As hockey fans, it’s fun to try and figure out what your team is going to do before they do it. Debating with other fans about what the best moves or decisions to make are fun, if sometimes heated. Having these discussions also helps one to further refine their thoughts, their reasoning, and hone in on “the best” decisions for the team.
In my head, I’m playing Armchair GM all the time with the Tampa Bay Lightning. I like to think about the “what-could-bes” when it comes to thinking about the future of this franchise. The playoffs are over and the offseason is officially under way. And I have a plan! Let’s see what I can pull off with my plan for Steve Yzerman and see just how much of what he ends up doing I can predict. Some of my ideas are going to be a bit more of a long shot and I will note as such when that comes up.
As much as many fans like to take off on flights of fancy, I have confined myself to working within the bounds of reality. I’m not going to suggest something willy-nilly just because I can. I’m going to do my best to offer up moves, deals, and solutions that are within the realm of possibility for Steve Yzerman and try to give good, sound, logical reasoning for it just as we expect from Yzerman.
The team is in pretty good shape as it is for next season. The Lightning lack their first round pick for this draft after trading it to the New York Rangers in the Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller deal. The general philosophy guiding my way forward is that the team just needs some tweaks here and there. No major shake ups of the roster are needed. The major core pieces that are in place and signed to long-term contracts aren’t going anywhere. The farm is also stocked with some near-NHL ready prospects and some longer term prospects as well. There is no need to enter a rebuild and trade a bunch of NHL assets for futures at this time. But we also know that Yzerman always has one eye on the NHL and one eye on the farm when he’s making decisions.
Jon Cooper isn’t going any where. Full Stop. For everyone suggesting this...No. It’s not happening. It’s not within the realm of reality. But a shake up of the staff is certainly a possibility and I have one particular idea in mind. Rick Bowness.
Bowness has been with the team since the 2013-14 season as the Associate Head Coach as well as handling the penalty kill and the defense. From some of the comments made during locker clean-out interviews, I feel like the team is looking for a shake up on the defense. One reason that Bowness was brought in was to be a veteran coach to help guide Cooper as a rookie head coach. At this point in his career, that isn’t necessary.
You also can’t ignore that Bowness never had any sustained success as a head coach in the NHL. With the penalty kill taking a huge step back and the defense being questionable at times, I think it’s time for a shake up here. Bowness has done a mostly solid job but it just seems there needs to be some changes. I don’t have the knowledge set to provide viable candidates to replace him, but it feels like something that is needed.
[Update:] Well it didn’t take long for Steve Yzerman to listen to me on this one. Rick Bowness has been relieved of his duties as associate coach. In addition, the team has mutually agreed to part ways with Brad Lauer as he seeks an expanded role elsewhere. With Lauer being the coach in the press box during games, the team could choose to fill the staff with just one more coach or they could add two.
Trade J.T. Miller or sign him to a very short term deal
While J.T. Miller had a pretty big impact down the stretch scoring at almost a point per game, he faded away in the playoffs. A big reason for picking him up was that he was big and physical and the Lightning wanted that for the postseason. With only eight points in 17 playoff games, he didn’t bring enough impact and also didn’t help kick Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov into gear when the team needed that line to produce the most.
The Lightning gave up a healthy amount of assets to acquire Miller and McDonagh. The big question though is going to be his next contract. He’s a restricted free agent and with two seasons over 55 points and three seasons over 20 goals, he’s going to command a pretty healthy price on a long term deal. Tyler Johnson’s $5 million AAV with 5-7 years of term is a fair comparable to Miller.
I just have a hard time seeing how the Lightning can afford that past next season when contract extensions for Kucherov, Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, and Andrei Vasilevskiy come up over the next couple summers. The only way would be to completely gut the defense and play a lot of young players on cheap contracts which seems like a recipe for disaster as evidenced by a top heavy team like Chicago.
So with that in mind, I see two options for Miller: trade him or sign him to a short-term deal. A short-term deal seems less likely. Yzerman doesn’t like giving up in their prime assets for nothing and letting players walk into unrestricted free agency unless he can help it. At a minimum, he wants to buy at least one year of free agency when he’s re-signing a restricted free agent that’s not a depth player.
A one year deal would mean he’d still be a restricted free agent next summer. A one-year deal though probably means over paying to get him to accept it. A $6 or $6.5 million deal for next year would be reasonable enough for Yzerman to fit under the cap and keep him in the fold while this roster is at it’s peak. On the other hand, Yzerman could seek to trade him for a mid-first round pick. Some possible landing spots:
- Edmonton Oilers at 10th overall who could use a big body with skills and speed to slot on the left side of Connor McDavid. But they might not have the cap space to do it.
- New Jersey Devils at 17th overall. They have Taylor Hall on their top line, but they could make use of a player like Miller to enhance their top six. They should have plenty of cap space to sign him to a long term deal.
- Philadelphia Flyers at 14th and 19th overall. They like big bodies and have an extra 1st round pick. However, they probably don’t need him that badly.
- Colorado Avalanche at 16th overall. For a team that took a big step forward this season, adding another top six scorer to the mix could be what the Avs need to really push ahead and they have a ton of cap space.
