The Stanley Cup Final isn’t quite over yet. But for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the planning and preparation for the 2018-19 season has been underway for some time. The NHL Entry Draft and free agency are officially less than three weeks away. Trades and signings can and will change the course of what the Lightning do for the 2018-19 season. But before we get to that point, let’s to take a look at the organization and where it currently stands for next season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The core of the Lightning’s roster is already in place and under contract for next season. There are a few questions here and there about restricted free agents and possible trades of one or two roster players. But there shouldn’t be any doubt that the roster the Lightning had for the playoffs is going to be almost the same roster they’ll be running out on opening night for the 2018-19 season.
Players highlighted in red are restricted free agents and need new contracts for next season. Players with asterisks next to their name are waiver exempt and can be sent to the Syracuse Crunch without needing waivers.
To me, Anthony Cirelli cemented his place on the Lightning’s roster. He was solid in his third line center and penalty killing role down the stretch. He played well enough in the playoffs. He’s responsible and exactly the kind of forward that Jon Cooper loves.
The biggest question marks for me are the potential futures of J.T. Miller, Braydon Coburn, Slater Koekkoek, and Jake Dotchin.
Miller was acquired at the trade deadline and is a restricted free agent projected to make in excess of $5 million on his next contract. Even with the salary cap making a strong upward movement next season, it’s going to be hard for the Lightning to afford him over a long-term deal with all of the other contracts that will be up for renewal in the next two summers. If Yzerman and Miller are content with signing a one or two-year deal, then he’s sticking around. If he really wants a long-term deal, Yzerman may be forced to trade him away, which would make room for a lesser free agent signing or a prospect.
Coburn is entering the last year of his deal. He seems to have slowed down. I think the coaching staff likes him, but I’d like to see him replaced with a younger, swifter player on the third pair. Which moves into the next roster decision...
Koekkoek or Dotchin? Both have been buried on the depth chart by the Lightning bringing in Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev. Dotchin played regularly early in the year prior to the acquisition of McDonagh. However, it seemed like he lost favor with the coaches. On the other hand, Koekkoek seems like a player that might want a chance somewhere else as he still has a lot of promise in his game. Who do you let go of if the team hangs on to Coburn for the last year of his deal?
One factor is that Sergachev showed he could play right or left side defense during the playoffs. That leaves a lot of flexibility on which defenseman to hang on to. But with Coburn still on the roster, either player they keep will be destined for the press box. If that’s the case, I’d rather see a trade of Koekkoek who would likely have better value since someone will see him as a reclamation project that could pay dividends.
If Coburn is moved out though, I’d like to see Koekkoek get the first opportunity on the third pair next to Sergachev, or perhaps next to Girardi if Sergachev moves up the depth chart on the right side to play with Victor Hedman or McDonagh.
Louis Domingue is a restricted free agent and the Lightning’s usage of him as the back-up to Andrei Vasilevskiy after Peter Budaj returned from injury shows that their plan is for him to be the back-up going into 2018-19.
A lot of fan talk has centered around moving on from Cedric Paquette. I don’t expect that to happen. He will still be a cheap serviceable fourth line center for this team.
The Crunch look like they will again have a pretty young roster. I expect this line-up to change much more than theTampa Bay Lightning roster above. There are always free agent veteran signings brought in to bolster the AHL team. While a lot of young players played well and proved themselves capable of producing in the AHL, there needs to be a sprinkle of veterans. I’d particularly look to the blue line for at least one veteran signing. As it stands, Daniel Walcott is the most experienced defenseman entering his fourth AHL season. But he’s also spent a good amount of that time playing forward.
Michael Bournival, Olivier Archambault, Carter Verhaeghe, and Gabriel Dumont are the veterans up front for the Syracuse Crunch. We should see another veteran or two brought in that could push one or both of Otto Somppi and Alex Barre-Boulet to the ECHL for more development time. Bournival had knee surgery in March that ended his season. It’s likely he won’t be ready for the start of the season.
Daniel Walcott is also a question mark as to whether he’ll be retained. And if he is, if he’ll continue as a forward or move back to defense. Realistically, if he wants to make it to the NHL, his road is much clearer if he molds himself as a fourth line energy winger.
That also leaves open a spot for a left-handed veteran defenseman to be brought in to play in the top four. I’d also expect at least one more veteran defenseman to be signed for depth. Matthew Spencer could end up back in the ECHL as he spent parts of this past season with the Adirondack Thunder when the Crunch didn’t have room to play him.
Cal Foote should be a big part of the defensive line-up for the Crunch. He is an important prospect for the Lightning and there will be a push for him to develop quickly and have a prominent role for the Crunch to prepare him for the NHL. I’d say to Crunch fans that they shouldn’t get too attached to Foote. It would not surprise me one bit if he is in the NHL at the start of the 2019-20 season.
One wild card for the Crunch is Alexey Lipanov. At 19-years old, he can easily go back to the OHL for another season. But since he was drafted out of Russia, he is eligible to join the AHL this coming season. If the Crunch can find consistent playing time for him on the third line, then it makes sense for him to be playing in the AHL. If they can’t, then going back to the OHL for another season is likely best for his development. One con about going back is that his team, the Sudbury Wolves, were not very good this year and aren’t expected to be very good next season either.
The Lightning are also in need of a fifth goaltender and could bring back Olivier Mantha whom they signed to an AHL contract this year and assigned to the Adirondack Thunder. They could look around for another veteran option, but he seems like an ideal fit for the fifth goaltender spot.
And All The Rest
There are a number of players that I don’t expect to be retained either as restricted or unrestricted free agents, but could be potential re-signs for the AHL veteran spots I mentioned above. There’s also a handful of players in NCAA that are not expected to turn professional yet. If Lipanov ends up joining the Crunch, the only CHL prospects the Lightning will have next season are any that get drafted this month.