Expansion Draft Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

When it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is, there are more top-quality players on the roster than they can ever hope to protect — both forwards and defensemen — and they are in need of cap relief. This means that if the Seattle Kraken just select one player from the available list, they’ll end up with a key piece of their opening night lineup. It also means that the likelihood of a complex, multi-player deal between the Lightning and the Kraken is very high.

The (mildly) bad news is, nobody is going to know what happens until the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft commences. This is one of those teams where everyone is going to be biting their nails waiting to hear who the Kraken are able to acquire. And it means what we’re going to talk about here today is possibilities, and little else. As a result this article is, necessarily, going to follow a little different format than the others in this series. Let’s get started by going over what we know.

Ripe For A Deal

One of the things that is up in the air is which protection scheme the Lightning will choose to employ. One argument advocates that the Lightning have too many young, talented defensemen to just allow one of them to be selected without compensation, so the 8-and-1 protection scheme will be used. The counterargument is, using the 8-and-1 protection scheme leaves far too many talented forwards exposed, and the team should protect the most players in the aggregate.

But while we don’t know what protection scheme Tampa will use, we can say with some certainty that the following players will be protected regardless of which scheme is used:

Forwards: Nikita Kucherov (NMC), Steven Stamkos (NMC), Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat

Defensemen: Victor Hedman (NMC), Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak

Goaltender: Andre Vasilevsky

Short list, huh… I’ll even qualify that list by saying that in the event of a far-reaching side-deal scenario, even Point, Palat, and Cernak are potentially up for grabs. It will depend on what the Kraken can offer in return.

Some other items that you will need to digest before we go much further. Among the forwards, the one absent from the lineup is their superstar right wing Nikita Kucherov. He, and his $9.5 million cap hit, will be coming off of LTIR and returning to the lineup next season. The Lightning need to free up some cap space between now and then in order to make that possible. The other complicating factor is the contract of Marion Gaborik (remember him?), which was acquired to provide additional LTIR relief to the Lightning, expires at the end of this season. So they are in dire need of some roster moves ahead of puck drop this October.

The top line of Stamkos, Point, and Palat have over 90 points between them, but a host of other forwards are contributing in significant ways. Yanni Gourde (23 points), Alex Killorn (23), and Anthony Cirelli (21) are leading the charge, with role players Tyler Johnson (15), Mathieu Joseph (14), and Pat Maroon (13) on the rise. The Tampa lineup is replete with offensive firepower dipping all the way down to the fourth line.

On defense, the Lightning have a similar abundance of riches. Victor Hedman (who leads the team in scoring and plus-minus, and holds the scoring lead for all defensemen league-wide) and Ryan McDonagh are the seasoned veterans; Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Cal Foote are all quickly ascending stars — none of them older than 23; and even role player Jan Rutta is modestly-priced and performs adequately. In a perfect world Tampa would like to protect all 3 of its young blueliners, but Hedman’s no-movement clause prevents that under the 7-3-1 protection scheme.

Here’s the kicker: every player we’ve just mentioned is either under contract for next year, or in Foote’s case, RFA and in need of a new contract. As a result, at the time of this writing the Lightning are already sitting $3.5 million over the cap limit for next year with just 15 players on the roster.

Is this starting to come into focus now? The Lightning need to move bodies, and with them, salary; the Kraken need scoring and top-four defense. The situation is ripe for a deal. But we can’t jump there just yet.

7-3-1 Scenario

There is the possibility that the Lightning are planning to open up the roster for the entire league to bid on in the off-season. Whichever deals make the most sense, they’ll pull the trigger. In that case, they would want to protect as many players as possible during the expansion draft. It’s also possible that they trade one of the three young blueliners they would otherwise want to protect before the expansion draft kicks off in July. In either case the Lightning would employ the 7-3-1 protection scheme.

Should that occur, the primary target for the Kraken will likely be on defense. We expect Hedman (NMC), Sergachev, and Cernak to be protected, leaving the following players as the best available:

LD Ryan McDonagh, $6.75 million AAV, signed through 2026. With three young and talented blueliners already on the roster, the Lightning need to make room in the top two pairings. McDonagh is the odd-man out in this scenario, but that’s largely due to age and cap considerations — not performance. McDonagh puts up solid numbers during the regular season: he’s usually good for 30+ points and over 100 blocked shots while averaging over 22 minutes a night — 3 minutes of which is on the penalty kill. But the playoffs is where he shines: 139 GP; 51 points; 317 hits; 315 blocked shots; 25 minutes a night on average. He is your go-to guy in the post-season, and for this reason the Kraken need to consider McDonagh very carefully. He’s expensive, and he’s signed for another 5 years; but he’s potentially the first Captain in franchise history.

RD Cal Foote, $925,000 AAV, RFA. 22-year-old rookie Cal Foote is the son of NHL defenseman Adam Foote, who won two Stanley Cups with Colorado over his 1,154 games in the NHL. Sons of former players have a leg up on their peers, and it’s likely that Foote the younger will soon develop into a top-four defenseman — but he’s not there yet. He has good size and excellent defensive instincts for his age; but he is under-developed offensively and still makes some ill-advised decisions with the puck. He’s still learning, and his numbers through two seasons with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch show that he merely needs time to adjust to his surroundings. This is his first season in the NHL, and in time the big-league jitters will disappear. But the Kraken will need to give him time to let that happen.

