I currently sit writing this in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport awaiting my flight to Denver Sunday morning. I watched the Lightning give up a two-goal and one-goal lead in Dallas, only to lose in overtime. I’ll head to Denver tonight and see what the Lightning can do against one of the worst teams in the league.
Even though the Lightning have gotten points in four straight games for a 2-0-2 record, it simply hasn’t been enough. The Lightning had dug themselves such a hole in the Eastern Conference that even going 4-0 leading up to the trade deadline on March 1st isn’t likely to get the Lightning into the conversation.
Last night, the Lightning gained a point in the standings only to have the cut line for the second wild card spot go up by a point. The fact is, the Lightning have to play two to three wins better than six different teams in the East for the rest of the season to get the wild card. That just doesn’t seem likely, even with the hopeful return of Steven Stamkos sometime in March.
I guarantee that Steve Yzerman didn’t take much time off during the bye week, and scouted players to prepare for the trade deadline. He likely was preparing strategies to buy just in case everyone else in the East came down with the mumps and had to put their AHL teams on the ice. But he certainly was preparing to sell off assets.
The expansion draft is going to complicate the trade deadline, especially for teams that might be looking to move a player with term left on their contract. Unless they are a bottom of the line up or depth player, if they’re worth being traded for, they’re probably worth protecting in the draft. The same applies for any player where the team wants to extend their contract as a part of making the trade, like with Kevin Shattenkirk.
The weakness and lack of depth in this year’s draft has lead to speculation that NHL GMs will be more willing than normal to trade away first round draft picks. Yzerman may be able to use that knowledge to get a first round pick on a player he might not otherwise have been able to, or get extra assets out of a deal that normally would have rated a first-round pick as compensation.
The salary cap is also going to be a big deal. Some teams that are buying won’t have much room to take on any salary. Unless the Lightning retain some salary, they may have trouble moving certain players they may otherwise want. However with an expiring contract, that’s not such a big deal for Yzerman to do and get a little extra out of the other team.
Next year’s salary cap and roster will be just as much of a factor. With the salary cap projected to be flat next year, there won’t be much room to factor in raises without offsetting that salary someplace else. The Lightning have a number of restricted free agents that are due raises in their next contract: Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, and Andrej Sustr. On top of that are the raises already agreed upon for Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning need a top four defenseman for next season. Preferably someone young that doesn’t need to be protected in the expansion draft but that isn’t necessary. Term on their contract or on team control would be a nice positive.
The Lightning also need future salary cap flexibility. This means trying to move some salary already committed and possibly salary that will otherwise be committed next season.
The last thing needed is to continue to restock the pipeline. The Lightning need a continuous influx of young talent into the system to make this franchise a long term playoff contender. You need a core of players that you build around and then you use young players to fill in the holes for cheap. When the core players start to age, you look to replace them with young players that are becoming more expensive. Otherwise, you trade those players off for more assets. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but sometimes it’s what you have to do to maintain long term success.
Unrestricted Free Agents
The Lightning only have two pending unrestricted free agents that are worth selling, Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle.
Bishop has picked up his game since the beginning of the month which should help to reassure other teams that he is ready to step in and be a starter for them. There’s only a couple of teams that make sense at this point.
While Dallas and then St. Louis were popular picks for landing spots for Bishop, Dallas is in a similar position to the Lightning, at 6 points out of the wild card. St. Louis seems happy with Jake Allen, and he’s settled into the starter’s role.
That could leave a team like Calgary that is barely hanging onto a playoff spot. They’ve struggled to find good, consistent goaltending this season and have been splitting time between Chad Johnson and Brian Elliott.
Bishop would likely bring back at least a first-round pick. If the Lightning needed to retain some of his salary for the rest of the season to help the other team with the cap, they could pick up even more, perhaps a middle-round pick or a prospect.
Rumors have been swirling about Boyle for awhile now. He’s one of the better bottom-six options available in the market. And he’s proven he can play up in the lineup, if given support by playmaking linemates who let him shoot the puck. He’s widely viewed by fans as “just a fourth-line grinder,” but he’s got a lot better shooting and goal production that you’d expect from a player with that role.
There’s been plenty of speculation that Edmonton is interested in Boyle, and for good reason. They could use an upgrade at third line center and a little more size. He’s also a great locker room presence who has been to the Stanley Cup Final twice. When I first researched a trade of Boyle, I thought that he’d probably only get a third-round pick, maybe a second at best. But as I’ve dug deeper, I’ve realize that most of the comparables I looked at were those “just a fourth-line grinder” types, and I was probably undervaluing him a bit. With the lower perceived value of first rounders this season, it’s quite possible that Yzerman could swing a first round pick out of an Edmonton for Boyle.
Veterans with Term
There are three players that come up in this section for me; Valtteri Filppula, Jason Garrison, and J.T. Brown.
The speculation around Filppula and Garrison has gone on for a while. With Namestnikov and Point, as well as Peca coming along nicely in the minors, the Lightning have center depth. Even if they were to get rid of Filppula and Tyler Johnson, they’d still have a solid center depth chart and one that would be pretty cheap next season past Stamkos.
Filppula has a partial no-trade clause that will keep some teams from being a buyer on him. He only has one year left on his contract with a $5 million cap hit. He’s had a bit of a resurgence this year after a down season in 2015-16. He’d provide a team with a veteran leader, a faceoff and penalty kill specialist, and a 2nd line center that can play against anyone in the league. A first-round pick would be likely, but with his NMC that forces him to be protected in the expansion draft, and his remaining salary, it may take the Lightning throwing something else in to get that first-round pick.
Garrison is a harder trade to make happen. He’s definitely taken a step back and carries a $4.6 million cap hit through next season. When the Lightning acquired him, it took only a second-round pick due to the money and term on his contract, and Vancouver’s desire to move on from him. To move him now, Yzerman may need to sweeten the deal for another team because of the salary commitment to next season. At this point, I’d accept getting a minimal return just for the salary cap relief next season.
J.T. Brown may be a bit of a surprise, and I do consider him a dark horse for actually being traded. He has a year remaining on his contract at $1.25 million. He is a fine fourth line player that can play up on the third line. He doesn’t get used a lot on the penalty kill in Tampa, but he’s definitely capable of doing so. The return would likely be a middle round pick for him, like a third or fourth rounder. He doesn’t have the same pedigree or offensive skills as Boyle to suggest he’d get more. He would also present a small amount of salary cap relief since he would likely be replaced by a player making about half of his salary.
Restricted Free Agents
The only RFA that I would consider likely to be traded is Tyler Johnson. He’s a restricted free agent in the offseason and due a decent raise from the $3.333 million he’s currently making. He’ll also have salary arbitration rights that will help him get what he wants in salary.
Johnson is a high-end second line center that does it all. His offensive production has suffered the past two seasons, though. I believe there are two primary contributing factors. The first was his broken wrist that didn’t fully heal until somewhere halfway through last season. The second has been his inconsistent linemates. He has been shuffled around a lot, and it’s clear that he does better when he can build chemistry with his line. His rookie season he spent the whole year with Palat on his left wing. His sophomore season he was with Palat and Kucherov all year. But the past two years he has often gotten mixed up with different players.
One thing Johnson does well, no matter what, is produce in the playoffs. He has a knack for playing big in big moments and is the kind of player you want on the ice in big spots during the playoffs. If there is any asset other than Bishop that could net the Lightning a young top-four defenseman, it’s Tyler Johnson.
Someone like Sami Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks would be very nice. Or even if the Lightning could pry Shea Theodore or Brandon Mountour out of the Ducks, that would be a real coup.