Coming off the loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals, it seemed like the Tampa Bay Lightning were poised to return to the Finals and capture the second Stanley Cup in franchise history. In the preseason, they were one of a handful of teams in the East that were promoted as being favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
It was a short offseason and some players were still recovering from ailments when training camp came around, namely Tyler Johnson with his broken wrist. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy missed the start of the season while recovering from a blood clot. Cedric Paquette also suffered a lower body injury during the preseason that kept helping him fall out of the lineup through the beginning of the season as he re-aggravated the injury several times.
During the 2015 offseason, there hadn’t been much in the way of changes on the roster. Brendan Morrow was not retained and eventually retired from the NHL during the season. Erik Condra, who had been with the Ottawa Senators, was signed to a 3 year deal as an unrestricted free agent. Veterans Tye McGinn and Matt Taormina were signed to provide depth and boost the Syracuse Crunch. Mike Blunden was re-signed after having a solid year with Syracuse that was cut short by an injury.
The Lightning started off the season on a solid note, winning their season opener at home against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was the first regular season NHL game played with the new 3-on-3 overtime rules. We saw end to end action, penalty shots, and in the end, Jason Garrison scoring the very first 3-on-3 overtime goal in NHL history. Things were looking up. The team was looking like the Lightning.
Unfortunately, that feeling didn't last long. After coming out of the gates with a hot start from the top line of Jonathan Drouin, Steven Stamkos, and Ryan Callahan, things started to cool off for the trio. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were often ineffective especially with Johnson still seemingly recovering from his wrist injury.
Then injuries started to happen throughout the forward lineup. Alex Killorn missed a game early with an ailment (though he ironically would finish with the most games played on the team at 81). Victor Hedman missed a game with a likely concussion. Nikita Nesterov was suspended for two games for boarding. Drouin missed time with a lower body injury. Paquette was out again, then Palat, then Paquette again, then Johnson, then Callahan. All of these missed games before reaching American Thanksgiving. It was a nightmare. The injuries got so bad, and Syracuse had been raided so heavily that the Crunch were having practices with only 9 forwards and even played a game with two defensemen playing as forwards.
December wasn't much better as Erik Condra, J.T. Brown, and Brian Boyle as well as minor league injury replacements Joel Vermin and Yanni Gourde joined the injury parade. Drouin, Johnson, and Palat also suffered injuries again. Fortunately, after the Christmas break, the team finally started to recover. Amazingly, the player loss had almost exclusively been to forwards where the team and organization was already deep. It led to chances for Jonathan Marchessault, who ended up sticking with the team the rest of the season, Vermin, Gourde, Mike Blunden, Mike Angelidis, and Tye McGinn to get NHL playing time.
The injury parade may have been over, but the next controversy came abruptly: Jonathan Drouin. With his ice time diminishing as the rest of the forward corps got healthy, he was reassigned to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. That's when his earlier trade demand became public. He played for a handful of games before deciding to quit and return home to Quebec and await a trade, which drew his immediate suspension by the Lightning. Drouin became a polarizing figure for Tampa fans and the broader NHL; vilified by some and praised by others. He sat at home, worked out, kept in shape. A month passed and the trade deadline approached with no NHL team willing to pay Yzerman's acquisition price. No deal went down.
In early March, Drouin requested and received reinstatement with the Lightning, returning to where he had been – with the Syracuse Crunch…. And he returned with a vengeance, tearing up the AHL with 9 goals and 1 assist in his 10 games back with the Crunch. He returned to the NHL to close the regular season and was a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs, with 5 goals and 9 assists in 17 games. He was finally the Jonathan Drouin that we knew he could be.
The rest of the winter and spring leading up to the playoffs was very up and down for the Lightning. The forwards were getting healthy and trying to find some chemistry together. It was about that time when the defensemen started getting hurt. Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn missed a short amount of time. Jason Garrison missed a 10 game span in February with a lower body issue. Perhaps the biggest blow came on March 25 when Anton Stralman broke his leg, which deprived the defensive corps of their #2 defenseman until May, late in the playoffs. It wasn't nearly as bad as captain Steven Stamkos' broken leg incident in November 2013, but it was still a major blow for the club.
Then there was an even bigger blow to the lineup; the team announced Stamkos would undergo surgery and be out for one to three months with the same type of blood clot issue that Andrei Vasilevskiy dealt with leading in to the season. The team was now without its best forward and its second best defenseman going into the playoffs.
