TSN’s Pierre Lebrun reported in an Insider Trading article that the Tampa Bay Lightning are in the market for a top-nine winger to fill the third line spot alongside center Tyler Johnson and left winger Alex Killorn.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Tampa Bay Lightning are among the teams looking to add scoring early in the season. The Lightning lead the league with 30 points and have outscored all but one team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have played one more game than Tampa.
Pierre LeBrun: “A need for the Tampa Bay Lightning would be a top-nine winger, in particular to play with Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn on that third line. I think at first Tampa wants to see if someone within the organization can step up – we know they are a deep organization – and fill that role in the coming weeks and months. If that doesn’t play out certainly I think Steve Yzerman will have no problem trying to be aggressive and look at the trade market.”
While it’s certainly tempting to add yet another scoring threat to the line-up in that third line spot, I think LeBrun has hit it on the nose. Steve Yzerman will give an opportunity for someone already in the organization to fill the need on the third-line. So far this season, though, it hasn’t been a big deal with Jon Cooper playing seven defensemen in all but a handful of games this season.
On the Roster
J.T. Brown has been getting a more steady look on the third line (did someone read our article?), and of the current options on the roster, he seems the most likely to be able to fill that slot. Brown has had seasons of 19 and 22 points in his career, but he alternated those two seasons with campaigns of nine and six points.
Last season in particular was a disappointment for Brown after setting career highs in goals (8), and points (22) missing his career high for assists (15) by just one. He had signed a two-year contract worth $1.25 million per season. Despite all of the injuries to the forward corps in 2016-17, Brown never stepped up into a bigger role than that of fourth line defensive grinder, but lack of production was the story of the whole team last season.
In a limited time with Johnson and Killorn, Brown has shown more of what he can be as an energy-line winger that creates chances. In watching him, I’ve been noticing more passes where he is setting up quality scoring chances for his linemates. With a goal and three assists in ten games, he’s already two points from matching his season total from last year. To find out if he can fill that spot, Cooper will need to step up and allow him to have full-time minutes on the third line. So far though, Cooper has continued to rotate him around in the bottom six.
Beyond Brown, Chris Kunitz is a potential option, switching from his natural left wing to right wing on the third line. Just four seasons ago in 2013-14, Kunitz set career highs in goals (35) and points (68) at the age of 34. However, he was playing with one Sidney Crosby, which might have had something to do with his success. Even still, he has scored at least 20 goals in seven seasons, and last season was the first time he failed to hit double digit goals since his first partial year in the NHL (that was in 2003-04 when he played 21 games without scoring a goal). Kunitz has slowed down as he’s gotten into his late 30s, but his skillset may be a little too similar to that of Killorn’s to make it a good fit on the third line.
Ryan Callahan was an early season option on the third line, but there’s really no indication that he’s a good fit there for some of the reasons as Kunitz. His game resembles Killorn’s a little too much and it leaves Johnson trying to carry too much of the load on the line. The same goes for Gabriel Dumont and Cedric Paquette, who are not serious options on the third line.
In the organization
Further within the organization, the team has three forwards that have strong cases to fill the spot: one veteran and two prospects.
The veteran Cory Conacher is a potential option there as more of a set-up man that is also a relentless forechecker. He put up four points in 11 games in limited action for the Lightning last season, but had a very strong season in the AHL for the Syracuse Crunch. With 17 goals and 60 points he tied with Matt Taormina for the lead in points. In the playoffs, he was even more of a monster putting up a team leading 12 goals and 28 points in 22 playoff games. If the Crunch had won the Calder Trophy, Conacher likely would have been the playoff MVP.
Going down the list are two prospects, Adam Erne and Matthew Peca. I’m going to group them together because they are in similar situations with the Lightning. Both received ample playing time in the NHL down the stretch last season as injury fill-ins. Neither one was spectacular, but filled in well enough on the third line. Both are waiver-eligible at the beginning of next season.
Eventually, the Lightning need to make sure that they’ve gotten a good long look at Erne and Peca in the NHL before the off -season comes around. If they don’t feel they can contribute to the current roster in 2018, then the team will need to consider trading them rather than risking losing them on waivers to a team with more room to give a youngster a chance in the bottom six.
Peca is a natural center with skill and vision. He’s coming off of a 12 goal 41 point season for the Crunch in 68 games, and contributed a goal and an assist in 10 games for the Lightning. He has started off slowly in the AHL this season with just five assists in 14 games, because the Crunch have had some serious struggles to mesh.
As a left hander and natural center, Peca may be more out of his element playing the right wing spot. With Johnson being a right hander though, he could slide over to the wing while Peca takes the center position. Before Peca gets a chance again in the NHL though, he’s going to have to improve his offensive output.
Another note about Peca is that there is a general belief from some Crunch fans that his game is simply not suited for the AHL. He is a small, speedy skill guy that gets pushed around by the much tougher AHL line-ups. In the NHL, his speed and skill should be more of an asset if he can pair it with some confidence.
