At the start of the 2021 Free Agency period, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois made a number of moves to bring in low-cost depth to his roster. Two of these signings brought veteran players looking for more shots at a Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay on identical two-year, $1 million per year contracts, where they could play in a smaller but still impactful role for the franchise.
The headline grabber of these signings was Corey Perry, who was coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup Final losses to the Lightning, but still had a lot of quality hockey left in his frame. Despite a slow start to the season, he would go on to post 19 goals and 40 points in 2021-22, along with six goals and 11 points in the playoffs, scoring totals that make him an absolute bargain for his cap hit.
While Perry may have been the headliner, the other veteran signing made a different but still important impact for the Lightning. This was, of course, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the then 36-year-old Frenchman who had played for three different NHL teams over his seven-year career at the time.
When BriseBois signed Bellemare, he wasn’t brought in to be a scoring presence, but a defensively sound forward who could take on 10 to 12 minutes a night on the fourth line or to be stashed in the minor league if he was outplayed by a prospect. Instead, the Lightning got a lot more than just a depth player.
Lightning Brought the Best Out of Bellemare
Out of training camp, it was clear the Bellemare was ready to play for a championship. He stepped into a starting role in the Lightning’s bottom six, where he played limited minutes 5-on-5, but took on a major role on the penalty kill. As the season progressed, he really started to find his niche with Tampa Bay, where he played alongside fellow veteran forwards Pat Maroon and Perry. They took on the moniker of the “school bus” line, and they carried each other to success.
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By the end of the regular season, Bellemare played in 80 games, where he tied his career-high in goals scored with nine, posted 20 points, went plus-24, took on a career-high 13:45 of playing time each night while being the most active forward on the penalty kill, as he played more than 2:30 seconds short-handed a game.
In the playoffs, he saw his usage reduced but he was still an effective player in his 10 minutes of nightly ice time. He spent more than 2 minutes on the penalty kill, laid down 31 hits, and won 51 percent of his faceoffs. Sure these aren’t gangbuster statistics, but for a fourth-liner on a stacked Lightning lineup, it’s everything you could hope for.
Normally this is where the story ends for a veteran depth signing, as you bring them in on a low-cost deal for the season, make a run to the Stanley Cup Final, then see them walk into the sunset to join a new team that can pay them more for the remaining years of their NHL career. However, by signing Bellemare to a two-year deal, BriseBois has essentially found money for the 2022-23 season.
Lightning Need Bellemare to Continue Unlikely Success
By having him on the books for one more season, the Lightning are eliminating an unknown. There’s never a guarantee that a newly formed line will have the chemistry that Perry, Maroon, and Bellemare found, and if they can continue this play, they will be worth well more than their combined cap hit of $3 million.
For a team that is firmly pressed against the cap ceiling, this sort of cost to production can’t be overstated. While defensive-first forwards may not demand the highest salaries in the league, even if it cost $1.5 million to replace Bellemare, that’s money that the Lightning simply don’t have right now.
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So, even if he may not be the flashiest contributor on the ice, what Bellemare brings both on and off it is an absolute bargain for the franchise. He is beloved by fans for his heart and soul playstyle, and his play over the coming year will be a major indicator of how successful the Lightning will be throughout the 2022-23 season.