According to Micah Blake Mccurdy’s model, the Lightning currently have a 14% chance of making the playoffs. DTMAboutHeart’s model also gives them an 14% chance. Dom Luszczyszyn’s model gives them a 12% chance. By any objective measure, the Lightning are likely going to miss the playoffs.
The competitive nature of professional athletes, coaches, and front offices scoffs at those numbers. This is a team that has gone deep in the playoffs in consecutive seasons. They’ll get one of their best players back in mid-March. One long winning streak would be enough to put them right back in contention. All it would take is a long-overdue run of good goaltending and something close to a fully healthy roster. All of this line of thinking is understandable, and likely still persists in different areas of the organization, particularly with the players and coaches who have to be focused on the next game.
The front office should and likely does have a different perspective. They might not check a model to calculate their odds of making the playoffs, but they can see the standings where the Lightning still need to pass several teams in order to get back into playoff contention. They can see the statistics, and although the numbers have improved over the last several weeks, they have been bad for most of the season. The front office can see a roster with obvious weaknesses that teams across the league have been able to exploit this year.
That vision should be enough to push the front office toward acknowledging that the team is unlikely to make the playoffs this season. Once they accept this high likelihood, their expectations and priorities should change. For any organization, accepting that the team will not meet the goals it set for itself before the year requires an ability to self-assess honestly, and that’s never easy. If the Lightning can get to this point of acceptance, they will encounter a new set of opportunities to succeed.
Missing the playoffs allows the front office to use the next seven weeks to put the team in the best position to come out of the summer with an improved roster. The most obvious way to do that is to trade the expiring contracts for whatever assets they can bring back to the team.
The two players heading to unrestricted free agency this summer are Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle. Neither player are practical to sign for next season, and both could be turned into assets before the trade deadline. Getting good value for them will be difficult because other GMs know the Lightning feel they have to move them. Even if the return isn’t ideal, they both have to be traded because letting them walk at the end of the year and getting nothing in return would be a waste.
After Bishop and Boyle, the Lightning have a few players with bad contracts that if moved, would free up much needed cap space. Valtteri Filppula and Jason Garrison are both players that the front office would probably move if they could. Garrison seems the more unlikely to move of the two. He struggled this year, and moving him would be a pure salary dump that requires additional assets either in the form of picks or prospects, and probably Tampa Bay retaining some salary as well.
Filppula seems a little more reasonable to move. He’s having a solid year, and with only one year left on his contract, he could be of use to a playoff team if the Lightning are willing to retain some salary.
If the Lightning are unable to move Garrison or Filppula, they might have to consider a buyout of Filppula. Otherwise, it seems impossible for them to re-sign all of their restricted free agents.
The cap crunch is real this summer as the team tries to re-sign Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Slater Koekkoek, and Andrej Sustr. The expansion draft complicates this picture further. If nothing changes before the summer, the Lightning will have to choose to protect only one of Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, and Vladislav Namestnikov.
If the team can convince either Filppula or Ryan Callahan to waive their no trade clauses and be exposed in the draft, that would allow the team to protect two or even all three of the above players, provided they also resolve the cap issues.
One interesting idea that would be a magic bullet for all of the above issues would be to consider trading Tyler Johnson. This trade would remove one of the RFA contracts, and free up another protected spot in the expansion draft. The challenge in this scenario is that the trade would have to bring back a player on an inexpensive salary who doesn’t need to be protected because otherwise, the team would still be in the same situation.
Trades are the most obvious option, but not the only option available to the Lightning to position themselves for next season. Players like Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman have played tons of minutes over the past three seasons. The next seven weeks would be a perfect opportunity to give them scheduled days off and decrease their workload as the team heads for the offseason.
Doing so would allow the team to recall Slater Koekkoek, who needs to be playing NHL minutes consistently. Playing him as well as Jake Dotchin and/or Luke Witkowski every night would allow all three the opportunity to gain valuable NHL experience.
Missing the playoffs means not worrying about playoff positioning, and that means win/loss outcomes are no longer the most important part of a game. The key to improving next season is getting better play from the blue line. Barring a major trade, the most likely way that happens is for either Koekkoek or Dotchin (or both) to develop into reliable NHL defenders. That won’t happen unless they get NHL minutes.
In a scenario where every loss puts the team in better position to get a high draft pick, mistakes shouldn’t be a concern. Every mistake is a teaching opportunity and the next two months would be the ideal time for both Koekkoek and Dotchin to play every night and work through their mistakes.
Steven Stamkos is still expected to return in mid-March. Shutting him down for the season is the best move for his health, and for the team in the long run. Playing him for three weeks at the end of a lost season after a major injury is an unnecessary risk. Allowing him to take off the rest of the season will let him come back in the fall ready to replicate his play from the beginning of this season, where he looked as good as he has at any point in his career.
Resting the stars and giving young players more ice time would likely lead to some extra losses down the stretch, meaning the Lightning could find themselves with a top-ten or low-teens pick in the draft. Trading Bishop and Boyle should land the organization with some extra mid-round picks for the draft as well. Same for Filppula. Tyler Johnson is the wild card. He could bring back real value in the form of a useful NHLer.
Heading into the draft with a slew of picks would be ideal for the Lightning. Worst case scenario, they have lots of chances to refill the pipeline. Best case scenario, they combine those assets in some way to land the defender they need so badly. Maybe they could trade their first and some of the extra picks to move up and take a real impact defender high in the draft. Maybe they could trade Tyler Johnson and a couple of the picks for that player. Maybe Dotchin and Koekkoek both look good enough for the next seven weeks, and the Lightning trade the extra picks to Las Vegas to ensure neither gets picked in the expansions draft.
The scenarios are endless. But none of them are possible unless the Lightning come to the decision as an organization that they aren’t making the playoffs this year. Once they do, all of the other opportunities to get ahead of the issues coming this summer appear.