If you want to make a general manager in the NHL laugh, try predicting which players they are going to target in free agency. After all, did anyone have the Tampa Bay Lightning signing Corey Perry or Pierre-Edouard Bellemare last summer? Probably not. Still, we’re going to give it a shot and present three youngish options that Julien BriseBois might be interested in signing.
On Wednesday, general managers across the league are going to start throwing their owner’s money around like Monopoly bills in a quest to sign the one player that has been missing from their roster. Thanks to the guaranteed contracts that the GMs will be tossing out there is a good chance that a majority of the players signed to multi-year deals will end up being with the team longer than the person who offers it to them will be. Nothing ends a general manager’s career faster than a couple of poor signings on the open market.
For the first time in a few summers (and one fall) the Tampa Bay Lightning have a little room in their salary cap to possibly sign a free agent or two. Unfortunately, the room may come at the expense of not signing Ondrej Palat, but hey, if he can get a few extra million a year from a more desperate organization, then by all means he should grab that paper.
With the trade of Ryan McDonagh to the Nashville Predators (which created the space the Lightning had to even entertain the idea of re-signing Palat) Tampa Bay has an opening on the left side of the defense. As of right now, there aren’t really many internal candidates available to fill that open spot, so it’s likely they will head to the open market for a temporary and hopefully lower-cost solution.
One way to accomplish that is to take a short term flyer on a young player, usually a highly regarded prospect, that might have fallen out of favor due to injury, poor play, or being asked to fill a role they weren’t suited for. The Lightning do offer an envious spot for a player looking to rebuild their career in hopes of a bigger pay day down the road. Nothing in this world is perfect, but Tampa could come pretty close for some of these players.
First off, the role they would be asked to play. Whoever signs with the Lightning will be slotted into the left side on the third pairing. With Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev ahead of them on the depth chart, it’s unlikely the player will be asked to be on the ice more than 10-13 minutes a night, with most of it coming at even strength.
Second, it’s a system that relies on defensemen joining the fun in the offensive zone. Lightning blueliners are encouraged to join the attack (in a responsible manner) and generate shots at the net. That’s fun! Sure, they won’t get any power play time, but on a team that produces a lot of shots from the back, that could help out a player that has a knack for getting the pucks on net.
Finally, and let’s face it because it will come up as it does every summer, the no-tax situation. If you’re a player taking a minimal contract in order to restart your career, it helps if the state you call home doesn’t take a portion of your pay. It’s an advantage, embrace it.
In the past, the Lightning have leaned toward adding free agents that are a bit older, a bit more proven, especially on defense. Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn, and Zack Bogisian again were big, rugged defenders who could hit and clear out the front of the net. That played into the Lightning’s style of blocking shots and clearing the crease in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy.
That may make a couple of these picks seem out of character for the Bolts. However, Mr. BriseBois might be looking to inject a little more mobility into the blueline while also having another offensive option.
Will Butcher - 27-years-old
It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that Butcher was one of the most sought after college free agents. In 2017, after the Colorado Avalanche decided they weren’t going to sign their 2013 fifth round pick, the defenseman was available to the highest bidder following a season at the University of Denver where he won the Hobey Baker, the NCAA championship, and the NCHC Offensive Defenseman Award. He eventually signed with the New Jersey Devils and made his debut in the 2017-18 season.
The first two years of Butcher’s career were splendid as he posted 44 points (5 goals, 39 assists) and 30 points (4 goals, 26 assists) while appearing in 159 out of a possible 164 games. Starting in the 2019-20 season his play regressed a bit. A revolving cast of defensive partners, coaching changes, and a thumb injury, left him a healthy scratch at times for New Jersey. He was exposed in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, passed over, and then eventually traded to Buffalo for future considerations.
Thrust into a top-pairing role on a bad Buffalo squad led to some continued struggles and he posted just 8 points in 37 games for the Sabres.
At his best, he’s a puck-moving defenseman that can produce offense from the back-end. He was used to second-pairing minutes and a little bit of power play time when he was at his best in New Jersey. At his worst, he’s basically just a guy on the ice, often lost in the shuffle without making an impact on the game. He isn’t big at 5’10”, 190 lbs. or physical (just 108 hits in his 271 game career).
He has enough speed to carry the puck out of the zone and his hockey IQ has been lauded in the past. For some reason he just hasn’t found the form he carried early in his NHL career. If New Jersey shipping him to Buffalo for nothing didn’t work as a wake-up call, perhaps signing a one-year deal for less than he made as a rookie (Evolving Hockey has him projected at a one-year contract at $819,000) will.
The Lightning could use a player on the third pair that can move the puck up the ice and read plays in his own zone. Being able to play him behind Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev would allow the coaching staff to control his minutes and put him in favorable situations.
Victor Mete - 24-years-old
Wait, isn’t Mete technically a restricted free agent? What dark magic could Mr. BriseBois wield to lure him over? Well, none. Mete was one of the players who did not receive a qualifying offer so he is an unrestricted free agent. At just 24-years-old, he may be willing to take a short term deal to re-establish his market for a future pay day.
Much like Butcher, Mete had a strong start to his NHL career, debuting with Montreal at the age of 19, and then following up his rookie season with a 13-assist season in 2018-19 while averaging 17:46 of ice time. He posted another 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) in 2019-20 before being waived by the Habs the next season. He’s spent the last two seasons in Ottawa trying to build on some of that early promise.
It wasn’t pretty last year for Mete (or for any of the Senators, to be honest):
He didn’t drive offense and didn’t really help prevent any either. So why would the Lightning take a flyer on him? Well, for one thing, he should come relatively cheap on a one-year deal. Evolving Hockey has him as a projected at $899,500 on a one-year deal. Oh, and he’s 24. General managers love them some young defensemen with high pedigrees.
Mete would add a little bit of speed to the blueline and can move the puck. He has quickness and good situational awareness to find his teammates on breakouts. At 5’9” and 184 lbs. he isn’t the big, bruising defenseman that the Lightning have been infatuated with of late, but that could actually be a positive in his favor. Just because he may be on the third pairing, doesn’t mean he has to be a stay at home, shot-blocking, hit machine. He can play to his strength in limited time and jump into plays, especially if he’s paired with a more traditional partner.
The Ontario native would have to improve his defensive zone coverage, he can get enamored with the puck carrier and lose his positioning. With Jon Cooper plays like that will lead to a lot of angry looks and annoyed chomping of gum.
Olli Maatta - 27-years-old
Olli Maatta is a slightly different bird than the first two players mentioned. For one, it’ll likely take a little term for the Lightning to sign him. Evolving Hockey has him pegged for a 4-year, $3.12 million AAV deal on the free agent market. Secondly, he wasn’t horrible last season in the time he spent playing for the Los Angeles Kings. He also brings a lot more experience to the table despite being just 27. In his nine year career he’s appeared in 534 games and been on two Stanley Cup winning teams.
Unlike Butcher and Mete, Maatta also posted positive possession stats at 5v5 with a 52.81% Corsi For and 52.77% Expected Goals For according to Natural Stat Trick. Those numbers weren’t triggered by a high offensive output, more by his ability to help the Kings keep the puck out of the net.
Maatta would offer slightly similar skills as McDonagh possessed, without the offensive potential of Butcher or Mete. That may be fine for Coach Cooper and his staff, though. Other than his health, finding a way to fit the former Penguin in on a multi-year deal with the looming 2023-24 RFApocalypse would be a challenge for Mr. BriseBois.