8-and-1 Scenario

Tampa Bay may decide instead that they are dedicated to keeping their defensive core intact, and in so doing will choose to expose more of the forwards on the squad. If so, and the Lightning opt for the 8-and-1 protection scheme, that opens up a vast array of possible selections from the Lightning’s forward ranks. In this scenario there is little doubt that Kucherov (NMC), Stamkos (NMC), Point, and Palat will be the ones protected, leaving four players with four different playing styles:

C Yanni Gourde, $5.16 million AAV, signed through 2025. The places where you are most likely to notice the diminutive Gourde are sliding under a check along the boards to set up a scoring chance, whipping past a defenseman to beat him to the corner and retrieve a dump-in, or squeezing between two defenders to hammer a shot on net. He is fast and sneaky, and has become a potent part of Tampa’s offense this year: 23 points in 34 games while maintaining a plus-8 rating. This year’s face-off win percentage is off somewhat, but the last two seasons he stayed above 53% for the year.

C Anthony Cirelli, $4.8 million AAV, signed through 2023. 23-year-old Cirelli has a lower cap hit and shorter contract duration, but you also get a different style of player. He is a two-way center and relentless 200-ft back-checker, and logs solid minutes killing penalties. He has 21 points in 28 games this season, which includes 3 game-winning goals, and currently stands at plus-9 on the year. His performance at the face-off dot is not awful, but could be improved.

LW Alex Killorn, $4.5 million AAV, signed through 2023. During his 9-year NHL career Killorn has notched 333 points in 619 games, and is plus-84 lifetime. The other place he dents the scoresheet is hits, and that’s largely because he earns his kibble along the boards. He is hard to move off the puck, works the cycle, and wins board battles to create scoring chances. When combined with his soft, quick hands it makes sense that you see him on both the #1 PP unit and the #2 PK unit.

LW Pat Maroon, $700,000 AAV, signed through 2022. Standing 6’3″ and tipping the scale at 225 lbs., the man they call “Big Rig” lives up to that nickname: when he’s coming for you, you know it, and you’re scared. He regularly leads the team in hits and PIM’s, but you’ll also see his big frame screening goaltenders on the Lightning’s 2nd power play unit. He has 14 points through 31 games, and is plus-3 for the year, so he’s not simply a goon. He also stands alone on the defending Stanley Cup Champion Lightning squad as having hoisted the silver chalice in consecutive years with different teams: St. Louis in 2018-19, and Tampa Bay in 2019-20. If the Kraken need a veteran presence with close to 100 games of playoff experience, the price can’t be beat.

Side Deal Scenario

I would hazard a guess that Tampa Bay is more than willing to put together a deal with Seattle, and should that happen I hope that Kraken GM Ron Francis gets aggressive. There is a huge amount of talent on the Lightning roster; Francis should craft a deal that lands both a top-four defenseman and a top-six forward. Remember that with the Lightning’s cap situation, taking salary and term off their hands is doing them a big favor. But it’s not unreasonable to think that doing so will require something going back the other direction, be it one or more draft picks or a player we acquire from another club.

It’s difficult to speculate on exactly what the Lightning’s compensation might look like, so we won’t. But in addition to the other players we outlined, here are two that would serve the Kraken very well if a deal can be made:

RW Ondrej Palat, $5.3 million AAV, signed through 2022. This 7th round steal by the Lightning is now playing the right side of the top line for Tampa. He is good for 15 goals and 25 assists in any given season, plus over 100 hits, and he has never had a year where his plus-minus was negative. He mostly scores from down low, either driving the net for tip-ins or bamboozling goaltenders with a deceptive wrist shot from below the dots. Moving Palat would clear substantial cap space for Tampa a year ahead of when they would lose him to free agency anyhow, so trading him to the Kraken isn’t really that farfetched.

RD Erik Cernak, $2.95 million AAV, signed through 2023. Hedman and Sergachev are the crown jewels in the Lightning’s blueline corps, but Cernak is not far behind. He is a BIG BOY, 6’3″ and 233 lbs., logs significant minutes on the penalty kill, and complements his defensive instincts by also joining the rush. In 154 NHL games he has 38 points and a combined plus-50. One of the assets that goes largely unnoticed with Cernak is his hard, accurate shot from the point. With his imposing frame he lowers the boom on attacking forwards, as you can imagine; but he’s a clean player and doesn’t land in the box as much as somebody with a similar physical playing style. He’s a top-pairing defensemen on most teams in the league, and would fill that role nicely with the Kraken.

Good News

Honestly, I can see any of these scenarios coming to pass. With so many marketable assets I would not be surprised to see the Lightning open up the bidding on their roster when they end their playoff run, even before the draft gets underway. Look for (not Las) Vegas to be first on the doorstep when that happens, since they will not lose a player in the expansion draft and don’t have to worry about protecting who they acquire.

But the most likely scenario is a complex deal to clear cap space for the Lightning while moving some solid assets to the Kraken for their inaugural season. I’m certain that Tampa Bay has been circled in red on many white boards in the offices of Seattle pro scouts, and while we won’t know the details about the outcome until July, I am certain about one thing: whatever happens, it’s going to be good news.

You can check out the Tampa Bay Lightning this weekend when they manhandle the last place Detroit Red Wings. Game time is 9:00am Pacific this Sunday, April 4th, broadcast nationwide on NBC.

Author: Tim Currell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *