Yesterday, the Lightning announced the signing of QMJHL forward Alex Barré-Boulet. He is scoring at a prolific rate in his age 20 season. He leads the league with 104 points in just 56 games. And that follows seasons where he scored 81 and 89 points in 65 games. The main reason he went undrafted is likely his size. Eliteprospects lists him at 5’7” and 165 lbs. Scouts also expressed concerns about his skating, as Geo noted in his writeup.
Let’s be clear about this signing: Barré-Boulet is unlikely to be a significant contributor in the NHL. He scored 51 points in his draft year and didn’t start to have success in the QMJHL until he had age on his side. From an NHL perspective, that’s not the typical profile of future players who stick in the league. Finding players who have NHL futures undrafted and unsigned in their age 20 season is rare, and expecting Barré-Boulet to be an exception would be a mistake. But that doesn’t mean signing him is bad idea.
In fact, signing Barré-Boulet is a great idea and is another example of the Lightning being a smart organization that understands how to increase their chances of extending their competitive window. In the NHL, success is cyclical. The league intentionally makes it difficult to sustain success so that all teams have a chance at success. They accomplish this with the draft, which rewards bad teams and punishes good teams. The salary cap also makes it difficult for good teams to retain their players.
In order to sustain success, teams need to understand how to overcome these challenges. The cap is a hard boundary but structuring contracts intelligently and negotiating shrewdly can help get the most return from the available cap space. The Lightning have been good but not great in this area. They’ve been able to get players at good value in some cases but have also hamstrung themselves with some bad contracts.
The draft is also a hard boundary in a way. Where a playoff team finishes determines their draft spot. Drafting at the bottom of every round obviously makes it difficult to build a prospect pipeline. And without a pipeline of talent to follow the current players, any successful team will ultimately start to falter as the current roster ages. Compounding this problem is that competitive teams are likely to trade draft picks and prospects for immediate roster improvements thus further weakening their prospect pool.
Despite these challenges, the Lightning have been exceptional at keeping the pipeline stocked during this current run of success. Part of that has just been good drafting. Brayden Point is the best example of this. He was a third round pick in 2014 and he’s already playing like a first line center. He’s far from the only player though. Taylor Raddysh, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Boris Katchouk are all examples of finding players who look like future NHL contributors at varying points in the draft.
But drafting smart alone is not enough to maintain a pipeline for a competitive team. The Lightning, like most competitive teams as mentioned above, have at times found themselves short of draft picks. And that’s where we come back to the signing of Barré-Boulet. Using a contract slot on a player like him is a perfect low risk gamble for a team with limited access to prospects through the draft.
The Lightning obviously have a recent example of this paying off for them. Yanni Gourde’s emergence is one of the best storylines in the league. Like Barré-Boulet, Gourde lit up the QMJHL. He then had to go to the ECHL before finally getting a contract from the Lightning.
The point of bringing up Gourde isn’t to say that Barré-Boulet will match his production. He almost certainly won’t. Gourde is a exceptional case and for Barré-Boulet, just making the NHL and playing with any consistency would be a great outcome. The point of the comparison is to show that making a small investment in a player with a history of high end production can pay off with a return much greater than the initial investment. Another example of this process paying off is Jonathan Marchessault. While the Lightning were ultimately one of the teams that missed on him, his is another case that suggests gains can be made here.
Considering where the Lightning are drafting and how often they will trade picks during this run of being among the best teams in the Eastern Conference, they are unlikely to have a problem with going up to or over the 50 contract limit. So using one of those open slots on a player like Barré-Boulet is a perfect way to slightly improve the likelihood the prospect pool can sustain the team’s success.
Overage players, NCAA free agents, and under-utilized NHL players are all examples of where a team like the Lightning should be looking to find ways to supplement their talent pool. Being at a disadvantage in the draft means they need to find advantages in other areas. Overage players with gaudy scoring numbers seems to be one they understand clearly. Finding opportunities to continue to take advantage of that area and others will be key to their ability to keep from falling out of contention as their current stars age and the cap situation gets more and more complicated.