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Lightning’s Offseason Shopping List

Alex Killorn and Brayden Point. Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning via their Twitter (@TBLightning)

First, I would like to say congratulations to the Vegas Golden Knights on winning the Stanley Cup. Second, I would like to say congratulations to former Tampa Bay Lightning and Syracuse Crunch forward Jonathan Marchessault on winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. It was a well played series by the Golden Knights and a deserving win of the championship.

Now that the Stanley Cup has been handed out, we can turn our eyes fully to the offseason. The NHL Draft is coming up soon (June 28th-29th), quickly followed by the opening of unrestricted free agency on July 1st. At this point the draft is almost meaningless for the Lightning. Lightning General Manager Julien BriseBois pushed all of his chips in and has left himself with just three picks in this draft; one in the sixth round and two in the seventh round. While the Lightning have had some luck with turning late round picks into NHLers, it’s still a long shot. It’s very much the equivalent of buying a $1 scratch off ticket and hoping to win $500 on it, but more often than not, you’re not getting your crisp dollar bill back.

It is a valuable opportunity though for BriseBois to network and meet with people face to face. All of the NHLPA player agents will be in attendance at the draft, there to represent their young prospect clients that are eligible in the draft. Even if they don’t have any draft clients, they’ll still be there to check in with executives. For BriseBois, it’ll give him a chance to touch base with the agents representing the players already under contract for the Lightning, but also those that are free agents or prospects that have yet to sign with the team. It’s also a chance to circumspectly talk about free agency, though it’ll be too early to really talk anything of substance.

For some weeks now, BriseBois and his staff have been finalizing their plans and ideas for the draft and free agency. They’ve already gotten to work re-signing a couple of players as well as snagging some players from Europe. The signings started just two days after the Lightning were eliminated from the playoffs with the signing of Russian power forward prospect Maxim Groshev to an entry-level contract.

Shortly after came the re-signing of pending unrestricted free agent Michael Eyssimont and then free agent goaltender Matt Tomkins who was playing in Europe. In the last couple of weeks, the team re-signed pending UFA defenseman Sean Day and RFA Cole Koepke to extensions. To round it out, he also added defenseman Emil Martinsen Lilleberg and forward Waltteri Marela, both from Scandinavia.

Of those players, Eyssimont is the only one I expect to be on the Lightning roster to start the season, though Koepke could compete for a fourth line spot and Sean Day is a valuable depth piece. Lilleberg and Merela are interesting as slightly older and thus more developed prospects that at a minimum will provide depth and be contributors in Syracuse. Groshev is a young prospect that will need time to adjust to the smaller ice surface. As more of a power forward type, the smaller ice surface could really benefit him where there isn’t as much space and he can use his size (6’1″, 192 lbs) to create space for him and his linemates.

Despite the work that has been done already by BriseBois, he still has quite a bit to do, but not much money to do it with. Let’s run through what he still needs to accomplish over the next month or so.

Restricted Free Agents

Following the re-signing of Cole Koepke, the Lightning are left with seven restricted free agents. That number is reduced to six because Simon Ryfors has already signed a contract back in Sweden to return home after giving North America a chance over the past two seasons.

At the NHL level, there’s only two restricted free agents; Ross Colton and Tanner Jeannot. Evolving-Hockey.com projects Colton to sign for 4 years for around $3.35 million and Jeannot for two years at $2.1 million. Colton’s contract is looking about like I was expecting. He’s a step down from Nick Paul, who signed a long term contract for $3.15 million. Colton could get a little bit more than him on a shorter term deal, but the Lightning could also pressure him to sign for a little bit less. I don’t expect Colton’s cap hit to start with a $2.

Jeannot is a trickier case because he had a big production season in 2021-22 when he scored 24 goals that was propelled by an unsustainable shooting percentage. He struggled to produce last season with Nashville and after coming over to Tampa at the trade deadline. He’s a big body, and he plays hard and is the kind of player the Lightning like on their third line, likely pairing up with Colton and Eyssimont. Normally a 41-point rookie season would really propel a player’s contract value, but his follow up year, and lack of history of producing at that level, holds back how much he can really ask for. I think the $2.1 million prediction from Evolving-Hockey’s model is about right, and the Lightning may be able to bring it down a little bit though not likely by all that much.

The rest of the RFAs are relatively easy and are mostly players expected to be in Syracuse and serving as role players either for the Lightning or for the Crunch. At forward, you have NHL veteran Rudolfs Balcers who should be able to compete for a 4th line spot and will be valuable depth. You also have Gabriel Fortier that has seen a little bit of NHL time and is the same boat as Balcers. Then you have Grant Mismash, acquired from Nashville in the Ryan McDonagh trade, who is likely to be in Syracuse or Orlando.

