Some expected Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Julien BriseBois to be more cautious this trade deadline; some expected he'd be aggressive to chase a third consecutive championship again. His previous overpays for pieces to augment a Stanley Cup-contending (and winning) roster paid off in 2020 and 2021. Now, he's looked around the league, seen the calls every other contender has made and decided to slide his chips forward—calmly reminding the rest of the NHL, "The Cup isn't leaving Tampa Bay without a fight."
It makes perfect sense in a division as top-heavy as the Atlantic—mortgage the future for a chance to become the greatest dynasty the NHL has seen in the salary cap era. A team that has won it all, twice, a group that has consistently made deep playoff runs, a team that won't back down from anyone—an intelligent general manager gives that kind of roster as much support as possible to win another one. Whether or not these moves pay off, in the end, shouldn't be the end-all-be-all. It's the mentality that Lightning faithful should be championing.
This brings us the additions of Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul, and Riley Nash and the subtractions of Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, and Mathieu Joseph.
Let's talk about who the Lightning shipped out:
The second-round pick (58th) in 2016 finally secured a full-time position in the NHL this season. Yet, he never stood out in the way many expected. Whether it was confidence or an inability to elevate his game consistently, Raddysh always teased potential but never managed to put everything together.
Raddysh poses the most significant "missed opportunity" for Tampa Bay. Defensively, he was solid in a depth role but struggled to find finish in his game. There is still room for growth, but at 24 years old, it was clear the Lightning brain trust did not see him developing into what they need (a top-six winger to replace the eventual departures of Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn over the coming seasons). Is Raddysh a quality NHLer? Absolutely, but he's likely to be a third or fourth-line winger who doesn't have the finishing capability a team like the Lightning want.
Katchouk is a lesser skilled, more gritty version of Raddysh. His forechecking and defensive style work well in a depth role, but it was clear his offensive game wasn't good enough to cut it higher in the lineup. While a player like Katchouk is always useful on the fourth line, he wasn't better than Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, Pat Maroon, Corey Perry, Mathieu Joseph, or Raddysh. His injury trouble didn't help matters either, but I find it difficult to blame a player for those situations. Sometimes a player's body betrays them.
There's value with Katchouk, but the Lightning need more from the bottom of their lineup, and players like Raddysh and Katchouk weren't doing enough offensively to justify keeping them around. It stings to see these two go, mainly because the fanbase waited for long for both of them to make the NHL (with high expectations), but the Lightning are no longer in the business of 'continual development' once a player reaches the NHL. They're in the business of winning championships.
The biggest tease of them all; Joseph took the team and fanbase by storm when he surprisingly made the team out of training camp during the record-breaking 2018-2019 season. His speed and forechecking made the Lightning better, but there was always a "but" with Joseph. I remember attending training camp at the start of the 2019-2020 season and speaking with a few coaches and other media members about the roster—they all echoed the same thing: "Joseph isn't safe; he needs to earn it again." The coaching staff wasn't happy with his defensive game, and it showed as he spent the 2019-2020 season up and down the organizational ladder (never playing a game during the first Stanley Cup run).
The Lightning needed Joseph to take that next step offensively to place himself in the middle of the lineup firmly—instead, he plateaued. He bounced back in 2020-2021, with an improved defensive game—especially on the penalty kill—and more consistent play, but, like Raddysh and Katchouk, he never reached his potential. He skated in six playoff games during the back-to-back cup run but struggled to generate offense.
The penalty kill is going to miss Joseph sorely—his pairing with Bellemare created a fantastic forward unit and generated more than their fair share of shorthanded chances; they just couldn't capitalize on them enough. Given how mediocre the Lightning have been on special teams this season, moving a quality penalty killer like Joseph is worrying. Still, this coaching staff has repeatedly found ways to make things work. We'll see how they integrate the new additions to the special teams' units.
Now, the additions:
First things first, yes, Hagel's absurd 22% shooting percentage will regress. Here's the thing, even if his shooting percentage reverts to something more normal, he is still driving play exceptionally well.
Say hello to the Palat replacement next season. Hagel is an easy pencil in for either top two lines at any point. He provides a level of flexibility the Lightning haven't had all season. Currently, he's on the third line with Ross Colton and likely new addition Nick Paul, but his speed, forechecking, tenacity, and playmaking are exactly what the team needs deeper in the lineup.
Add in his spectacular contract, and the overpay BriseBoise made is understandable. It's still steep, but those who only focus on his inflated shooting percentage miss the real reason why the Lightning targeted him.
Hagel has 21 goals so far this season but don't be fooled by his 22.3% shooting percentage. He's a passer first and foremost, specializing in cross-slot passes off the rush. #GoBolts pic.twitter.com/XUKYOlPnt7— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) March 18, 2022
Hagel's entry and exit capabilities give Tampa Bay another forward who can threaten opposing defenses through the neutral zone. Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov are the Lightning's premier entry and exit forwards, with middling degrees of success with Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn. Hagel, plainly put, makes Tampa Bay even harder to deal with in transition and on the rush. His cycle game isn't well represented here, but those numbers should increase going from the worst forechecking team in the league to arguably the best.
Obviously, his shooting is on a bender given how little he does shoot, but the playmaking is there—give him a trigger man and see what happens.
Paul is big, like really big for a winger. The 27-year old is 6'3" and weighs 224 pounds. He was miscast in Ottawa, given the lack of quality wingers on the roster. Still, as a defensively sound bottom sixer with solid penalty killing, he is an upgrade, though slight, over Joseph.
In a reduced role, Paul might excel more than expected—he showed some offensive upside as a top-sixer in Ottawa, so it isn't out of the realm of possibility he becomes more effective deeper in the lineup of a contender. Production-wise he is on the same plateau as Joseph but doesn't come with the looming RFA contract that Joseph was due after this season. It's likely Tampa Bay would not have even qualified Joseph due to the contract he would have asked for. So, BriseBois decided to rent a normal UFA to provide more roster flexibility for next season.
Paul's addition doesn't move the needle much. He brings flexibility (he can play center or wing) and a heavier game than Joseph did, and it's been clear the Lightning have lacked that bite from their third line this season compared to the trio of Yanni Gourde - Blake Coleman - Barclay Goodrow. Now, the Lightning third line goes from Raddysh - Colton - Joseph to Hagel - Colton - Paul. I'd say that's a sizeable upgrade.
Nick Paul, traded to TB, is a defensive centre best-suited to a bottom-six and penalty kill role. Played significant minutes for the Sens this season showing a bit of offensive upside, however. #GoBolts pic.twitter.com/lPwgvQxjjU— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) March 20, 2022
Only here as a depth forward in case of injury; will likely be yo-yo'd to and from Syracuse. We know what he is, a defense-only center suited to fourth-line minutes.
The Lightning didn’t make the flashiest moves in the division like Florida (Claude Giroux), Boston (Hampus Lindholm), or Toronto (Mark Giordano), but that emphasizes how strong the core part of this roster is. Tampa Bay is a stronger team with the additions of Hagel and Paul (Riley is essentially a throw-in for depth). The next step is to augment those two forwards efficiently and begin ironing out the special teams' issues that have seen the Lightning go from perennially top-ten units on both sides to the middle of the pack. Teams like Florida, Toronto, and Boston will feast on average special teams, and given how penalty-prone Tampa Bay is, fixing that should be the biggest priority.
Regardless, every other team in the division, and league, is chasing Tampa Bay, no matter what the standings say. Come playoff time, the two-time defending champs are the team everyone needs to beat to get to the Cup.