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Where and how the Lightning could upgrade their roster

There’s not much there, but there’s at least something.

2020 NHL All-Star - NHL Fan Fair & Mascot Showdown Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

The bye week and the NHL All-Star Game break has come and gone for the Tampa Bay Lightning. They got to rest up after a grueling part of the schedule that saw the team play 13 games in 21 days, including four back-to-backs, and multiple three games in four days and four games in six days stretches. The opponents themselves weren’t of the highest caliber with a number of non-playoff teams in that stretch. The Lightning acquitted themselves well though winning games they needed to win by going 11-2-0 and completing a ten game winning streak that started with the game prior to the Christmas break.

Now that we’re past the All-Star Break, we’ll be fast approaching the trade deadline. The Lightning have made some big trades at the deadline in the past, but they’ve also had some quie deadlines. There’s a lot of debate and analysis going on recently, including by the Tampa Bay Lightning’s front office, about the impacts of big trade deadline moves. Some of the reality is that the acquired player only has about a month to settle in, figure out his new situation, and be ready for the playoffs. It’s rare now for such a player to hit the ground running and make a huge impact. It’s also common for teams to give up a first round pick and have things not work out for them.

With that in mind, I’m not expecting any big blockbuster trade out of the Lightning this year. They also don’t need it. When they acquired Braydon Coburn prior to the 2015 playoffs, they really needed that defensive depth especially with Radko Gudas out for the year with an injury. When the team acquired Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller prior to their 2018 playoff run, they needed another defenseman and upgraded on Vladislav Namestnikov with the Miller part of the deal. In both cases, they also were looking at players that would be around beyond just one playoff run. All three were re-signed to contracts within the next year, though Miller ended up being a salary cap casualty and was moved last summer before the draft.

When you go down the roster, and look beyond it into the AHL, you can definitely point to some shortcomings with this year’s group. That’s true for every team. In a salary cap world, it’s impossible to look at a team and go “Yeah, there’s no way to actually upgrade this team at all.” But for the Lightning, it’s not the big pieces (barring any unforeseen injuries) that we should be worried about. It’s more at the edges and fringe of the roster that there could be some upgrades.

Quick note on the external options listed below. Some of these teams are probably not actively shopping. Many probably think they still have a chance because some divisions and wild card races are pretty tight. The teams I’ve picked from are ones that I think have a good chance of sliding enough in the next month that they could be willing to sell off some assets as the deadline gets closer.

Bottom Six Forward

Internal Options: Mathieu Joseph, Cory Conacher, Gemel Smith, Danick Martel, Alex Volkov, Ross Colton

External Options: Luke Glendening (Detroit Red Wings), Tyler Ennis (Ottawa Senators), Zemgus Girgensons (Buffalo Sabres), Johan Larsson (Sabres), Conor Sheary (Sabres), Jesper Fast (New York Rangers), Kyle Clifford (Los Angeles Kings)

The bottom six of the Lightning is currently made up of Pat Maroon, Cedric Paquette, Yanni Gourde, Mitchell Stephens, Carter Verhaeghe, and Alex Killorn/Tyler Johnson. The last one there is a slash because both have moved back and forth between the top two lines and some where in the bottom of the lineup. Of these players, Maroon, Gourde, Killorn, and Johnson are locked in. Paquette is also pretty much a lock as he has experience and the coach’s trust. The results haven’t been there compared to expectations, but he’s been playing well enough on the penalty kill and in faceoffs to keep his spot.

So that leaves Mitchell Stephens and Carter Verhaeghe as the weaker links in the chain of the bottom six. Stephens has been developing a little more of a case to stick over Verhaeghe. He doesn’t have the offensive upside, but he’s been winning faceoffs at an incredible rate and has been getting some trust from the coaching staff on the penalty kill. The fact he’s a center gives him more flexibility. Verhaeghe has started to picked up some swagger, and scoring a hat trick could certainly help him there. But he’s still in a position of needing to continue to show improvement to the coaching staff and to the front office, or he could find himself as an odd man out.

Internally, Mathieu Joseph is probably the best option to step in. He’s had his struggles in the NHL this year and was sent back to the AHL to re-discover his game. He’s getting plenty of minutes with the Crunch and has been producing offensively. He needs to keep showing that and keep pushing things forward to get another shot.

The rest of the internal options are safe, and free, options. We know exactly what we’re going to get out of a guy like Conacher. Martel and Smith are in that same boat. They’re both great depth pieces, but not players that you’d expect to be big impact guys, even in the bottom six.

Some quick notes on the external options:

  • Glendening, DET - $1.8 million cap hit, good defensively, not much offensive upside.
  • Ennis, OTT - $800,000 cap hit, has been good defensively and has played most of his career in the Atlantic Division. More offensive punch and would be a third line winger.
  • Girgensons, BUF - $1.6 million cap hit, not too much offense here, but has been a pretty good defender on a bad Buffalo team.
  • Larsson, BUF - $1.55 million cap hit, about the same as Girgensons and is right up there with Girgensons in terms of defense for the Sabres.
  • Sheary, BUF - $3 million cap hit, more expensive, but more offensive and less defensive. Has experience playing with star players (Sidney Crosby), making him more of a middle six player that could move up the line up to cover injuries at the top.
  • Jesper Fast, NYR - $1.85 million cap hit. Similar to Sheary in having more offensive upside. Would make for a high end third liner, but the cost to acquire is going to be higher. If the Rangers decide to be sellers.
  • Clifford, LAK - $1.6 million cap hit. Bigger body at 6’2” and 212 pounds. Has been middle of the pack for a declining Kings roster. Doesn’t bring much offensively.

Right Handed Defenseman

Internal Options: Cal Foote?

External Options: Mike Green (Detroit Red Wings), Ron Hainsey (Ottawa Senators), Dylan DeMelo (Senators)

The biggest weak spot on the blue line is Jan Rutta. He’s playing alright, but it’d be nice to have a stronger partner to pair with Victor Hedman. I’d like to see Cal Foote get a little stretch of games, maybe five or so, to play next to Hedman as we get closer to the trade deadline. At the very least, the front office can get a look at how far he’s come when they put him into an NHL lineup. That will help them in their decision making for this summer and going into next season where Foote has a very realistic chance of making the roster.

But the reality is that the cost of upgrading over Rutta just might not be worth it. The Lightning are already really solid with Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak on the blue line. Having one weak link in that group isn’t so bad, especially when the team also has Braydon Coburn for some depth on the left side. And getting another third pairing defenseman that is a marginal improvement over Rutta just might not be worth the cost of acquiring.

There’s also the question of how getting another top four type defenseman would impact their play as well as the rest of the line up. With Hedman, Sergachev, and Shattenkirk getting all of the power play time, picking up a player like Mike Green who has been a big power play producer (and who isn’t providing much this year at any strength) just might not make sense. You’d need a player that is going to make an impact at even strength and on the penalty kill.

Someone like Ron Hainsey is reliable and knows how to play with top defensemen. He’s still playing 20 minutes a night at 38 years old on an Ottawa Senators team that has been thin on the blue line this year. At least he doesn’t need to play on the power play to get points. Dylan Demelo is in a similar boat for the Senators.

The reality though is that I’m not seeing too many players out there on expiring contracts that look like obvious trade targets. This is one where it might feel like it’s a place that should be easy to upgrade, but it’s actually a lot harder than it appears. With many of the expiring contract, right handed defensemen, you’re talking about very marginal gains over Rutta, if that. So Foote may really be the best option for upgrading the right side of the defense, and it wouldn’t cost the Lightning anything to do so.