SWOT-ting the Bolts
A brief look at the upcoming off-season.
It’s really, really watching all of this hockey still going on but trying to focus on the 2023-24 season. However, that’s where we find ourselves after the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first round exit in the 2023 NHL Playoffs. After three years of making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning are in a position where the hockey that’s being played right now has absolutely zero influence on them. There is a silver lining to this. Instead of having to slapdash an off-season of trades and tenders, general manager Julien BriseBois and his staff can take their time and figure out how to navigate the summer.
In order to do that, it’s best to have a solid idea of where the team stands and what the needs are. Since Mr. BriseBois has a business/law background (according to Wikipedia he has a M.B.A. from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University) I’m pretty sure he’s familiar with a S.W.O.T. analysis. Heck, even I had to do a few of those back in my old sales days in the mid-2000’s.
For those not familiar with a S.W.O.T analysis, first of all congratulations on making it this far in life without having Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats drilled into your skull for every decision, second let’s have Donald “Jared” Dunn from Silicon Valley explain (a few NSFW words in the clip):
So, over the last couple of weeks, I’m pretty sure Mr. BriseBois and his staff have held similar meetings to help decide how to move the franchise forward with the intent of giving the Lightning the best chance to compete for and win the Stanley Cup next season.
Before we get to breaking down their Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, we need to see where the state of the team is right now. As of this weekend, this is what the team looks like at the NHL level. These are the players that are under contract and the restricted free agents that haven’t signed a new deal as of yet.
Please note that the cap hits in the photo are from the 2022-23 season and don’t reflect a couple of big increases that will kick in next season for Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak. We’ll worry about the salary cap a little later. This photo just illustrates the immediate needs of the team prior to the fun of the off-season kicking in full gear.
Alright, with that baseline set, let’s S.W.O.T. away.
Despite what many will consider a disappointing season overall, there are still some strengths on the roster. First, the goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy may have stepped back in his performance during the regular season and the almost immortal Playoff Vasy never quite arrived, but he is still one of the top goaltenders in the league. Even in a “bad” season, Vasy was 6th in Goals Saved Above Expected at 26.08 (Evolving Hockey), 6th in high-danger unblocked shot attempts at .746% (Money Puck), 7th in Save Percentage at .915% (NHL), 7th in Goals Against Average at 2.65 (NHL), and 6th in Wins Above Replacement at 4.22 (Money Puck). So, not a great season, but a heck of a lot better than most of the other goaltenders out there.
In his exit interviews Vasy talked about hitting a wall about 35 games into the season this year and then never feeling really comfortable after that. There is an excellent chance that he will learn from his experience and adjust his training levels to compensate. Factor in the additional month or so of rest and there is no reason to think he won’t come back as an elite goaltender next season.
Even with the expected loss of Alex Killorn this summer, the Lightning will boast five pretty strong players at the top of their offensive line-up. Nikita Kucherov showed that, as long as he is healthy, there are only a handful of players better at the game of hockey than he is. Brayden Point topped 50 goals for the first time in his career while Brandon Hagel did a little bit of everything en route to his first 30 goal season.
Steven Stamkos may be aging, but he isn’t slowing down as he averaged more than a point a game for the eleventh time in his career. Barring injury there is no reason he shouldn’t be back in the 30-goal, 80+-point range again next year. It wasn’t the strongest year offensively or defensively for Anthony Cirelli, but coming off of major shoulder surgery, he gets a little bit of a pass. With a full off-season to work on something other than rehab, he could be primed for a bounceback type of season.
Consistency on Defense:
Last summer, the Lightning basically overhauled their entire defense after losing Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta. Zach Bogosian was out of the line-up early in the season and the replacements Mr. BriseBois brought in didn’t jell immediately, leading to a bunch of line-shuffling. If anything, he has an idea of what his three lines of defense will look like. The emergence of Nick Perbix and Darren Raddysh has solidified the right side. Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev will split most of the shifts on the left side and the organization just has to worry about bringing in a big, shotblocking, forward-moving-out-of-the-crease, penalty-killing, third pairing guy to play about 10-15 minutes a night.
Having consistency on the blueline is a big factor in keeping pucks out of the net. You get to know what your partner’s tendencies are, when they like to pinch in, when they hang back. How they defend a rush. Which way they turn to block a shot. Little things like that often go unnoticed but can be the difference between a 4-3 loss and a 3-2 win.
The Bottom Six
For as strong as the top six look, there are a lot of question marks on the other two lines. Mr. BriseBois did start to address the issue by re-signing Michael Eyssimont to a two-year deal and he should find a home somewhere in the rotation. Nick Paul may have seen his offense vanish into the ether in the second half of the season, but overall had a decent year. A decision will have to be made on the future of Ross Colton, and we have to find out if he has another level that he can get to.
