When a team loses a key player to trade or free agency, like the Tampa Bay Lightning have recently, the common misperception is that those players need to be replaced with a player of the same skillset. While the concept sounds good, the current situation with the NHL salary cap does not allow the Lightning to sign players that may be considered comparable to those who are no longer on the roster.
While some key members from the last three trips to the Stanley Cup Final are no longer on the roster, general manager Julien BriseBois signed veterans Ian Cole and Vladislav Namestnikov. At first glance, the move may have looked like someone signing some players just to be able to fill out a roster to stay under the salary cap. However, the signings of these two players have more upside than just players filling out a roster.
Namestnikov Could Be Better Than Before
Most fans remember the 29-year-old Russian native as Namestnikov, a first-round pick of the Lightning at the 2011 Draft. Namestnikov last played for the team in the 2017-18 season before being sent to the New York Rangers in the Ryan McDonagh trade. Since then, he has been a journeyman, with stints in Ottawa, Colorado, Detroit, and Dallas. This past season, he played for the Detroit Red Wings before being sent to the Dallas Stars in exchange for a third-rounder at the deadline. He finished the 2021-22 season with 30 points in 80 games.
At first glance, it appears that Namestnikov will be a significant downgrade from Ondrej Palat, who produced 49 points in 77 games last season. While that may be true, it does not mean that Namestnikov cannot be a solid contributor for the Lightning in 2022-23 and help lead them back to the Stanley Cup Final. Financial considerations aside, there is a reason why the team went back and signed a player that has not lived up to the expectations of a first-round pick. The Lightning knows him and the skill level that he is capable of playing at.
It is likely that the Lightning has the belief that they can get something closer to what the promise was when they drafted him in 2011. In their scouting reports, Elite Prospects stated that Namestnikov is a very skilled offensive center with a reliable finisher and an impressive wrist shot. He is a good passer and playmaker and an excellent skater. He takes advantage of open space very well. A solid two-way player who needs to gain strength. Whether it has been the lack of strength or the ability to adapt to North American hockey, Namestnikov has not lived up to his expectations.
A second chance might be the ticket for him, whether they spend time trying to increase his strength or make a few adjustments with skating coach Barbara Underhill. The Lightning realize that they have a player who not only comes at the right price but has the potential to achieve more than what he has produced in the last couple of seasons. It is also worth mentioning that he does not have to replace Palat directly. Someone else will be expected to do that. The realistic expectation is that Namestnikov will excel in their bottom six and give the team a reliable, versatile option to deploy in all situations.
Cole Provides Solid Presence on the Blue Line
After the McDonagh trade, the Lightning wasted no time in adding some veteran experience to the defensive core. Early in free agency, Cole signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Lightning. One of the biggest factors for the signing of the 33-year-old is that he has made the postseason in nine of his 12 NHL seasons and won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017. Last season with the Carolina Hurricanes, he has 19 points on two goals and 17 assists in 75 regular-season games. He also added a goal and an assist in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games. His one goal was a memorable overtime winner against the New York Rangers in Game 1 of their series.
Cole was a crucial part of the solid Hurricanes defense last season. Among Hurricanes defensemen to play at least 20 games, his 2.2 expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was the best on the team. He ranked third on the Hurricanes’ league-leading penalty-killing unit in shorthanded ice time per game (2:30). He was considered one of the best values in the free agency pool heading into the signing period.
Cole was selected by the St. Louis Blues in the first round (No. 18) of the 2007 NHL Draft and has 165 career points. He has played in 670 regular-season games for the Hurricanes, Penguins, and Blues, as well as stints with the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and Columbus Blue Jackets. He has also appeared in 110 playoff games.
The Lightning pride themselves on positive team culture and have added to that with the addition of Cole, who is considered one of the better locker room guys in the league. Wherever he has played, the veteran has been a player who comes to a team, anchors the third pairing, plays with an edge, and eats some valuable minutes. With a projected cap hit of just over $2.6 million, this gives the Lightning great value for the consistency he brings in a bottom-pairing role.
Years ago, it was possible for a team and their fanbase to enjoy having many of their favorite players around for a significant amount of time. In today’s NHL, the salary cap forces teams to part ways with players whose salaries do not allow the team to stay under the cap. While losing popular and key players like Palat and McDonagh is always difficult, the Lightning have put themselves in a good position to make a deep run in next year’s playoffs by signing players like Namestnikov and Cole, who can provide some upside while keeping the team under the cap limit.
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Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Nashville Predators for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)