain said defenseman.
While trading assets means any and all prospects are on the table if an offer comes along, I don't expect Steve Yzerman to be calling other GM's to offer up Connolly and possibly more. And why should I? Everyone's been proposing this scenario for a while and fans are not general managers. It also sort of contradicts Yzerman preaching his patience with prospects; the idea that Tampa Bay should give up on Connolly in an attempt to find a defenseman.
If something comes the Lightning's way to upgrade defensively or to get the proverbial top-4 righty D, I expect Yzerman to explore the option to the fullest. I also expect the Lightning to be content going into 2014-15 and stand pat with their defensive group for the most part. That's not going to please everyone, but unless it's a truly great pickup at a truly great price, the money and assets will be spent elsewhere and saved for later.
So, solutions come internally, and it's not like the Bolts are lacking internally. Hedman, Matt Carle and Eric Brewer are the veterans that anchor three defensive pairings. Radko Gudas is also part of the rotation, usually matched with Carle. That's three-quarters of a nightly defensive lineup right there.
Andrej Sustr got sent to the AHL in 2013-14 and I think a lot of fans wrote him off, especially after he got hurt in Syracuse and disappeared from radar. Sustr's demotion wasn't because he wasn't playing well or had fallen out of favor with the club, but because he had options and the Bolts were overstocked on defense with players who didn't have minor league options and necessitated waivers to be demoted. The club is very big on Sustr, even if the big Czech didn't put up huge offensive numbers (1 goal, 7 assists and a plus-3 in 43 games this past season) He is steady, and he is part of the team's plan going forward... That's a fifth defenseman in the rotation and odds are he'll see playing time in the top-4, or specifically with Hedman.
Is Sustr as sexy as, say, Cody Franson or Keith Yandle landed in a trade? No, but neither is making a trade of untold quantities to soothe the fans. Offer up Connolly, and odds are a team asks for Palat instead.
Ideally if the club does in fact show faith in building internally - and for the most part over the last few seasons, they have, the issues aren't in the top-4. It is want and circumstance that drive desire for outside help.
After Sustr, restricted free agent Mark Barberio will also likely be retained as a 7th defenseman for the most part; a power play specialist and occasional 6th defenseman. In 49 games in 2013-14, Mark posted 5 goals and 5 assists and was a plus-10.
But a 7th defenseman doesn't fill that last pairing spot:
- Tampa Bay claimed Michael Kostka off waivers from Chicago late in the season, the former Norfolk Admiral played 19 games with the Bolts, and he was a plus-7 and posted 3 goals and 5 assists while playing over 15 minutes a night. The 28 year old righty is an unrestricted free agent, and the idea of bringing him back isn't a bad one.
- J.P. Cote was signed mid-season to a two-way NHL contract, posting 4 assists in 19 games in the NHL (his first NHL appearance since the 2005-06 season when he was a member of the Montreal Canadiens organization.) I would think Cote is depth for the organization and veteran leadership for Syracuse, but seeing ice time in the NHL with Tampa as a regular isn't out of the question.
- Dmitry Korobov made his NHL debut last season, seeing playing time in three games with the Lightning. The left-shooting Russian was in his sophomore North American season, and while his NHL debut was a noteworthy benchmark, he struggled (if not regressed) at the AHL level from comments by those who watched Crunch games this past season. He was a minus-12 on a rebuilding team. Offensively, he was just as potent in his second season with the Syracuse Crunch as he had been the previous season: 26 points in 71 games (3 goals, 23 assists). He's a restricted free agent this summer who could opt to go back to Russia if he isn't happy with the situation in Syracuse or the overall plan for him with the Lightning.
- While there are other options, for humors sake I'll list Slater Koekkoek, the 2012 1st round draft pick who will be going pro this upcoming season. Koekoek had sugary on a dislocated shoulder to end his 2013-14 season. While the 20 year old defenseman shows offensive pop and promise in the backend, it goes against the grain of Lightning management to rush a prospect into the NHL for limited playing time. I expect Slater to see plenty of minutes in the AHL in 2014-15 and not play limited minutes in the NHL.
- That leads to a dark horse, from-within candidate to enter the mix on defense: Luke Witkowski. While Kostka, Korobov and Koekkoek have offensive upside, Witkowski is the physical kind of righty shot that the Bolts already see from Radko Gudas. He's also a college veteran, akin to Sustr and Alex Killorn. Tampa Bay has put more faith in collegiate stepping into the NHL instead of a long gestation period in the AHL. Luke posted 204 penalty minutes to go along with 12 points (2 goals and 10 assists) and a minus-1... For those discontent with Radko Gudas this past season (and it's not like this went unnoticed in comments on game threads), Witkowski has the potential to displace him on the second pairing.
The goal that Steve Yzerman has for the Bolts system is self-sustaining. The organization is at the point where it's producing NHL players. If the opportunity arises to acquire a big name asset, a versed pro righty shot, then you can expect Yzerman to explore it. It's not necessary to get into a bidding war to fill the holes in the lineup; I'd think how the Tampacuse alumni stepped in during 2013-14 proves that.