Well, it’s official. Yanni Gourde has been selected in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft by the Seattle Kraken. Since the protection lists came out, I pretty much knew this was going to be the outcome. With all of the reports that Ron Francis was asking really high prices for side deals, and with the Tampa Bay Lightning having limited resources for such a deal, I just didn’t see that being in the cards. While Ondrej Palat or Alex Killorn would have also been solid choices for the Kraken, Gourde was one of the more obvious picks out there and a near unanimous pick of any knowledgeable mock draft.
I’m sad to see Gourde go. He was a key cog in the middle six for the Lightning over the past few years. He worked hard. He played hard. He scored some awesome goals. He also caught a lot of flak from fans during the 2019-20 regular season because his counting stats were down. Anyone that looked deeper at his underlying numbers could tell he was just snake-bitten and riding an extremely unlucky streak in his shooting that didn’t match his career norms. During that streak that he was still providing positive value to the team even without filling the net. He came back to prove those nay-sayers wrong by scoring 7 goals and 14 points in the bubble to help drive the Lightning to a Stanley Cup.
He followed it up with a 17 goal, 36 point campaign and added another 6 goals and 7 points in the playoffs on the way to becoming a back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion.
However, we knew, and have known for a while, that the Lightning were going to be losing players. It’s the reality of the salary cap era. The team was able to push that eventuality off for a year due to the shortened season and Nikita Kucherov’s hip surgery that allowed the team to use Long Term Injured Reserve. That meant that last year, they only had to say good bye to Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian, Braydon Coburn, Cedric Paquette, and Carter Verhaeghe.
This year, there is no miracle cure to their salary cap problems lurking on the horizon. They’ve already traded away Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman and David Savard are expected to walk away in free agency. They had to move at least two significant contracts. Two important pieces. Now that the expansion draft is over, one of those important pieces in gone in Yanni Gourde. Now, it comes down to who will be the second contract to move. The prime options are Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and Tyler Johnson. They have to move one of them.
Those options come down to a few different factors, chief among them being what the return (or cost) is to trade each of them. And then it’s up to Julien BriseBois to determine which of those deals is the best for the team.
The Trade Options
Only considering the 2021-22 season, Palat is the most valuable to the team. He plays on the top line with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Moving him would put a definite hole there and the Lightning would either have to move Alex Killorn up to his spot, or take a chance on Mathieu Joseph, Ross Colton, or Alex Barre-Boulet being able to do enough to keep up with two super stars and support them on the top line.
Palat though also likely is the most valuable trade asset. He’s been consistently around the 0.6 point per game mark during his career. He’s a solid two-way performer that can much it up on the boards and retrieve pucks. He’s a great passer, but has an average shot. He’s ideally suited to playing on the wing with a couple guys that are great shooters that he can feed the puck to.
Palat has one-year remaining on his contract with a $5.3 million cap hit and his salary is the same amount. He has a modified No-Trade Clause that allows him to submit a 20-team trade list. That won’t kick in until free agency opens, but the Lightning could ask him to submit his list early to facilitate a trade prior to the NHL Entry Draft.
Killorn has two-years left with a $4.45 million cap hit and an actual salary to match. He is a player that does a little bit of everything for the Lightning, playing in the top six, on the power play, and on the penalty kill. He’s consistently been a 0.5 per game player in his career, but has turned that up a notch the past couple of seasons. He’s a streaky and on occasion he goes off at the right time, particularly the playoffs. This season he recorded 8 goals and 17 points in 19 playoff games, both one off from his career highs set in the 2015 playoffs.
Killorn also just came out in an interview and said that he doesn’t want to go to Seattle and he wants to retire as a Bolt. That may or may not be possible, but I do get the feeling that with the lowest cap hit of the three remaining players, he is the player the Lightning view has having the most value overall to the team. His Modified No-Trade Clause kicked in prior to last season and requires him to submit a 16 team no trade list, meaning he can be traded to half of the teams in the NHL.
