The best bet for the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline this season is to make zero moves. But one idea has persisted in my head since the end of last season, and I can’t get it to go away so I might as well write about it.
Let me explain.
The Lightning should probably move no one
The Tampa Bay Lightning are currently among the best teams in the NHL. This is true whether you prefer to look at results statistics like goals and standings points, or performance metrics like shot share and expected goal share.
Much of the team’s success is due to the stars at the top of the roster. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman give the Bolts a warm-weather Mount Rushmore that towers over the opposition most nights. But the Lightning are also an exceptionally deep team with seven defenders and thirteen forwards who are all quality NHL players.
Because of that depth, the team is currently rotating through their roster giving players intentional rest nights. On defense, the only players in the lineup every night are Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. At forward, Adam Erne, Mathieu Joseph, Dannick Martel, and Ryan Callahan have been in the rest rotation so far. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other players like Cedric Paquette or even Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli added to that rotation.
This exceptional depth makes it unlikely that the Lightning will be active in the trade market. Further complicating things, the Lightning’s first round pick this year has conditions from the Ryan McDonagh trade. If the Bolts win the Stanley Cup, the pick goes to the Rangers.
Since the Lightning didn’t have their first round pick last year, the team will likely be hesitant to trade next year’s first as they would risk being out of the first round for three years in a row. Even for a good scouting team in “win now” mode, that’s not something a team should want to risk.
If the team is unwilling to move high end picks, that would leave them shopping in the bargain bin of trade acquisitions. With a team so deep, finding anything in that bin that would be a meaningful upgrade on the talent they already have seems unlikely.
But Chiarelli might want a panic trade
Peter Chiarelli is a bad General Manager. Very bad, in fact. So bad that even when gifted with the best player in the world and several other high end players, he can’t construct a consistent playoff team. Instead, he has made the team progressively worse through trades and free agency to the point where he’s rumored to be making the team’s first round pick and/or a young prospect like Jesse Puljujarvi available in a panicked effort to make the playoffs and save his job.
As a rule, teams with a legitimate chance at the Stanley Cup should not be in the business of making their teams worse in the short term for potential future gain. The Columbus Blue Jackets are providing an extreme case study in that concept this season. They are in the gray area as to whether their shot at the Cup is legitimate, and they have arguably their two most valuable players on expiring contracts. The debate in the front office must be intense. Should they keep Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin and make one more run at playoff success, or pull the plug and stockpile draft picks and prospects to accelerate the rebuild?
The Lightning are fortunately not in that situation. They are a legitimate championship contender and the favorite by most oddsmakers. Knowing that, they shouldn’t be doing anything to weaken their roster. They have several useful players on expiring contracts in Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, and Dan Girardi. But teams trying to win don’t sell at the deadline.
But...Chiarelli. He’s desperate for forward talent to bolster the embarrassing group he’s assembled. After Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have basically nothing. Puljujarvi, the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, seems to have stalled in his development. Discerning how much of that is due to issues with his talent and/or approach to the game as opposed to being in the circus in Edmonton is almost impossible from the outside.
Unfortunately for Chiarelli, the trade market is not overflowing with skilled forward talent signed to long term deals. Most of the players available are either on expiring contracts or bad contracts that teams want to escape. Edmonton’s cap situation is already bad enough that they can’t afford to take on other team’s bad deals even if they might get a decent player in the process.
That brings me back to the Lightning. Tampa has two productive players on reasonable contracts that would look much better on McDavid’s wing than anything the Oilers currently have. The first is JT Miller and the second is Yanni Gourde. If I was Julien BriseBois, and I’m very much not, I would look at Chiarelli’s number in my phone five times a day deciding whether or not to call him.
Even making the call has risks. If he calls Chiarelli and they have a five minute conversation that goes nowhere, that could get leaked to the press as a trade rumor. And trade rumors have impacts in the locker room. The smart move here is to focus on the players in-house and only entertain trade options of other teams come calling.
But again, Chiarelli. How much would he pay for Miller? How much would he pay for Gourde?
The second question is easier to answer. Gourde is a small forward who doesn’t put up a ton of points and would be undervalued by a traditional GM like Chiarelli. Looking at WAR via Evolving Hockey over the last two seasons, Gourde is in the top fifteen forwards. He’s probably not quite that good, but Chiarelli wouldn’t even pay first line forward prices for him (let alone top fifteen prices), so there’s no deal to be made on that front.
That leaves us with Miller. This is the one where I get stuck every time I try to think through this. Miller is a big forward with a well-rounded game. His offense is good enough that he could consistently put up 60 - 70 points playing alongside McDavid. He showed it last season when he went on a tear playing with Kucherov and Stamkos. He’s also defensively responsible enough to take some of that responsibility away from McDavid and allow the best player in the world to do his thing.
Miller is only twenty five years old and signed for four years after this at a reasonable $5.25 million per season. He’ll be 29 when the contract ends, which is before we’d expect significant drop off in performance due to age. If the Lightning would consider moving Miller, he would become one of the most interesting options in terms of both skill level and organizational philosophy fit for Chiarelli.
The question for the Lightning would be what they could get in return. How desperate is Chiarelli? Could they get the Oilers’ first round pick, which could be a lottery pick? Could they get Puljujarvi? Is Kailer Yamamoto on the table? Could they get one of those plus another pick?
To be clear, any swap along these lines would be trade a the Lightning’s favor. The goal of making the call to Chiarelli isn’t to work out a fair deal. The goal is to see if Miller fits the prototype of player that he would overvalue while at the same time, undervaluing the Oilers’ prosects and picks because he needs wins in the short term to save his season. And on those terms, would that be enough to justify making the team worse in the short term?
A trade like this could answer future questions about the salary cap
The Lightning will be facing a salary cap crunch over the next couple summers. Brayden Point’s explosion to superstardom has complicated the cap sheet. Mikhail Sergachev and Andrei Vasilevskiy both need deals next summer. The team may find itself needing to move a player to make cap space and if they do, Miller would be the most obvious candidate.
So, if there’s a real feeling inside the front office that Miller might have to be traded this summer, might they consider making the move a few months early to take advantage of an opportunity to maximize the return?
Doing so would be risky, probably too risky to make it viable. If the team suffered an injury at forward in the second half of the season that impacted the playoffs, particularly to a player in the top six, the trade would look horrible in retrospect no matter the return. Miller also has a ten team no-trade list and Edmonton could be on it, which would make all of this moot.
But part of me still wants BriseBois to make that call. Dealing with Chiarelli is like a lottery. New Jersey won it once. The Islanders won it once. Milan Lucic won it once. You can’t win unless you buy a ticket. So, maybe, if he thinks it can be done discretely, BriseBois should stop by for a quick pick. You never know. Chiarelli might pull your numbers from the big hopper in his office.