Going into the 2017-18 NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning will have a lot of lineup questions to answer. The roster is mostly set, with the biggest question being whether Mikhail Sergachev will make the team or not, and who will win the last forward spot. Beyond that, the question also becomes, how do the lines and defense pairs stack up?
There are a lot of dominoes in the chain for how the forward lines can fall.
If Vladislav Namestnikov ends up taking the first line left-wing spot, he would push Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and newly acquired Chris Kunitz down the line up, with one of Killorn or Kunitz potentially moving to the right wing.
If Brayden Point or Tyler Johnson move to right wing on the second line with the other guy taking the center spot, that would strengthen the right-wing depth. After Nikita Kucherov, there’s a pretty far drop off to Yanni Gourde, Ryan Callahan, and J.T. Brown.
If both of those things happen, that leaves a gaping hole at the third-line center position with some question marks about who would fill it. There’s a number of candidates and each one has implications on where other pieces in the lineup would fall. Let’s look at each of the potential centers for the third line and do some speculation on what that would mean.
Namestnikov had a great showing early in the 2016-17 season playing left wing with Steven Stamkos and Kucherov. The line was dynamic, controlled possession, and produced points at even strength. Namestnikov has been an interesting case of the team not getting the most out of his talents due to his usage.
When LoserPoints did the write up for Namestnikov for our 2017 Top 25 Under 25 ranking, he did a lot of statistical analysis that showed ways in which Namestnikov is underrated by hockey fans. His usage certainly hasn’t helped as he has been juggled up and down the lineup throughout his NHL career.
If Namestnikov doesn’t make the first line and is instead the third line center, that means putting Point in a larger position to succeed on the second line with Tyler Johnson. It would also put Palat and one of either Killorn or Kunitz into the top six as well.
My guess would be that Killorn gets the nod to play with Johnson and Point while Palat slides up to play on the first line. That leaves Kunitz as the left winger and Gourde as the right winger for the third line.
In that configuration, you give Namestnikov a solid trigger man in Gourde and some size and grit on the other side with Kunitz. Kunitz should also score his share of goals on that line and can take advantage of going to the dirty areas around the net to produce screens, re-directions, and rebound opportunities.
With Point serving as the third line center, that would allow Namestnikov the opportunity to play on the first line as we’ve discussed. That would mean pairing up Point with Killorn and either Kunitz or Callahan on the right wing as Gourde would have to move up to the second line right-wing spot. Point has the ability to drive play and set up other players. I do worry though that having two grinding wingers that don’t have the same reputation for driving play would bog him down.
However, knowing Jon Cooper, it could just as easily mean that Namestnikov still ends up on the third line with Palat and Killorn takes the top spot. That actually wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It would also mean either flipping Kunitz to the right side on the third line or plugging in Ryan Callahan, with Kunitz going to the fourth line.
I think Point and Namestnikov could be a potent pairing on the third line. I am a bit worried about the quality of their right winger. Forcing Kunitz to his off-wing side may not be a big deal for the veteran winger. But with how long he’s played on the left-wing, I wonder how well he would handle the transition. Callahan has also slowed down as he’s aged and dealt with a number of injuries. Hopefully Callahan has fully recovered from the hip injuries that have plagued him for the past two seasons and he can get back to being the kind of tough winger he was in 2014-15 playing with Steven Stamkos.
Most of the same points from Point also apply to Gourde because you’d just be switching their two spots around. Gourde has a lot less experience playing center, but has done it some in the AHL in the past few seasons. He’s always been more of a sniper than a playmaker, and during his stint with Tampa Bay last season, he didn’t produce very many assists. He did come up with some big goals though, and pairing him with Namestnikov on the third line would do well.
I’m less confident about a third line that involves some combination of Killorn, Kunitz, and Callahan with Gourde. Those three need a player that can set them up for them to be successful. With Gourde not showing as much ability in the NHL to set up his linemates, that could spell trouble.
The wild card in this situation would be Cory Conacher making the team as the third line right winger. That would mean Kunitz and Callahan playing on the fourth line with Paquette, while Namestnikov or Killorn plays on the left wing. That line would be very intriguing, but also very small. I worry about them not being fast enough to stay out of trouble against more aggressive opposing forwards.
Peca has one more year of waiver eligibility. That means the Lightning have a lot more flexibility with him. If he can’t make the team out of training camp, then he can go to the Syracuse Crunch and be ready for a call-up if injury befalls the forward corps.
However, he is an intriguing prospect to play on the third line with Killorn and Gourde as his wingers. Peca is a highly creative winger with a lot of speed. He’s a playmaker first and would have the ability to set-up his trigger man in Gourde and the dirty goal scorer Killorn. Peca on the third line would also make it much less likely to have Namestnikov on his wing because they are similar players.
Choosing this player might be a bit out in left field. While his offense in the OHL suggests he could be capable of a decent amount of offense in the NHL, third-line center would represent the absolute top of his ceiling. That’s a lot to ask of a 20-year-old rookie. In the NHL, Cirelli projects more as a fourth-line center that plays defense, kills penalties, and chips in a handful of points.
If there’s any AHL-eligible professional rookie that’s ready to make the jump to the NHL, it would be Cirelli. It’s very telling that he played in the Calder Trophy Finals with the Syracuse Crunch, often drawing into the lineup over veteran AHLers like Mike Halmo.
I think it’s a bit premature to think Cirelli would jump in to the third-line center spot, but it’s not so far-fetched that I can’t see it happening either. I’m willing to keep an open mind about this, but I think if he’s going to make the team out of camp, it’s to play on the fourth line along side Paquette and Callahan or Brown.
If you want a dark horse candidate, Brett Howden is your man. Selected 27th overall in the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Howden is a big two-way center with second line upside. He took over as the Captain of the Moose Jaw Warriors in 2016-17 with the departure of Point to the NHL.
Across 58 games played in 2016-17, Howden scored 38 goals and 81 points for 1.39 points per game. By comparison, Point scored 38 goals and 87 points over 60 games for 1.45 points per game as an 18-year-old. He joined the Syracuse Crunch to finish the 2016-17 season and had three goals and four points in five games. He added two more assists in three first round games for the Crunch. It’s a small sample size, but it’s a promising sign in his professional debut.
Howden has a lot of the characteristics that Steve Yzerman and Al Murray look for in prospects: high hockey-IQ, offensive instincts, and solid two-way play. Howden also has size to go with it, making him a well-rounded package at 6’3” and 192 pounds. In an interview, Howden noted that he had been working on his skating with renowned skating instructor Barb Underhill. She is credited with helping a lot of NHL players and prospects improve their skating to help them make it into the NHL.
Howden could fit in well on a third line made up of Killorn or Namestnikov and Gourde. With his ability to score as well as set up his teammates and dig for pucks in the corner, he can provide a solid presence in the center of the third line. If he does make the team, he’d be only the third 19-year-old player to make the Lightning in the Yzerman era.
It’s a long shot though. A long, long shot. But it’s an idea worth considering. If he goes back to Moose Jaw, he’s bound to dominate the WHL and has a very good chance of making Team Canada for the U20 World Junior Championships. But if he can provide a solid two-way presence in the middle of the third line and put up 25 to 30 points as a rookie, that would be a solid first professional season.
One possible route for Yzerman to take is to take advantage of the slide rule. Howden could start the year with the Lightning and play up to nine games in the NHL before the first year of his entry level contract gets used. The team has never used the “audition” period under Yzerman. This would be a good opportunity to take advantage of it and see if Howden can stick on the third line.