Despite missing two of their top players, the Bolts played admirably in the first two rounds finishing off the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Islanders in five games each. The Pittsburgh Penguins though proved to have too much speed, too much fire power, too much effort, and a more effective system that maintained possession for the bulk of play. On top of that, the Lightning lost Ben Bishop during the first game of the series. It's hard to say how the series might have been different if Bishop had not been injured but it is what it is. The Lightning lost in seven games even though they had been up 3-2 in the series with an opportunity to close it out at home in game 6.
That brings us to where we are now... the offseason. Exit interviews for the players were conducted Friday. Al Murray and Steve Yzerman will be tidying up their draft board in preparation for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Yzerman will get to work on executing his offseason plan. And so, here are my thoughts on some things that are coming up.
GM Steve Yzerman got the opportunity to see that his club can indeed succeed without Steven Stamkos in the lineup during the 2016 NHL Playoffs, even if they ultimately fell short of the pinnacle. The team can re-sign captain Stamkos, but it's obvious that Yzerman is not going to over-burden this club with a huge contract that will force the window of contention to close sooner than he'd otherwise like. It's up to Stamkos now; does he want to be a part of this group even if that means signing for a smaller payout? Is he willing to go to someplace like Toronto and endure another rebuild as well as increased expectations and media pressure? Is there another organization out there that has the cap room and a cup contending team already in place to sign him? Is money the most important factor? We'll find out in the next month as we get closer to free agency.
It was obvious throughout the season and especially in the playoffs that Matthew Carle is not the talent he once was. His skating has regressed greatly and passes are no longer crisp, quick or precise. He has become a liability and isn’t close to being worth his contract ($5.5 million per year with two full seasons left), posing a problem. There's a very small likelihood that he could be traded, though he has a Modified No Trade Clause that limits the team's ability to trade him. Even if the Lightning retain the maximum 50% of salary, it would still mean a $2.75 million cap hit for someone else. The team would likely need to find a partner that is close to the cap floor that will take on the salary of Carle if Yzerman is willing to pay for it with a draft pick.
Another alternative is to buy him out during the buyout period. This would convert his $5.5 million cap hit into a $1.833 million cap hit over the next four seasons. I feel this is the most likely course of action for Steve Yzerman.
The third alternative is dependent on Steven Stamkos leaving. It's possible that without the substantial cap increase by retaining Stamkos that Steve Yzerman could opt to carry Carle for another year, probably as the seventh defenseman. Slater Koekkoek seemed to pass Carle on the depth chart this postseason with Carle going to the press box when Jon Cooper returned to a 6 defenseman alignment for Game 7 against Pittsburgh.
What the third alternative would do is maintain the blue line depth that Yzerman covets. It would also get Carle's contract a year closer to being finished. That could make it easier to trade him away at the trade deadline or next offseason, or a buyout after 2017 is also possible (with a shorter cap hit).
The 2016 NHL Draft
The farm system is fairly healthy after a number of successful drafts. The Lightning have some center prospects in Matthew Peca and Brayden Point that at the very least could be solid third line contributors while Point could potentially develop into Tyler Johnson Lite™. Adam Erne will be entering his second year of professional hockey in 2016-17 and is a potential replacement for Alex Killorn in another year or two as a top six power wing. Dominik Masin will start his professional career and will eventually find his way to Tampa on the blue line.
Older forward prospects Tanner Richard and Joel Vermin are knocking on the door for bottom six opportunities. Defenseman Anthony DeAngelo is still a work in progress and there's hope that new Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx will find the right buttons to push with him.
And then there are recent draft picks Mitchell Stephens, Mathieu Joseph, and Anthony Cirelli who looked great in juniors in 2015-16 and will go back to juniors for another season of development before the trio begins their professional careers likely in Syracuse in 2017-18.
There isn't a whole lot of weakness in the development system other than perhaps high end skill players. Selecting lower in the draft (and at times converting 1st round picks into multiple lower picks) has started to take its toll there. While Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray has a habit of seeking diamonds in the rough in the later rounds of the NHL entry draft, the pipeline is getting light on high-end skill. They've drafted more for character and two-way play in recent drafts. It will be interesting to see if that strategy continues.
I expect that this draft will feature a good mix of players and positions as the staff will mostly target best player available picks. I wouldn't be surprised to see a Canadian Juniors goalie taken somewhere in the middle rounds. There are questions about goalie Kristers Gudlevskis future (more on that in a bit) and it will not be long before another goalie is needed to play in Syracuse. Kris Oldham is in the system, but he likely will spend the next four years playing in NCAA college hockey before turning pro, if he develops as a prospect. A late round, overage Juniors or European prospect that can step into the Syracuse lineup right away wouldn't be out of the question either.
Restricted Free Agents
The other big task on Steve Yzerman's plate for this summer is restricted free agents. He's already dealt with two contracts in Tanner Richard and Joel Vermin which were two of the easier negotiations as they are prospects coming off their entry level contracts without either having had significant time in the NHL.
The easier deals are Kristers Gudlevskis, Tye McGinn, Yanni Gourde, and David Broll. There have been reports out that Gudlevskis received a significant offer to go to Finland. He may be using that as leverage to get more money or he could return to Europe. Tye McGinn should return on a similar deal as veteran depth. Yanni Gourde is a toss-up on if he'll be re-signed or or not. He did get called up during the injury mess in Tampa Bay during the season, but otherwise struggled to match his production from 2014-15. David Broll is not likely to be retained as he doesn't have much of an NHL future. He could be brought back on an AHL contract, but I don't see him getting an NHL deal and taking one of the spots on the 50 contract reserve list.
The more challenging deals are for guys like Nikita Nesterov, J.T. Brown, Cedric Paquette, and Vladislav Namestnikov. Their years varied from not great to pretty good, but none of them were spectacular. Namestnikov was in and out of the top six throughout 2015-16 and could never really perform consistently to stay. Nesterov was mostly down through the year. I expect those two to be on one year deals. Paquette had a down year from a point-production aspect, but he also dealt with injuries. He could be on a one- or two-year deal similar to J.T. Brown's last contract. Brown had a bit of a breakout season. He was a part of the shut down third line, scoring 8 goals and 14 assists for 22 points which is nothing to sneeze at for a bottom six player. I expect that he will get a multi-year deal that could look very similar to what Erik Condra signed in the summer of 2015.
The most difficult contract RFA situations to iron out will be for wings Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov. Killorn seems an enigma at times. He's been a steady half point per game player through the regular season in his NHL career. On the grander stage of the playoffs, Killorn’s production jumps to 0.70 points per game (15 goals and 18 assists for 33 points in 47 career games). He's also 26 years old and one year from unrestricted free agency eligibility. Killorn could be a candidate to get a two or three year deal in the $4-$4.5 million range. He'd still be capable of getting another, big, long term deal as a free agent after the contract expires. Under a deal like this, Killorn could be exposed in a potential 2017 NHL expansion draft and be less desirable due to forthcoming free agency a short time ahead. With a short term contract for Killorn, it gives the organization time for Adam Erne’s development and eventual replacement for Killorn.
Nikita Kucherov poses an even more daunting task to be re-signed. Victor Hedman referred to Kuch as the "Russian Assassin" during the 2016 playoffs and I started campaigning for him to get 'Smooth Criminal' as his goal song. Kucherov is a borderline elite possession forward, with high hockey IQ, high compete, vision, soft hands, and armed with a wickedly accurate wrist shot and one-timer.
Vladimir Tarasenko received a 8 year deal for $7.5 million per year with the St. Louis Blues while Aleksander Barkov received a 6 year deal for $5.9 million per year with the Florida Panthers. Kucherov should find himself somewhere in between with a new deal. He's performed more than well enough that a bridge deal isn't likely. A bridge deal would be significant risk for him to not accept a longer term offer and risk for the team that he could be even better and command even more in his next deal after a bridge contract.
Earlier in the season, I predicted a 6 year deal for $6.5 million per year. I think that's still a very likely starting place for negotiations and we could end up seeing it pushed closer to $7 million. With a 6 year deal, Kucherov would become an unrestricted free agent at 29 years old. He'd still be able to sign another big deal before his career started winding down. There is no question though that Nikita Kucherov is an integral part of the core of this team and he needs to be locked up long term.
Until Next Year
Now for me, it's time to decompress a little bit. Relax. Maybe do some fishing. It won't be long before everything starts to heat up again between Stamkos, the draft, and free agency. It's been a wild ride this year. Thank you to everyone out there who has read throughout the year and made it all the way to the bottom of this rather long and winded article as I am coming close to 2,900 words. And so I leave you with these last three words...
BE! THE! THUNDER!