On Sunday night, the Lightning traded 2019 first round pick Nolan Foote and the first round pick they acquired from the Vancouver Canucks for JT Miller to the New Jersey Devils for Blake Coleman. The move came after rumors swirled around Coleman all afternoon beginning with a Darren Dreger report that the twenty eight year old forward was leaving the arena. Various reports connected him to the Colorado Avalanche and the Boston Bruins but at about 7 PM, all the insiders reported that a deal sending him to Tampa was done.
The sticker shock hits hard on this one. Foote has emerged this season as one of the best forwards in the Lightning system. Mea culpa that I wasn’t sold on the pick at the time but as usually happens when I doubt the Lightning scouting staff, those doubts started to dissipate quickly. He’s had a good season in the WHL and looked good at the World Junior Championships.
The first round pick from Vancouver is lottery protected in 2020 meaning that if the Canucks miss the playoffs this year, it will move to 2021. Given how the Canucks have struggled in recent years, that pick was tantalizing at the time of the trade. It wasn’t hard to imagine Vancouver missing the playoffs this year, being a lottery team again next season, and giving the Lightning a shot at a lottery pick in 2021.
But as of today, the Canucks are second in the Pacific Division and have an 86% chance of making the playoffs according to HockeyViz. Their shot metrics aren’t good but they’ve banked enough points that they’re likely to find a way into the playoffs. That means the pick the Lightning sent to the Devils will likely be a late teens or early 20s pick this summer.
Wherever that pick lands, the price was steep. Nolan Foote is a legitimate prospect and first round picks are valuable. So, what type of player are the Lightning getting in Coleman and does his value justify that cost?
Meet Blake Coleman
The answer here is an interesting one. For those whose primary method of evaluating forwards is to look at their points, this is going to look awful. Coleman’s 36 points last season were a career high. He has 31 this season in 57 games and seems a lock for a new career high, but even that doesn’t come close to justifying the price the Lightning paid.
The point totals, as is always the case, don’t tell the whole story here. In fact, the point totals are such a minor part of the story that beginning a discussion of Coleman with points does his game a disservice.
To start, he has an unusual offensive profile. Despite having only 36 points last season, he scored 22 goals. So far this season, 21 of his 31 points are goals. Over his four season career, he’s shooting right at 10% on 570 career shots. So while he might not be much of a passer, he has some finish to his game, and he’s not shy about shooting. He’s 18th in the NHL this season in shots on goal and 34th in shots overall. The low point totals disguise some real offensive talent. With all of the playmaking ability on the Lightning roster, Coleman shouldn’t have a problem continuing to get off shots and score goals.
While the offense is interesting, starting there buries the lead because first and foremost, Blake Coleman is a defensive stud. I’ve written many times about skater defense around these parts, particularly forward defense. Part of learning to appreciate what makes Anthony Cirelli exceptional has been getting more familiar with the best ways to evaluate skater defense. We also wrote over the summer about how players who contribute to winning without scoring a lot of points tend to be undervalued.
The price the Lightning paid in this trade doesn’t seem on the surface to support the idea that Coleman is undervalued. But in another way, he is. He’s in the second year of a three year deal that only pays him $1.8 million per season. When he signed that deal, he’d already posted one excellent season in which he was the second best defensive forward in the NHL and 65th best overall according to Wins Above Replacement from Evolving Hockey. Those are first line impacts.
He didn’t quite sustain that level last year but he’s back to being excellent this season posting top ten defensive impacts in terms of expected goals both at even strength and while shorthanded. By WAR, he’s posted the 14th best even strength defensive results and is 39th in total WAR among forwards in the entire NHL. Again, those are comfortably first line impacts.
The following plot shows how he’s played defensively this season. Because we’re talking about defense, negative numbers are good and positive numbers are bad. The vertical axis shows his impacts while shorthanded and the horizontal axis shows his impacts at even strength.
Looking at this plot, we could argue that based on both penalty killing and even strength impacts, he’s been one of the very best defensive forwards in the NHL this season. This is the plot we used in the article about Anthony Cirelli’s Selke Trophy candidacy last season and based on that criteria, Coleman’s defensive play alone is at that level this season.
If we focus just on his shorthanded play, we see how special he is in that area. This plot individual expected goals and total impact on the penalty kill so positive numbers are good here.