Erne on the other hand, is a natural winger and a left-hander that has played on both sides. His game does resemble Killorn’s as more of a power forward that will much about in the corners and in front of the net. He has good hand-eye coordination. One knock on him in the AHL has been his inconsistent effort. He earned a longer call-up to the Lightning playing in 26 games, but only put up three goals and was a minus-nine. In the AHL, he had 14 goals and 29 points in 42 games and added another 10 points in the playoffs.
Erne might be a bit better suited for playing with Johnson and Killorn than Peca. Killorn is a decent enough shooter along with Johnson’s all-around game. Erne can take advantage of playing the front of the net for redirections and dirty goals on that line.
The dark horse candidate might be Anthony Cirelli. He was the rookie that I looked at as the most likely to bump a veteran for the line-up out of training camp. Dumont would have been the most likely player to lose his spot in that situation, but it didn’t end up happening. Cirelli has been the Crunch’s strongest rookie performer so far with three goals and ten points in 14 games.
Cirelli was drafted with an eye towards being a very good fourth line center that killed penalties, won face-offs and would be a reliable player for defending leads late in the third period. Since being drafted in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, he’s shown that he’s got offensive skills to go with his defense. He went from 13-23-36 in 68 games played in his draft year to 21-38-59 the next season.
His last season in the OHL, he split between the Oshawa Generals and the Erie Otters. Combind he scored 25-39-64 in 11 less games from the year before. He had just as impressive of a OHL playoffs with 15 goals and 31 points in 22 games and added another eight points in five Memorial Cup games.
It was also telling that when Cirelli joined the Crunch after the Memorial Cup tournament, he was the lone junior-level player that the coaching staff put in the line-up in the Finals over AHL veterans that were sitting in the press box.
But wait, there’s more...
The other BIG problem facing the Lightning is that there’s simply no room. While Cedric Paquette has been ailing from a lower-body injury likely from blocking a shot, the Lightning have not put him on Injured Reserve and called up a replacement. The Lightning currently carry 13 forwards and 8 defensemen on the roster, plus their two goaltender, putting them at the league maximum of 23.
For a player outside of the current roster to be added, an injury, waiver, or trade would have to happen.
Dumont would be a potential waiver option. He has only played in seven games for the Lightning and has yet to record a point. He also only contributed four points in 39 games last season. Overall, he’s a 0.11 PPG scorer in 64 NHL games. Those kind of players are all over the place and not scarce. The risk of losing him on waivers is small and would be a boost to the Syracuse Crunch line-up to replace a player being called up from their roster.
Brown would be a player to potentially trade. However, if he’s playing well enough to have some decent trade value, logic would suggest that he’s playing well enough to keep in the line-up. That doesn’t seem like it’s likely to happen.
The last option is trading Slater Koekkoek or Andrej Sustr, or waiving Sustr. At this point, it’s hard to see another team putting a claim in on Sustr. Despite his low cap hit, he just has not shown very well in the NHL this season even as a 7th defenseman. After previously averaging in the 17 to 18 minute range the past three seasons, he is averaging just less than nine minutes of TOI. His trade value is almost non-existent as we recently saw the Vegas Golden Knights trying to trade similar players and eventually waiving Jason Garrison.
Koekkoek still represents a certain amount of upside as a defensive prospect. It’s been somewhat bewildering that he’s only gotten one more game than Sustr this season. Both are playing a similar amount of minutes with Koekkoek being a little over a minute under Sustr. But Koekkoek has demonstrated some offensive prowess scoring three goals and an assist in eight games. He’s also a plus-two on the season and the Lightning have taken 55% of shot attempts while he’s on the ice.
With Braydon Coburn’s ability to shift to the right side, and veteran third-pairing right-handed defenseman Jamie McBain (348 carreer NHL games) playing in Syracuse, the Lightning could afford losing the depth that Sustr provides the organization. The left side is a bit weaker with no left-handed defenseman with the Syracuse Crunch having made their NHL debuts yet.
And perhaps for Sustr, building some confidence and working on the little parts of his game in the AHL would be good for him to come back stronger if he was called upon to fill in on the Lightning’s blue line for an injury.
So then, when?
At this point in time, the most likely situation is that an injury happens that is more than just a day-to-day injury and would necessitate a trip to Injured Reserve. That would give Yzerman the room to call-up one of the three AHL options to have a try-out on the third line.
If the in-organization options don’t work out, then it’d be time to look for another solution outside of the organization. Who that might be is hard to make any speculation about. This early in the season, most teams still feel like they are in it. The Matt Duchene trade excepted, there just usually are not very many early season trades made. I’d expect Yzerman to wait until January at a minimum before making a move and might not do anything until the trade deadline.
If Yzerman holds to most of his previous in-season trades, he’ll look for someone with flexibility and term or team control remaining. He has some chips to trade in Peca and Erne with the flood of forward prospects coming behind them. That’s in addition to draft picks and potentially a trade of an extra defensive prospect. That’s something to bear in mind as Libor Hajek and Cal Foote are eligible to join the Crunch next season and the roster will be running out of space for defensemen.