Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final marked a changing of the guard in the NHL. While the Colorado Avalanche had the franchise-altering win, hoisting the Cup for the first time since 2001, the loss marked a shift for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opposite direction.
The Avalanche did more than just dethrone the two-time defending champions on Sunday night. It also represented a major crossroads for one of the greatest sports dynasties of the 21st century. For the Lightning, not hoisting the Cup for the first time in three seasons will raise some questions. With a lot of their core locked in for 2022-23, it’s unrealistic to think they won’t again be contenders for the Cup in 2023. However, with limited cap space available to solve some roster uncertainty, management has some work to do this summer. Here’s a look at the three biggest question marks that will need to be addressed this summer.
1. Replacing Ondrej Palat
The 31-year-old Czech forward came up clutch throughout their most recent playoff run. His three game-winning goals led the team, and his eleven playoff goals tied teammate Steven Stamkos for the team lead in 2021-22. Unfortunately, his play may have put him out of their price range to re-sign him.
Palat will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this summer and is due for a significant pay raise. Given the market, the $5.3 million per year he made on his last contract won’t cut it. He’s been a consistent 50-point player, and even at 31, he’s showed no signs of slowing down. His 21 points in 23 playoff games in 2022 won’t help the situation, either. Combined with the fact that the Lightning have little to no cap space available, signing him will be even more difficult. He will be out of their budget unless he’s willing to take an extremely team-friendly deal.
If the Lightning let Palat test the market, they’ll need to look in-house for possible replacements on their top line. The first name that comes to mind is Brandon Hagel. Acquired at the trade deadline, he’s a young and relatively cheap option, locked in for the next two years at $1.5 million per year.
The 23-year-old was a valuable piece of the second line with Alex Killorn, and Anthony Cirelli throughout the 2022 NHL Playoffs. The trio matched up with the opponent’s top line and provided shutdown defensive play. While they didn’t provide enough offensively to get the job done, it was a valuable experience for Hagel moving forward. If he can get back to the offensive numbers he had in 2021-22 with the Chicago Blackhawks, he’d be a great candidate to replace Palat.
While Hagel seems like the obvious replacement, Cirelli and Killorn are both possibilities as well. Either way, someone will have to step up to fill the shoes that Palat has filled for the past nine years in Tampa Bay.
2. Filling in the Bottom Six
With depth forwards such as Nick Paul and Riley Nash also becoming UFA’s this summer, management will need to address their bottom six. There is at least some security with the fourth line locked in for 2022-23. Corey Perry, Patrick Maroon, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are all under contract for next season and are all veteran players who understand their role on the team. However, the only other player within the bottom six from the 2022 Playoff roster is Ross Colton.
Given the cap situation, the Lightning will be looking for the cheapest option to keep the team a contender, including sifting through their prospect pool. While far from having the deepest pool to dive into, there are some viable options for the NHL roster.
The first is Cole Koepke, a 24-year-old, who was a sixth-round pick by the Lightning in 2018. The versatile winger had 20 goals in 69 games for the Lightning’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. While he was just a black ace for the NHL squad throughout the 2022 Playoffs, his AHL success makes him deserving of an NHL look moving forward.
Another potential prospect to fill the role is Gabriel Fortier. Fortier, a second-round pick by the Lightning in 2018, had 14 goals in 2021-22 with the Crunch. Drafted for his goal-scoring ability, the Lightning are hoping he can continue to make the necessary steps in his development this summer.
Jack Finely is another interesting prospect that could potentially fill that third-line center void in the near future. He’d potentially be the team’s top prospect had he not suffered a season-ending labrum tear in 2020-21. With the injury putting him a step behind in his intended development, he played major junior last year in the Western Hockey League (WHL). While it’s a bit unreasonable for him to jump immediately into a consistent role on the NHL roster in 2022-23 straight from major juniors, he’s someone to keep an eye out for. At 6’6″, he’ll be given the chance to prove that it’s not just his frame that’s ready for the NHL.
The other option is to find cost-effective players in the free agency market. With the aforementioned salary cap issues, they’ll likely need someone willing to take a team-friendly deal. Perhaps a veteran on his last go-around takes a low-salary deal to play for a team that can compete for a Cup. An interesting option in that regard would be someone like Marcus Johansson. At 32 years old, he can contribute third-line offensive numbers and would likely ring the team around $1 million per year. He can play all three forward positions, and has over 100 playoff games of experience. He’s just an example of what the Lightning might be looking for on the open market this summer.
3. The Development of Cal Foote
With Jan Rutta a UFA this summer, the Lightning now have six defensemen signed to the NHL roster for 2022-23. To dress six defensemen that head coach Jon Cooper can trust every night, they’ll need 23-year-old Cal Foote to take the next step in his development. The former first-round pick has shown flashes of being able to be a top-six defenseman in the NHL. However, on the second year of a two-year deal, and already off his entry-level contract, he’s yet to play in 100 NHL games. Even when it looked like he had solidified his spot on the roster towards the end of the regular season and beginning round of the 2022 Playoffs, he was scratched from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final through the rest of the playoffs.
All the physical tools with him are there, yet something is holding him back. Whether it be the speed of the game, or the pressure of playing at hockey’s highest level, the Lightning need to decide if they believe in him to take the next step. If not, the Lightning need to begin to look for another option for that sixth defenseman slot. While far from a bust, the time has come for the Lightning to decide on his future as a member of the team’s long-term core.
If he can continue his development this summer, the Lightning will have three quality right-handed defensemen in Foote, Zach Bogosian, and Erik Cernak within their tight budget. Foote taking the necessary leap in his development will lock down the defensive core for the Lightning in 2022-23.
As we move into the offseason, general manager Julien Brisebois has a number of decisions to make in order to get this team back to the Stanley Cup Final. While Brisebois has been able to make leaps and bounds in the past to avoid issues with the cap, he’ll continue to have to do so this offseason. Between the cap, free agents, prospects, and more, Brisebois and the rest of the Lightning’s front office has their hands full this offseason.
Law student, who loves all thing sports. Connor is a former college athlete who understands sports from a players perspective. Based out of Detroit, fell in love with hockey by going to the old Joe Louis Arena watching those legendary 2000s Red Wing teams. Connor will talk to anyone who will listen on player performance, draft prospects, and front office management around the NHL. In his free time he loves to golf, although his scorecard may tell you otherwise. Covering all things Tampa Bay Lightning.