In 2015, Tampa Bay made the Stanley Cup Final. In 2016, Tampa Bay made the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2017, Tampa Bay missed the playoffs by one point, thanks largely — but not entirely — to star center Steven Stamkos missing three quarters of the season.This is a good team that had a bad year. Let’s take a closer look at their roster, salary cap situation, and the path that lies ahead in getting this team back on track.
Here’s a rough depth chart of the Lightning this season through the lens of the catch-all statistic Game Score:
Up front, the Lightning have some good front-end talent, but lack depth on their bottom two lines. As always, the trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov ranged from good to downright stellar. Jonathan Drouin and Brayden Point were productive young players while also showing room to grow. But a bottom-six full of players that shouldn’t be above the fourth line weighed down the depth of the team.
On defense, the team has an elite defenseman in Victor Hedman and a damn good one in Anton Stralman. After that though, the group of Jake Dotchin, Andrey Sustr, Jason Garrison, and Braydon Coburn isn’t good enough to cumulatively equal an effective second and third pair.
In net, Andrei Vasilevski posted a good .917, and continues to show signs of Vezina-calibre potential. Former Vezina nominee Ben Bishop, though, posted just a .911 before being traded to Los Angeles at the trade deadline.
Overall, it’s not surprising Tampa Bay ranked 14th in the league in goals for and 16th in goals against — talk about league average. A healthy Stamkos and continued growth from Drouin and Point would be enough to get the team into the top ten in goals for, though. And if they can play a little more in the other team’s end courtesy some better depth forwards, and even one extra defenseman, this team could sneak into the top ten in goals against, too. But Vasilevski will have to be at least as good as he was last year, and they’ll need to lock down the backup goalie position as well.
Here’s a hypothetical depth chart for the Lightning heading into next season, as well as the salary info of those players:
Up front, the team only has one glaringly bad contract with Ryan Callahan. Aside from that though, their big issue comes more in who isn’t signed. Drouin, Johnson, and Palat will all need new contracts. Johnson’s and Palat’s figure to be in roughly the $5.5M-$6.5M range. Drouin is less certain, as he could take a bridge deal. If he gets locked up long-term though, it’ll likely be another $5M+ cap hit on the books for GM Steve Yzerman. The team also has to deal with Erik Condra, who if they don’t buy out, will carry a $350,000 cap hit playing in the AHL (or $1.250M in the NHL).
On defense, Garrison and Coburn really eat up some valuable cap space for the team, as both of those players are bottom-pairing guys at this point in their career. A trade or buyout of one or both of those players could be in play. The $1.833M they owe Matt Carle for three more seasons also hurts.
In net the team is looking pretty, staring at three more years of a legitimate starting netminder on just a $3.5M cap hit. They’ll need to re-sign Budaj or add a different back-up though, and they’ll need to keep that contract as close to $1M or under as possible.
On the whole, the Lightning are looking at roughly $21 to $25 million in cap space heading into the summer. Unfortunately for them, Johnson, Palat, and Drouin will likely eat up between $15 and $20 million of that space. So while they can ice the same, healthier, more developed version of last year’s lineup, adding to the group this summer could prove difficult.
Offseason Game Plan
Based on what we know of the Lightning roster, I’d say they could stand to add three things: a good depth forward, another top-four defenseman, and a talented back-up goalie. If they add those things, stay healthy next year, and players like Drouin and Point take another step forward, this team could easily contend for the Cup. And there will be real opportunities, but there are also some real roadblocks that lie ahead:
- They will likely lose a capable forward in the expansion draft. They have to protect Stamkos and Callahan because of their NMCs, and let’s say they protect Drouin, Palat, Johnson, and Kucherov after that. That leaves them being able to protect just one more forward, which means whomever of Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Killorn they don’t protect, will likely be lost. Yanni Gourde has an outside shot of being taken as well. (Side-note: Killorn getting taken would at leat help their cap issues significantly).
- The team has seven draft picks, including three in the first two rounds. Having the poor season they did may be a blessing in disguise as they can either add a talented player in the lottery and take flyers on two more players in the second round, or they can leverage those picks for on-ice talent. Both would be wise moves for an aging roster.
- There are some good defensemen having their name floated around on the trade market, especially with the expansion draft looming. Players like Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Jacob Trouba, Tyson Barrie, or Chris Tanev could significantly improve this team’s defense. Cap space will be an issue though.
- Free agency would be the best spots to look for a depth forward and a back-up goalie. It’s a weak group, but good players are signed on the cheap all the time, especially for those willing to wait. As long as Yzerman and his front office are on point with their talent evaluation, they can make their group better.
Tampa Bay is like a house of cards that still needs the last couple of levels to be put in. They’ve gotten through the toughest part — the foundation — but there’s still real work to be done before they’re complete. With some calculated maneuvering, though, and a bit of luck, they can return to form next season and threaten to play hockey well into May and June.
Previously in this series…
30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils, 26. Buffalo Sabres, 25. Detroit Red Wings, 24. Dallas Stars, 23. Florida Panthers, 22. Los Angeles Kings, 21. Carolina Hurricanes