Start talks with Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde on contract extensions
For both players, they may not want to do anything just yet. They could further bolster their resumes with another year in the 60 point arena. The other side for those two would be financial security and sticking around with Tampa. With Gourde already being 26 years old and having come up undrafted through the ECHL, he may be more inclined to take the security of a long term deal even if it’s for a lesser amount. Point though could still show he has even more to give and wait out the last year of his entry level contract to maximize his earnings.
If Gourde was willing to accept a 3-4 year extension that paid around $5 million, I think the Lightning would be very happy with that. If he puts up another 60+ point year though, he’d have to be looking at $6 million or more in his next contract. For Point, it would probably take a max term eight year deal to get something done now. If he was willing to take an eight year contract at $6.5 million per year, the Lightning should be happy with that. There is still the option though of bridging him after next season.
A lot of the time in contract extensions for players like this, it comes down to how much they want to maximize their earnings and how risk-adverse they are. Some players are more willing to take a little discount for the comfort and security. But not every player is like that. Just because Stamkos and Victor Hedman took hometown discounts doesn’t mean we should expect that of every single player the Lightning look to sign. And I don’t blame any player that wishes to make the most money possible.
Seek a trade partner for Braydon Coburn
A lot of talk surrounding how the Lightning played in the Eastern Conference Final was how slow their defense looked. The Lightning had gone to Dan Girardi in the offseason and then traded for McDonagh. Girardi is a decent enough skater but he’s not super mobile. McDonagh is mobile enough, though he wasn’t utilized in a way to maximize his offensive potential.
Coburn has slowed down. While still solid enough defensively, he doesn’t generate offense. He has trouble at times with getting the puck into transition to put the Lightning on the attack. While his shots against metrics looked good throughout the year, his overall possession numbers weren’t great because of the lack of offense.
With Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin still available to play with the organization, Coburn as a third-pair defenseman can be expendable. He has one year left on his contract with a $3.7 million cap hit. He has a 16 team trade list that opens up on July 1st. Yzerman could ask him to accept a trade before the draft though and ask for his 16 team list early to facilitate a deal.
What will he fetch in return? A second or third round pick seems to me like a reasonable asking price. I think trying to get a first round pick, unless it’s from the very end of the first round, would be a hard ask and would require throwing in another asset of some sort to get that kind of deal done. The NHL is moving away from defensemen like Coburn and that combined with his 16 team trade list may make the possible destinations for him limited.
Training Camp Competition
Weather the Lightning trade Miller or not, there will be open forward spots on the NHL roster. At this point, I think Anthony Cirelli has locked down his position as the third line center. That leaves the team looking for a fourth line left wing to pair up with Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan. There’s also the 13th forward spot. And if Miller is traded, there’s a top nine role that could be either a left or right wing. One of these spots could be taken by a free agent signing in the vein of Chris Kunitz (maybe even Kunitz coming back for another kick at the can). Any veteran signing would pretty much guarantee taking away one of these spots.
The main names within the organization competing for those open spots are Adam Erne, Cory Conacher, Mitchell Stephens, Mathieu Joseph, and Alexander Volkov. Matthew Peca would also be in the mix if he is re-signed, but he is an unrestricted free agent and I have a feeling he’ll be looking for an opportunity elsewhere.
Erne and Conacher have the inside track for the spots. They have the NHL experience. Erne and Conacher both have the offensive and forechecking games to be effective in the bottom six on either the third or fourth line. They also both have the flexibility to play either wing. Erne could also fill in at center for Paquette in the event of injury. Both are waiver eligible, so they would have to pass through waivers to go to the Syracuse Crunch. Of the two, Conacher is the more likely to make it through waivers, but there is a decent chance either one could be claimed by another team that has a bottom six spot to give them.
Stephens, Joseph, and Volkov all had terrific rookie seasons for the Syracuse Crunch. I think all three could use more seasoning in the AHL to round out their games and be dominant offensively.
Stephens offers the most flexibility being able to play center as well as wing. He’s got hands and smarts and plays with a lot of energy. He’s been compared to a young Ryan Callahan and can be an asset on the penalty kill.
Joseph was a surprise developer offensively in the QMJHL after being a fourth round pick and kept the offense going in the AHL. He’s got a lot of energy, but could use more muscle on his frame. If he comes into training camp with another 10 pounds on his 6’1” frame, that could give him an advantage he otherwise might not have had.
Volkov has been described as an Ondrej Palat type of two-way player. Where he differs from Palat is that he is a shooter rather than a playmaker. He gave himself a big challenge by coming to the United States as a 20-year old Russian that didn’t know any English. Hearing his exit interview, I was impressed by how well he communicated his thoughts to the camera. Another summer learning English to be able to better communicate with the coaches and his teammates will be big. He’s also a big body at 6’1” and 192 pounds. He’d add some weight to the bottom six if he can make a big enough impression in training camp and the pre-season.
The last training camp competition will be for the back-up goaltending spot behind Andrei Vasilevskiy. I don’t think it will be much of a competition though. Louis Domingue was the back-up even after Peter Budaj returned from injury. I expect that Budaj will be waived at the end of training camp and take a mentor role to Connor Ingram in Syracuse.
Nothing majorly ground breaking in my thoughts here but this team doesn’t need groundbreaking ideas. It just needs some smart moves to make gains in a few specific areas. I think every suggestion I’ve made here is realistic and would help to move the Lightning forward into next season. The Stanley Cup window is most definitely open and there for the taking. A few tweaks, adjustments, and upgrades and the Lightning should be right back in the mix for a Championship.