This is not the position the Tampa Bay Lightning were supposed to be in this season.
After reaching the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, and then coming within a Game 7 (a one goal loss) of reaching them again, the Lightning entered this season as one of the top favorites to win the Stanley Cup. More than halfway through the season, and just one month away from the NHL trade deadline, the Lightning currently find themselves six points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 32 games to play. When it comes to overcoming that deficit, history is not on their side, especially with four teams sitting between them and a playoff spot (several of which have multiple games in hand on them). Basically, it’s crunch time for them.
Given that spot in the standings it creates quite a dilemma for general manager Steve Yzerman and how he should handle the NHL trade deadline.
This is still an extremely talented roster, one that has been one of the top three or four teams in the league over the past two seasons. For as disappointing as this injury-plagued, offensively starved season has been, this is still a team that should have a foundation in place to compete for a Stanley Cup again in the very near future.
But even if the Lightning are expected to get Steven Stamkos back in the lineup at some point before the end of this season, it still might end up being too little, too late to make any kind of a significant difference. The damage this season has already been done in the standings, so it is probably not a year in which Yzerman is going to be tempted to give up future assets to add something to a roster that is probably going to miss the playoffs anyway.
But would they be willing to become sellers if the team doesn’t close any ground in the playoff race over the next couple of weeks? Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times wrote this past week that the recent trade of defenseman Nikita Nesterov to the Montreal Canadiens could be just the start of their moves this season.
First, you have Ben Bishop, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, sitting out there as an obvious trade chip. He is having a down year (probably his worst since joining the Lightning organization) and they already have his long-term replacement (Andrei Vasilevskiy) in place and signed for the next few years on a very team and cap friendly contract. For as much as Bishop has struggled this season they almost certainly do not want to lose him for nothing after the season and you have to think he would be an immediate upgrade for somebody like, say, the St. Louis Blues, an otherwise good team that is getting crushing right now by its goaltending.
But once you get beyond him, the Lightning are looking at a potential salary cap crunch this offseason when Victor Hedman‘s new contract kicks in and Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov head into year two of their current deals.
At the moment Tampa Bay already has close to $60 million in salary cap space committed to just 13 players for next season (via CapFriendly). Without knowing exactly how much the salary cap is expected to rise that probably only leaves them with about $13-16 million (depending on what the salary cap looks like next season) to fill out the remainder of the roster.
Even though Johnson and Palat have had down years offensively, they are all players that the Lightning would almost certainly love to keep, but they are also certain to get raises. If all three are re-signed that will take up a significant portion of their remaining cap space.
The Lightning are also going to have to do something to address what has been a season-long need on defense. Doing that, while also keeping the aforementioned trio of restricted free agents is going to be a tall task for Yzerman and his staff.
At some point, whether it is before the trade deadline or in the offseason the Lightning are going to have to part ways with somebody on the roster to make all of that happen.