Welcome to a new series of articles: NHL Silver Linings. A series that will bring hope to the fans of the hockey teams that will not be playing past April 9 this season.
This season was not a bright one for either Florida team. Both battled for the top spot in the Atlantic Division last season, but they both miss out on the playoffs this season. The Tampa Bay Lightning, however, were in contention until the bitter end.
With so many big name injuries, including the team’s superstar and captain, Steven Stamkos, the Bolts looked to have called it quits on the season at the trade deadline, selling off the likes of Nikita Nesterov, Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula, and subsequently Mark Streit. But they still managed to stay competitive in the final weeks of the season.
Despite the injury struggles and being sellers over the trade window, Tampa Bay managed to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the second from last game, ending the season on a three-game win streak.
Tampa Bay Lightning season sum-up
In terms of standing, the Tampa Bay Lightning had a slack season, but when you look into the various dilemmas that plagued the team, you’d have to say that they took a step forward this season.
Without any major incomings or outgoings in the offseason – although, Jonathan Marchessault is proving to be a gem for the Florida Panthers – the Bolts looked to set for an improved season with their young stars taking another step forward. But, major injuries struck, and having two starting caliber goalies – Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy – appeared to hinder their play.
It was an unfortunate season, and they capitalized on their misfortune in the trade window. Shipping off the big names and big contracts, who they likely would have liked to scrub off anyway, was an exemplary move to allow the team to keep progressing despite their bad season, and them supposedly being out of the playoff race allowed them to do that.
Tampa Bay finished strong, not only showing that they can perform without Steven Stamkos and the stars they traded away, but that they have only strengthened their team by being sellers.
How the Tampa Bay Lightning stand money-wise
As it stands, traded in backup netminder Peter Budaj is set to become an unrestricted free agent, as is defenseman Luke Witkowski, and Greg McKegg – who the Lightning pinched from the Panthers off of the waivers. But there are some big names set to become restricted free agents.
All of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, and Andrej Sustr are set to become restricted free agents, and Tampa Bay will certainly want to re-sign them all. According to Spotrac, the Bolts are estimated to have $25.4 million in cap space at the start of next season with these contracts expiring.
Greg McKegg showed some flashes of brilliance early in the season for Florida but was unable to maintain a high level of play, and couldn’t really take off with the Lightning. Luke Witkowski filled in on the bottom line adequately at the end of the season. Both may be signed up to two-way contracts to keep that extra depth for the Bolts, but it looks more likely that they’ll both be allowed to walk.
The one impending UFA who they really should re-sign is Peter Budaj as he would continue to provide top-class support for Andrei Vasilevskiy in times of need. Signing him up would help to nail down the goaltending situation, give the team confidence in every game, and help Vasilevskiy move into the 60-plus games per season starting role that he is destined for.
Andrej Sustr, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson will almost certainly sign up with Tampa Bay. Both Palat and Johnson should see their current $3.33 million per year deals bump up to around the $4 million mark. Sustr has proven himself to be a decent defenseman at age 26 and should be reaching upwards from his current $1.45 million rate. Then there’s Drouin, who will likely be aiming for upwards of $2.8 million per year.
Awaiting the Tampa Bay prospects
Tampa Bay’s prospect pool is well stacked, with talents coming through in all skating positions. They lack a bit in goaltending, but that’s not an issue with young Russian Vasilevskiy now being their starting goalie.
Their top prospect at this point in time is Libor Hajek. The 19-year-old Czech defenseman was taken 37th overall in the 2016 draft, stands at 6’2’’ and around 200 lbs. He was excellent for the Saskatoon Blades this season, showing off his high-level two-way game and astounding hockey IQ. He also performed well in a brief stint in the AHL.
The Lightning need some support on the blue line next season, and instead of dipping into the free agency, they may turn to Slater Koekkoek and give the 23-year-old Canadian a full-time role. The speedy defenseman played in ten playoff games for the Bolts last season and in 29 regular season contests in this campaign. He appears to be on the cusp of being a regular; his contract renewal – Koekkoek becoming an RFA this summer – will tell us more about his role next season.
Offseason predictions for the Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning are set to lose a decent player to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, with the likes of Vladislav Namestnikov, J.T. Brown, Cedric Paquette, Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn all potentially being exposed.
Looking forward to the NHL Entry Draft, thanks to their end of season surge, the Lightning only have a 1.8 percent chance of being pulled as the first overall pick, which is fair, given how strong their team is. It’s far more likely that they’ll pick from their finishing place, 14th overall.
Given the positional bias of their top prospects, Tampa Bay will likely be looking for a strong left winger, with their likely standing in this center-heavy first round putting them in range of selecting a prospect like Eeli Tolvanen or Ryan Poehling. Tolvanen brings pure scoring ability, whilst Poehling is a strong forward who is both versatile and tough to play against.
In the free agency, the Bolts will likely be looking for a bottom-six center and a strong defenseman to fill out their blue line pairings. They’re expected to have a decent amount of cap space by the time the free agency rolls around, so they could potentially go for a couple of the big names, such as Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, Kris Russell, Michael Del Zotto, Sam Gagner, Nick Bonino, or maybe even get Brian Boyle back.
Look forward to 2017/18
Assuming that the Tampa Bay Lightning re-sign their four very talented RFAs, the only thing that could stop the Bolts from flying back into the playoffs next season is another plague of injuries, particularly another big one to their captain, Steven Stamkos.
The team has shown that they are deep and talented enough to cope, in spells, without Stamkos, but they really need his superstar ability and leadership qualities to guide them to the playoffs. Having the goaltender situation resolved, hopefully with Budaj as the designated back-up – not in a tandem situation – would also help to balance the team and keep them steady.
Not a single player on Tampa Bay’s end of season roster played in all 82 games last season, with leaders Stamkos and Ryan Callahan featuring in less than 20 contests. So, barring another freakishly injury-riddled season, the Bolts should be able to reclaim their rightful place among the Atlantic Division’s playoff places.
With their young and very talented core continuing to improve, along with new future stars likes Brayden Point making their way into the regular lines, next season looks to be a bounce-back one for the Bolts.
How do you think next season will go for the Lightning? Let us know in the comments section below.