No NHL team has been better than the Lightning over the past six years, and it does not really matter what metric you want to look at to evaluate them.
They have the most regular season wins. The most playoff wins. They have played in the Stanley Cup Semifinals/Conference Finals four different times and the Stanley Cup Final three times, winning two of them. They have been, and remain, the NHL’s standard for on-ice success.
Part of that is having a core of superstars in Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Players like that are always going to keep you in the conversation among Cup contenders. But the Lightning also have had a seemingly endless pipeline of talent that has kept the complementary positions fully stocked.
There always seems to be another player just waiting for an opportunity and a logjam of talent. The Lightning has been so good and so deep in recent years that a player like Carter Verhaeghe, now a top-line player in Florida, could never consistently crack their lineup. They just keep producing players (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde) from their farm system and making shrewd trades (Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Černák).
[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]
That pipeline is going to be put to the text next season after the salary cap, free agency, and the Seattle expansion draft took a significant chunk out of the Lightning lineup this offseason.
Their dynamite line of Coleman, Gourde, and Goodrow is completely gone, with Coleman (Calgary) and Goodrow (New York Rangers) leaving in free agency and Gourde going to Seattle via the expansion draft. That line was a spark plug for both Cup winning teams and helped make the Lightning one of the NHL’s deepest teams. They outscored teams by a 22-11 margin during the regular season the past two years while controlling possession and scoring chances, and were just as dominant come playoff time.
Along with their exits, the Lightning also finally traded Johnson in a cap-clearing move with the Blackhawks. While his play has declined the past couple of years he is still a 15-goal forward that came through for them in the playoffs.
That is also four significant players who need to be replaced.
In terms of outside additions the Lightning have been limited by the salary cap, resulting in the bargain signings of veterans Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. While both players can provide some value, they are probably not going to replace what went out the door in free agency this offseason.
For that, the Lightning might have to turn to the aforementioned pipeline of talent. There are definitely some intriguing in-house options. As there always seems to be.
At the top of that list will be Ross Colton, who just signed a two-year contract worth a little more than $1 million per season. After a couple of promising seasons in the AHL, Colton finally made his NHL debut at age 24 this past season and scored nine goals in 30 regular season games (a 25-goal pace over 82 games) and followed it up with a strong postseason performance where he added four goals, including a game-winner. He did all of that while playing just 10 minutes per game.
But he might not even be the most intriguing in-house option.
That might be 24-year-old forward Alex Barré-Boulet who has every ingredient to be Tampa Bay’s next hidden gem. He is skilled, undersized, and has absolutely dominated the AHL the past three seasons after posting huge offensive numbers in his junior career. He seems like a player that is just waiting for an opportunity and a chance to make an impact in the NHL. The Lightning re-signed him to a three-year contract this offseason that pays him under a million dollars per season. He appeared in 15 games a year ago, scoring three goals.
Then there is Mathieu Joseph, who has mostly been a role player for the past three seasons but should be ready to take on a bigger assignment this season. He has already scored at a 15-goal pace in two of the three years.
So while the Lightning has definitely lost a lot this offseason, they have proven time and time again that they always have another wave of players ready to step in and produce.
That will be put to the test this season, but the candidates are definitely there.