Not only are his impacts in terms of shot metrics excellent on the penalty kill, but he also has a unique ability to create offense for himself while the other team is on the power play. He’s tied for second in the NHL in shorthanded goals this season with three. In his three full seasons in the NHL, he’s tied for the lead with nine. So not only does he create offense on the penalty kill but he finishes his chances.
This combination of outstanding even strength defense, penalty killing prowess, and goal scoring is the thing that makes Coleman such an intriguing addition to the Lightning lineup. He fits a unique profile that not many players around the league do and that profile just happens to fit perfectly with the roster Tampa has constructed.
The Other Factors
For a team in the Lightning’s cap situation, getting that kind of performance from a player on such an inexpensive contract is hugely valuable. With Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev both needing new contracts this summer, the Bolts will almost certainly have to move out at least one roster player, if not two. Alex Killorn’s full no trade clause becomes a limited one this summer and he seems the most likely to go. Tyler Johnson will still have his no trade clause but he could also be on the way out if he’s willing to agree to a trade. Having Coleman locked in at $1.8 million ensures the team will have some depth to cover for those potential losses.
Another thing to consider here, which is difficult to evaluate, is that one of the other teams reported to be in on Coleman during the whirlwind of rumors was the Bruins. We wrote yesterday about how Tampa and Boston are locked into a race for the Presidents’ Trophy and could be headed for a second round matchup. So in order to fully evaluate this trade, we have to consider the value of not just adding Coleman to the Lightning roster, but also of keeping him off the Bruins roster.
This movie follows the Pens recent acquisition of Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild. So far this season Coleman has a slight edge on Zucker in terms of WAR but over the last three seasons, Zucker has been the better player mostly because of an excellent season in 2017-2018. Still, this is a strong response from the Lightning to a move by one of their Eastern Conference rivals.
The prices were similar too. Both teams paid a first round pick and the organization’s top prospect. Calen Addison, who went to the Wild, is a similar age and was also on Canada’s World Junior Championship team this winter. The decision on which team paid a higher price comes down to what you think of the two prospects involved and that will vary depending on which scouts you ask. But on average, the valuations would be similar enough that the trade packages can be considered comparable.
Considering all of the information we have available, this deal starts to look much more palatable for the Lightning than at first glance. Coleman is an exceptional defensive player with enough finishing skill on offense to give him real value at both ends of the ice. While he doesn’t fit the typical profile of a top line forward, he has performed well enough to justify that description. He won’t fill that role on a team as stacked as the Lightning but he wouldn’t be out of place in most teams top sixes. He’s also on an exceptional contract. For a team as cap strapped as the Lightning, that holds a huge amount of value.
When I originally heard Coleman was on the market, I couldn’t help but speculate on what a trade might look like given how well he fits the profile of the type of players I would like the Lightning to pursue. My hypothetical package was the Lightning’s first round pick and a player like Mathieu Joseph or even Taylor Raddysh. The package the Devils got is an upgrade both in the pick and the player. The Canucks pick is a better one than the Lightning’s and Foote is arguably the best prospect in the organization.
The interpretation of this deal is going to depend on how comfortable we are with idea that his defense and finishing talent will transfer to Tampa. If we can say confidently that Coleman brings first line impacts for $1.8 million per season, we might go so far as to say that the front office did well here. If we take a more conservative approach, we might say they overpaid by a bit to get a player who fits perfectly with the roster as currently constructed and to deny a rival an opportunity to improve their team. And if a team is ever going to make moves like this, the Lightning are in the position to do so.
As discussed above, with each summer, the front office is going to have a harder and harder time keeping talent on the roster due to the salary cap. Unless they can continue to pull off magic like the Kevin Shattenkirk deal, this season’s Lightning could end up being the best during this core group’s time together.
All of the stars are still in their primes. They haven’t had to trade any of the supporting cast yet. Sergachev and Cirelli are still on their entry level contracts. If the front office looked at the organizational landscape and decided this was the time to swing for the fences, I can’t disagree.
The future in terms of picks and prospects is inarguably worse today as the Lightning moved probably their most valuable pick and most valuable prospect yesterday. But the team on the ice is inarguably better. Coleman is going to make an already dominant group of skaters even stronger. He’s going to give them another player to rely on when the time comes to shut down the other team and protect the lead. He’s going to give the coaches another weapon on the penalty kill. He’s going to score some goals.
The price was high, but this is the type of player the Lightning should be pursuing. With this deal done, the future is even more now for the Lightning than it was yesterday.