Tanner Jeannot will likely find his role (and scoring touch) once he’s re-signed. Pat Maroon brings the intangibles to the locker room, but looked lost at times on the ice as Father Time has begun stalking him a bit.
There are more question marks than depth in the bottom six right now and finding the right solution is likely what vexes Mr. BriseBois the most at this point.
There just isn’t much in the system right now if any of the top-six pick up a significant injury. Haydn Fleury is fine in small doses and Philippe Myers probably earned at least a training camp look with his performance in Syracuse over the second half of the season, but after that there isn’t much in the organization at the moment (especially on the left side).
This isn’t a huge problem, but it is something to look at. The Lightning will need a goaltender that can give them a chance to win for roughly 20 games during the regular season. Brian Elliott is likely done and Hugo Alnefelt isn’t ready yet. There are some intriguing names out there on the free agent market, but the trick will be to bring them in at a reasonable price.
Promoting from within:
There are at least three openings on the forward lines as this article is being typed. It would be fantastic if someone from Syracuse steps up and takes at least one of them. While the Lightning have been able to fill holes on defense with Crunch players over the last couple of years, it hasn’t been the same story on the offensive side. Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, Alex Barré-Boulet, Cole Koepke, and Gabriel Fortier have had looks over the last two seasons, but have yet to provide the team a reason not to send them back to Syracuse or to a different organization.
In order for Mr. BriseBois to navigate the salary cap restrictions for the upcoming season it would be tremendously helpful if one of those spots can be filled with an internal player on a reasonable cap hit. After proving there is nothing left for him to prove at the AHL level, and a spot open on the top-six, could this finally be the year where Barré-Boulet seized the opportunity and makes an impact for the Lightning?
Are Félix Robert or Lucas Edmonds ready to make the jump? Can Jack Finley come in and lock down the fourth-line center role? The opportunities are there for these players, they just have to seize them.
Only two teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, iced teams that were older than the Lightning’s 29.39 years-old average (per Elite Prospects). Now, that will come down a little if Brian Elliottt (37), Corey Perry (37) and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (37) aren’t re-signed, but the core of the team are all a year older and starting to slide down the aging curve.
In a division filled with a bunch of teams built on young talent and speed, the Lightning risk looking old and slow on a nightly basis. Mr. BriseBois has been pretty good at bringing in youngish talent at the trade deadline (Hagel is 24, Eyssimont is 26, and Jeannot is 25), but it will take some work to do the same in free agency.
The Rest of the Division:
The Atlantic Division has been top heavy over the last few years with Toronto, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Boston battling it out. There is no reason to think that is likely to change (unless the Leafs decide to nuke things following their untimely ouster at the hands of the Panther). Throw into the mix a much improved Buffalo team and a frisky Detroit team and the playoffs may not be a lock for the Lightning even if they do have a more consistent regular season in 2023-24.
If Ottawa can get out of their own way, maybe they announce themselves as contenders next season as well. Montreal is likely a few more high draft picks away from competing, but with a healthy roster they can challenge teams as well.
The Salary Cap:
In his exit interview Mr. BriseBois referred to this summer as “probably the worst season we’ve had” when it comes to the cap. He has spots to fill and not much room to do it. We’ll dive into the exact logistics a little later once we know exactly what the cap will be for 2023-24, but with it only expected to go up about $1 million to $83,500,000 there isn’t much room for him to fill up the holes he has on the roster. That is the price of success in the league and no one writing or reading this would trade the two Stanley Cups for an extra five million in cap space, right?
In that same interview he did indicate that he doesn’t expect to lose any players that are currently under contract so there won’t likely be a McDonagh-like salary dump this summer. He also said that he probably won’t be able to bring all of the free agents back either. The big loss would be Alex Killorn, of course, but Corey Perry, Ian Cole, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are also in that boat.
He also has to figure out what to do with Ross Colton and Tanner Jeannot, the two restricted free agents on the NHL roster. Evolving Hockey has Colton with a projected 4-year deal with an annual average value of $3,351,000, more than doubling his current cap hit. For Tanner Jeannot they predict a 2-year, $2,105,000 AAV deal, again more than doubling his current hit. Should those players sign near that price, that eats up a large portion of the available money for the Lightning.
He also has to start thinking about an extension for Brandon Hagel, who will be eligible to sign one on July 1st. There is also the pending Stammergeddon II as The Captain will have only one year left on his existing contract. Mr. BriseBois indicated that it might not be possible to deal with either of those situations this summer due to the cap restrictions (we all remember the “salary cap tagging” discussion from last summer, right?).
From a purely logistical view it’s going to be quite interesting in seeing how the Lightning build their squad for 2023-24. They expect to compete for the Stanley Cup next year, but in order to keep up with the teams around them it’s going to take a master class in cap maneuvering for them to pull it off. Stay tuned to see how they do it.