At defense, Dmitri Semykin who has struggled to grab a spot in Syracuse and has spent most of his three years in North America playing in the ECHL for the Orlando Solar Bears, including all of last season. He’s a big, tough defenseman that has also played forward on occasion when needed. He is a Russian player and could sign a contract in the KHL or some other European country and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do that instead of returning to play in the ECHL.

Unrestricted Free Agents

The Lightning have five unrestricted free agents from the NHL roster; Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Corey Perry, Ian Cole, Brian Elliott, and the big one – Alex Killorn. If Bellemare or Perry were coming back to Tampa for another year, I feel like we would have already heard something and there was already a report a few weeks ago that Perry had been told that the team wouldn’t re-sign him. I had kind of hoped he might come back for another year, but he is reaching the end of the road in the NHL at 38 years-old. Bellemare likewise has slowed down and wasn’t as effective last year as he was in his first year in Tampa.

Ian Cole was effective as a third pairing defenseman for the Lightning, but I don’t expect him to be re-signed. He made $3 million on a one-year contract and is likely to command a similar salary which the Lightning can’t afford without making a sacrifice somewhere else by trading an existing contract. Brian Elliott likewise was an effective back-up, but at 38 years-old, he’s looking at the end of his career too and it won’t surprise me to see a retirement announcement before long from him.

The big fish is Alex Killorn. You can’t help but feel there is mutual attraction between Killorn and the Lightning to run it back. Both parties are realists and understand that the team doesn’t have the salary cap space to offer him full value. Especially since this UFA crop is fairly thin at forward and Killorn is set up to be one of the premier options for a team looking to add a top six winger.

Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection puts him at 6 years for around $6.75 million, a number the Lightning simply cannot afford unless it was to trade Anthony Cirelli or Erik Cernak before their no-trade clauses kick in. And that just doesn’t make any sense for the Lightning to do. That contract projection for Killorn makes him the third-highest forward in Evolving-Hockey’s model after Patrick Kane and Patrice Bergeron. Kane is Kane (and will miss the beginning of the season following hip surgery) and Bergeron is either retiring or going back to Boston. And that will make Killorn a very coveted player on the free agent market.

It would be great if the Lightning could find a way to bring back Killorn. It would likely involve trading Ross Colton instead of re-signing him as an RFA, and allocating the money that would have gone to him to Killorn, as well as squeezing every other dollar out of the roster as possible while probably running with the bare minimum roster pushing up against the salary cap. This would have been a great time for the salary cap to rise by $3-$4 million as we were teased with at points during the season, but that’s still looking like it won’t happen until next offseason. That kind of room may have made it possible to hang on to Killorn for a number that made him and the team happy.

As it stands though, I have a hard time seeing it. It’s just like last offseason with Ondrej Palat. There was a bit of a tease that both sides were discussing what it would take to keep him, but in the end, they just couldn’t get to a place where both sides were happy and Palat went out and got his payday from the New Jersey Devils. I don’t blame players for walking and getting the most money. At the end of the day, they have to make their money that is going to last them and their family the rest of their lives.

Assuming the Lightning don’t bring any of these unrestricted free agents back, they will need to look to the free agency market for at least two players. The team will need a fourth line center. The team doesn’t have an internal option that is ready to step up into that role from their prospect list so will need to fill that position from the outside. There are a lot of options out there, really too many for me to go through, just expect that someone will be signed to plug that hole.

The other one is back-up goaltender. This one is always a challenge to project as well. You have three main categories of potential goaltenders out there to fill this role. You have the Used To Be A Good Starter, But Now is Old And Washed Up which would include the likes of Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones. Then you have Kind of In Between and Could Be Really Good, But Could Also Cost Too Much for a Back-Up that would include players like Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, or Semyon Varlamov. Then there’s the Younger Goaltender, But Never Really Good So it’s Kind Of a Gamble, and that would include Alex Nedeljkovic and Alex Lyon, as well as some that are in the lower tier of that category like Collin Delia and Anthony Stolarz. There’s actually quite a few options out there, more than what I’ve listed. It’s up to BriseBois to sift through them and find the right fit to partner up with Andrei Vasilevskiy, and potentially one that can take that spot for more than a year while we wait for Hugo Alnefelt to develop into an NHL back-up.

Beyond that, I also expect we’ll see somewhere between a few other veteran AHL depth players signed to two-way contracts to bolster the depth and provide some upper roster talent to the Syracuse Crunch. The Crunch could really use a second top six center, preferably one that can also play at the NHL level. The team could use another top six winger to produce some offense, but doesn’t necessarily need to be NHL depth caliber though it would be nice. I also think they need another left-handed defenseman for depth purposes, someone like Trevor Carrick from last year, and in fact could be Trevor Carrick again if the team re-signs him.

So, while the on-ice stuff is done in the NHL, the off-ice fun is just beginning.

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