Tyler Johnson is the popular choice among Lightning fans to be moved. However, he is the least valuable of the three players. While reports have been out there that the general mood of general managers in terms of adding players and salary is better than it was last offseason, and reports that Johnson’s reputation is better than it was last offseason, I still wonder if it would cost the Lightning something to move him. Johnson has three years remaining with a $5 million cap hit.
Despite playing mostly on the wing over the past few seasons due to Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Yanni Gourde taking the top three center spots, he is best suited to be a center. With Gourde gone, if Johnson was also moved, it would mean leaning on Ross Colton and Mitchell Stephens to center the bottom six. It would also mean not having much depth if a center was injured, particularly Point or Cirelli with Steven Stamkos being the only other top six capable center.
For those reasons, I’m leaning towards Johnson perhaps being the least likely of the three to be moved, but it’s still worth exploring. If the Lightning could get a 3rd or 4th round pick for Johnson, and hang on to Palat and Killorn, then it would keep the top six strong, but leave the Lightning with a few more question marks on the third line. The other way around leaves one question mark in the top six, but gives a little more strength and depth down the middle to the third line.
My opinion is that I think the Lightning should move Ondrej Palat. I believe he’s the player that has the most trade value and could net the Lightning a first round pick. The most recent first round pick that the Lightning still have in the organization is Cal Foote from the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Then you have to go back to 2012 for Andrei Vasilevskiy. If BriseBois doesn’t make a move that brings in some picks before the draft, this could be a fairly boring draft for us.
The 2021-22 Line-Up
Earlier this week, I took a look at the Lightning’s RFA Situation and projected some of the contracts that could be signed. So I’ll use those projections to fill in the roster here and see where the Lightning stand depending on which player the Lightning trade. To assist with that, I’ll be using Cap Friendly’s aptly named Armchair GM tool. For Ross Colton, I’ll be using a two-year, $1.25 million contract. For Cal Foote, he’ll get a one-year contract for $950,000. The rest of the RFAs will get a $750,000 one-year contract for the league minimum.
Before going into the player specific line-ups, I just want to address the defense and goaltending since it’s not changed much by the different scenarios. I’ve put Fredrik Claesson as the 7th defenseman, even though he signed a two-way contract. He’s guaranteed a minimum of $350,000 for this season, so it’s very likely he is expected to spend at least a decent amount of time in the NHL with the Lightning. The Lightning could also re-sign Luke Schenn and use him in a similar role. Both should be able to pass through waivers without an issue and could swap back and forth on the Syracuse roster as needs arise for a left or right handed defenseman.
I’ve also put Spencer Martin in as the back-up. This is mostly as a last case resort or placeholder for a different veteran. The Lightning will have two rookie goaltenders in the minors next season in Hugo Alnefelt and Amir Miftakhov. I’m not entirety sure what the plan is for them, but if Spencer Martin is in the AHL, then that means one of those two will end up in the ECHL to play hockey this season. Having two rookies in net though isn’t an ideal situation and you would like to have a veteran goaltender paired with whichever one plays in Syracuse. In the Palat and Johnson trade scenarios, the Lightning have a little extra wiggle room under the cap and they could use some of that room to get an upgrade on a back-up in free agency. However, in the Killorn scenario, they likely would have to go with Martin, and ride Vasilevskiy for more games than they’d like.
Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn
Originally I was going to separate these two. Then I realized that they work out almost the same way, with a lot of the reasoning being nearly identical. The one difference is that trading Palat allows me to sign the restricted free agents at my projected numbers, and leaves just over $750,000 in cap space which means the Lightning could add another player later during the season in the event of multiple injuries or potentially at the deadline. Trading Killorn instead puts me $45,000 over the cap, which would just mean that I’d need for Ross Colton to sign for slightly less money, but also means not having any room to add another player to the roster.
In both of these scenarios, I foresee whichever one stays to play on the first line. This opens up a spot on the second line at left wing for one of three players; Mathieu Joseph, Ross Colton, or Alex Barre-Boulet.
