Bombshell news dropped on Tuesday, as word surfaced that Steve Yzerman is transitioning to advisory role with the Tampa Bay Lightning, while Julien BriseBois gets a promotion to GM.
It’s all a lot to take in, and the hockey world is scrambling to find out what happens next with Stevie Y, and why Stevie Y is stepping down in the first place. Could Yzerman be coming back home to the Detroit Red Wings, or perhaps setting the stage to be build a potential Seattle expansion team?
Those questions – along with a simple “Wait, what?” – come to mind immediately following such news.
What about the Lightning’s side of the equation, though?
BriseBois (pictured to the right of Jacques Martin in this post’s main image) has been the subject of GM rumors for some time, so the 41-year-old carries some hype into his promotion. He’s undoubtedly ranked as a big part of the picture in Tampa Bay, including running an outstanding operation for their AHL affiliate the Syracuse Crunch.
Now it’s his chance to justify that hype, and while Yzerman’s done great work in locking up stars Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to team-friendly extensions, BriseBois faces challenges in molding all of that promise into postseason glories.
Consider some of the key decisions BriseBois must make over the next couple of years:
The bill’s coming for Vasi
Andrei Vasilevskiy has two years remaining on a bargain $3.5 million cap hit. Soak that outstanding value in for a moment, as while his Vezina campaign fizzled as his energy waned in 2017-18, he was still a worthy finalist at a remarkably cheap rate.
Those savings won’t last forever, although note that the 24-year-old would once again be slated for RFA status. (Seriously, this team is a well-oiled machine for cap management.)
Can BriseBois leverage that last RFA year into savings, or the sort of term that would benefit Tampa Bay? Of all the decisions ahead, Vasilevskiy’s future is the most pivotal single scenario.
Could he make a big splash by getting Erik Karlsson?
This would be tricky, yet it’s worth exploring, particularly if the Golden Knights relent in their pursuit of the star defenseman after landing Max Pacioretty.
Cap Friendly lists Tampa Bay’s cap space at just $2.646M, so a Karlsson trade might be easier around the trade deadline. And, really, such a move seems tough to imagine if the Senators truly require Bobby Ryan or Marian Gaborik to be a part of any package. Maybe the ship sailed once Tampa Bay committed to Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, along with Kucherov, anyway.
Still, it’s worth asking: would BriseBois pursue Karlsson – or perhaps some other splashy upgrade – with even more vigor than Yzerman did?
Moving back to situations with brilliant young players, Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point are entering contract years.
Gourde (26, $1M cap hit in 2018-19) is slated to become a UFA, while Point (22, dirt-cheap rookie deal) would become an RFA. BriseBois must gauge how much additional leverage each forward might gain – or lose – by playing out their deals, and react accordingly. Would it save money to sign them soon, or would it be better to see where the cap comes in for 2019-20?
(For whatever it’s worth, Point mostly developed in the WHL before flourishing with the Lightning, while Gourde began his Crunch days in 2013-14.)
Whether he makes the unlikely move to land Karlsson or not, there are some decisions looming regarding the Lightning’s defense.
Granted, Stevie Y and BriseBois already did the heaviest lifting, as most NHL teams would practice dark arts to put together a trio like Hedman, McDonagh, and Sergachev, especially considering that the veterans are locked up long-term and Sergachev is still covered for two more seasons.
Still, this is a team with lofty ambitions, so surrounding that trio with other capable defensemen could be the difference between hoisting the Stanley Cup or looking back wistfully at near-misses.
Anton Stralman might be the odd man out among capable defenders, as his $4.5M cap hit expires after this season, and he’s arguably already showing signs of decline at 32. It’s likely a relief that Braydon Coburn (33, $3.7M) and Dan Girardi (34, $3M) will see their deals expire, too, but Tampa Bay could see a lot of experience evaporate in the near future.
A shrewd GM would use those expiring contracts to possibly get out of trouble, or grab some rentals. Getting rid of Ryan Callahan‘s contract would be huge, and it’s plausible that BriseBois would be far more interested in doing so than Yzerman, who seemed to love collecting former Rangers.
Beyond those older defensemen, BriseBois will need to ascertain the value of younger expiring contracts in Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin.
Jon Cooper’s a great quote. He’s also enjoyed success just about everywhere he’s gone, hustling through some obscure coaching gigs to make his way to Tampa Bay. You could do a lot worse than sticking with him.
While BriseBois must respect Cooper – he briefly coached the Crunch – it’s possible that Cooper might not be “his guy.” Even if he is, if there’s a belief that Cooper is nearing his expiration date – as many believe just about every coach reaches at some point – then it’s a situation to watch.
The Lightning don’t operate in a pressure cooker of a hockey market, which might explain why they didn’t absorb too much criticism after falling short in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, not to mention missing the postseason altogether in 2016-17. Considering context, it’s totally reasonable for them not to draw much heat.
The heat could really rise if the Lightning don’t meet expectations this time around, particularly if it seems like Cooper commits Typical NHL Coach Sins like not trusting young players enough. You could argue that he should have given Sergachev a longer leash last season, among other situations, so it’s not totally out of the question.
If you were to poll NHL executives about “dream” GM jobs, the Lightning would almost certainly land in the top five. In plenty of cases, they’d probably rank first overall.
So, there are a lot of blessings that come with this, although the curse is that critics will be harsh if BriseBois stumbles now that he’s landed the top gig.
Fair or not, many will view him as a failure if this outstanding Lightning core fails to nab the franchise’s second Stanley Cup (and possible more). There are worse situations to be in, but that doesn’t mean this is necessarily an easy job.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.