Even the most casual NHL fan knows the Tampa Bay Lightning is a talent laden team. Yet despite that fact, the level of talent and depth of the Lightning has not been enough to avoid struggling this season.
In my mid-season report on the team, the biggest weakness showed by the Lightning has been the defensive corps. Injuries that may have crippled a team with lesser depth has slowed Tampa down this season. If the campaign were to end today, the Lightning would miss the playoffs.
Most of the injuries have been among the forwards. Captain Steven Stamkos has missed 20 of the 37 games the team has played. To add insult to injury, he is expected to be out until the end of March. Alternate captain, Ryan Callahan has missed 22 games.
In fact, only five players on the Lightning roster have played in every game. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a pity party because every NHL team experiences injuries. While the glut of injured players has slowed the team down, it hasn’t prevented them from being in a position to salvage the season with a playoff berth.
To the credit of Lightning GM, Steve Yzerman and his entire scouting staff, the organization has tremendous depth. They have scouted, drafted and developed talented players, evidenced by the forwards that have been called up from the AHL affiliate, Syracuse Crunch as injury replacements. The glaring issue, however, is among the defensive corps.
Heading into their final game of 2016, the Lightning find themselves two points behind Boston for the final playoff spot. Tampa must make the moves that will catapult the team past the Bruins and secure a postseason berth.
Let’s Make A Deal
One of the worst-kept secrets in the NHL this past offseason was that goalie Ben Bishop would be traded. Rumors persisted throughout the summer that the trigger on a Bishop deal was about to be pulled. It did not happen. As the season started, Bishop took his customary spot as the No.1 goalie for Tampa.
It could be that the team did not yet have the requisite confidence in backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, prompting the team to hold off on a deal involving Bishop. It could be that the team didn’t think either Syracuse goalie, Kristers Gudlevskis or Adam Wilcox were NHL ready. Whatever the reason, Bishop is still with the team.
It’s time for Yzerman to trade Bishop. He is injured and not expected back for another two to three weeks but there shouldn’t be any lingering downtime after he returns. Bishop is in the prime of his career. He is 30 years old and has been one of the league’s best goalies over the last three seasons.
He is also a free agent at season’s end who should command somewhere in the realm of $6-$7 million dollars a year next year at the minimum. But there has to be a team that is in the playoff hunt that could use an elite goalie to get them through the season. Let’s look at the possibilities.
Bishop Could Be a Star
The Dallas Stars are struggling a bit after last season’s impressive showing. They have two goalies that are 33 years old and Bishop could help solidify a playoff spot for Dallas. The Stars would have the cap room to re-sign Bishop regardless of which current goalie, Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi, they replace with Bishop.
Dallas has a couple of defensemen that could help the Lightning. Stephen Johns or Jordie Benn could shore up the defensive corps for the Lightning. Johns is a right handed shot with a bit of a scoring touch. Benn has the right mix of experience and youth that would help the Lightning, whose current defensemen, besides their top pair, are either too young or are lacking experience.
Why Not Jet to Winnipeg?
Another potential trading partner is the Winnipeg Jets. This isn’t a criticism on either Michael Hutchinson or Connor Hellebuyck, the current goalies in Winnipeg, but Bishop could step in and help the Jets play more consistently. It could mean the difference between a solid playoff team and a team on the playoff bubble.
Jacob Trouba, another right-handed defenseman would be the target in a trade with Winnipeg. Trouba is signed through next season and could command something in the $4.5-$5.5 million dollar range but by then, Jason Garrison who is currently in that same range and signed only through next season could move on and be replaced by Trouba.
Take a Bite of the Big Apple
Yzerman may not want to trade Bishop within the Eastern Conference but the New York Islanders could be a landing spot. After placing their former number one goalie Jaroslav Halak on waivers, the Isles have Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube in net.
Greiss did a yeoman’s job last season in the playoffs when Halak was injured but Bishop would give the Isles an elite goalie. It might be more of a cap squeeze for the Islanders than with either Dallas or Winnipeg to keep Bishop beyond this year but it could be done.
In return, the Lightning would look for Travis Hamonic. Another right-handed D-man who has a cap friendly contract through the 2019-20 season. Hamonic could help bridge the transition for the Lightning as they move on from Garrison and Braydon Coburn in the next season or two.
What to Do, What to Do?
Yzerman is unconventional at times. When most of the hockey world called for him to trade a young, boorish Jonathan Drouin last season, Yzerman sat tight. He listened to offers, he entertained the notion of moving his then-troubled young forward but ultimately did nothing.
The deal that did not take place turned out to be a great move for the Lightning, especially in light of the rash of injuries they have experienced among their forwards this season. The Bishop deal proposed here is a deal that needs to be consummated and soon.
Vasilevskiy deserves the No. 1 spot. Bishop has shown two things that have been bandied about the last couple of years. While he may not be injury prone, he gets hurt more than the team or its fan base would like. The other thing is that the impending expansion draft and the trade rumors have seemed to effect Bishop’s performance this season.
Yzerman needs to pull the trigger on a Bishop trade to shore up his defensemen. If he can get this done, it may be the deal that solidifies a playoff spot for the Lightning.