The Lightning should either do nothing or go big at the trade deadline

Think Mark Stone. Think Matt Duchene. Think Artemi Panarin.

The NHL trade deadline is just under two weeks away, and with the Lightning at the front of the standings, their approach to the deadline is a frequent topic of international media discussion. For fans used to our small market, this is a jarring change. Attention from international media used to be rare, and any mention of the team in a mainstream outlet was worth dissecting to figure out what it meant. Now, every trade rumor article contains at least a blurb about the league leaders, whether the information is good or not.

As an example, here’s what Pierre Lebrun wrote earlier this week in his article at The Athletic.

On the surface what you’ll hear is the Lightning gave up a ton of futures to acquire Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller last season and can’t really keep doing that every year. Hogwash, I say. You want to win the Stanley Cup? Be aggressive again. This is a team with very few holes, if any, but as I’ve consistently said for more than a month, it screams a little more top-nine muscle and Wayne Simmonds (whom they’ve checked on) would be completely perfect as a rental. I also think GM Julien BriseBois should look to add some blueline depth and I think he will. If you’re planning to go four rounds, you have to protect against the inevitability of injuries. Tampa is loaded in prospects throughout the organization. The Bolts have the currency to add. And I think they will.

Pierre isn’t the only one to write stuff like this at this time of year, and he’s far from the worst. But this is an entire paragraph of nothing. In the past, if writers had nothing to say about Tampa, they just left them out of the article. Now, because of the team’s success, they feel compelled to have a take and to shoehorn in a few words. Fans of teams in big markets are used to this kind of thing, but for Bolts fans, this is quite a change.

In terms of real trade deadline news, we haven’t gotten much. The Lightning reportedly made calls on Wayne Simmonds and Michael Ferland. They’ve also reportedly been interested in acquiring  more depth on defense, although it’s unclear whether that interest has shifted since the emergence of Erik Cernak as a legitimate number-four defender in his rookie season.

The lack of real news around potential trades makes sense given the depth of the team. They have thirteen NHL forwards and Danick Martel, whom they like enough that they told him to get settled in Tampa for the rest of the season. They have seven NHL defenders and were comfortable enough with that group that they shipped out Slater Koekkoek in exchange for Jan Ruuta, a player who will spend the rest of this season in the AHL aside from an occasional call-up to cover for an injury.

As we wrote in reference to Simmonds and Ferland, coming up with ways to improve this team is difficult. The Lightning have so much depth that most of the players rumored to be available would be downgrades on the players already on the roster. Depth is only valuable to a certain point. The Lightning could already lose a player at each position and have an immediate replacement. What is the value of an 8th defender or a 15th forward?

That’s hard to say, but I don’t think that value is worth what they would cost to acquire at the trade deadline. If Brian Boyle went for a second round pick, we’re probably talking about multiple picks or prospects for the type of depth players mentioned above. And for a team that has already depleted its future assets to acquire Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, spending more to get players who would have a marginal impact at best is difficult to justify.

But just because the Lightning shouldn’t spend on depth doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the market at the deadline. They absolutely should. But instead of thinking small, the front office should be thinking big. Think Mark Stone. Think Matt Duchene. Think Artemi Panarin.

This version of the Lightning might end up being the best of its era. The real cap crunch starts this summer and will likely become untenable by next summer at the latest. Players like Miller, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn will become unaffordable luxuries. The depth will take a hit and the roster will become top heavy. This process is inevitable in a salary cap system. We’ve seen it in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Los Angeles.

If the Lightning want to meaningfully increase their chance of winning a Cup this season, adding depth isn’t the way to do it. Adding a star on a deadline deal is. Another forward in the bottom six rotation will have minimal impact, but adding a player to the top line will make a great team even better. Imagine having the top two right wings be Nikita Kucherov and Mark Stone to pair with Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point at center. Imagine Matt Duchene giving the Lightning another center so they could do whatever they want in terms of line construction.

The price for one of these players would be costly. We’re talking multiple high picks and prospects. For the Lightning, that means dipping into the 2020 draft picks because their first and second rounders this season are tied up in the conditions of the McDonagh trade. But for teams trading these players, 2020 picks should be preferable anyway. Next year’s Lightning will almost certainly be worse than this version. Especially after accounting for whatever star they would acquire in the trade.

The strongest and safest argument to be made as Tampa approaches the deadline is to stick with the roster they have. They’re good enough to win and they’ve already given up significant future pieces to get as good as they are. But the goal of this whole thing is to win championships. And if the front office was to decide to go all in to try to make that happen now, I wouldn’t be mad. Stone, Duchene, or Panarin would all give the Lightning a top of the roster that rivals any in the cap era.

What would be disappointing would be to play around in the middle, giving up more future assets without getting much better. Continuing the slow bleed of picks and prospects to get a negligible improvement in team quality does little more than accomplish change for the sake of change.

So either stick with what you have, or floor it and make the decision that This Is The Year. Both of those positions are defensible. One is the prudent long-term view. The other acknowledges the reality of salary cap impacts and tries to make the most of the best chance this team is likely to have.