Ross Colton took Killorn’s spot during the Stanley Cup Finals and I think he would be a candidate to go there once again. However, I have some concerns about his offensive skills being enough to play up that high over the course of a regular season. He came out hot and scored a lot of goals and that got Lightning fans extremely excited about him. A deeper dig into his numbers though suggested that he was on an incredibly lucky shooting bender that could not last. And it didn’t. Over his last 13 regular season games, he only recorded one goal and no assists after putting up eight goals and 11 points in his first 17 games. That kind of production wasn’t going to last and he ended up recording four goals and 6 points in 23 playoff games. Over an 82 game regular season, that would translate to 14 goals and 21 points. And to be honest, that’s about what I would have expected of him, maybe with a few more assists to get him into the 25 point range over a full season.
Alex Barre-Boulet got a chance to play with Point and Kucherov during a portion of the regular season when Ondrej Palat missed some time with an injury. The underlying numbers were uninspiring and he failed to put up much offense, only recording three goals in 15 games. His offensive output in the AHL makes him a prime candidate to take this spot, but I continue to have my doubts about him putting everything together consistently at the NHL level. And for now, I have him on the fourth line. As an aside, I’ve had a lot of people tell me he shouldn’t be on the fourth line, he has to be higher, and playing with more skilled players. I understand that. However, I’m also trying to view this from a similar angle as Jon Cooper. He hasn’t hesitated to put forwards on the fourth line that had great offensive numbers in the AHL, but hadn’t proven that prowess in the NHL yet. I don’t think he’ll hesitate here either.
With that in mind for Colton and Barre-Boulet, I have Mathieu Joseph up on the second line. He had a resurgent year in 2020-21 recording 12 goals in 56 games while playing 10:56. He is fast, he gets in on the forecheck, and he doesn’t take many penalties. He’s an underrated shooter and I think he could be a good compliment to Cirelli and Stamkos, especially if Cirelli can recover from the injury that hampered him throughout this past season.
Moving to the third line, this is where hanging on to Johnson proves valuable with Gourde gone. It gives the Lightning another center option that can move up to the top six in case of an injury or two with a player that still has enough offensive skill to contribute there. If Cirelli and Stamkos were both to be injured, the Lightning would have to turn to Colton or Barre-Boulet to fill that spot, and that doesn’t inspire me with much confidence.
I also like the idea of pairing Johnson with Colton and Taylor Raddysh as two bigger bodied forwards. Raddysh finally broke out offensively in the AHL last season, and I think he has the two-way game to form a solid partnership with Johnson and Colton. While they can’t replace what the Gourde line was capable of doing offensively and defensively, I have some hope that they can at least be a solid energy line that starts games and periods much like the Gourde line did.
On the fourth line, Pat Maroon and Mitchell Stephens are back in their rightful spots. Stephens missed a lot of time last season with a knee injury, but I expect him to bounce back and be a key contributor on the penalty kill, especially with Goodrow, Coleman, and Gourde gone. Oh, and Killorn if he’s the one to go too. Which is another reason for me to prefer moving Palat over Killorn.
The last spot on the fourth line I have going to Alex Barre-Boulet, but I think Boris Katchouk should be in the conversation here to get playing time as well. Like Raddysh, he’s a big bodied player that had a breakout year offensively. He also could be in the competition to take Raddysh’s spot as well.
As you can see from this chart, by moving Johnson the Lightning maintain the strength of their top six. They hang on to Palat and Killorn for the top two lines. But as I alluded to in the previous section, trading Johnson after losing Gourde will have gutted the Lightning’s center depth. Something that was a strength for this team for a long time, now becomes a significant weakness. If there was a long term injury to Point or Cirelli, the Lightning would have to turn to Colton or Barre-Boulet to fill in. Neither of them have the experience or the offensive skills to be a top six pivot.
This does keep Joseph, Colton, and Barre-Boulet out of the top six though, which could be a good thing. It does make the Lightning top-heavy though, something we’ve been able to avoid the past couple playoff runs while taking advantage of other teams that were top-heavy and couldn’t match the depth of the Lightning’s forward corps.