Lightning: 3 Under-the-Radar Free Agent Forward Targets

With core pieces moving in and out, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois has had a busy offseason so far. Despite the difficult decisions, the Tampa Bay Lightning are objectively a better hockey team heading into the 2024-25 season. With additions of Jake Guentzel, Cam Atkinson, and Zemgus Girgensons, the Lightning improved their five-on-five scoring and forward depth tremendously. However, the Lightning could use one or two more forwards to bolster their starting lineup. Multiple enticing options remain in free agency.

Dominik Kubalik

When Dominik Kubalik scored 30 goals in his rookie season with Jonathan Toews as his center, the Chicago Blackhawks thought they found a lethal top-six forward. Yet, the winger was off the roster two seasons later, failing to eclipse even the 20-goal plateau. Suddenly, Kubalik rejuvenated his career with the Detroit Red Wings, scoring 20 goals and 45 points in 81 games in 2023. This production made him a key piece in the Alex Debrincat deal with Detroit. After he arrived in Ottawa, Kubalik had the worst season of his NHL career, scoring just 11 goals and 15 points in 74 games.

Related: Lightning’s 2024-25 Season Schedule: 10 Games to Circle

Despite coming off a down season, the Lightning may find value in a player like Kubalik. The 28-year-old can fill an interim role on the second-line wing. After all, the Lightning desperately need an upgrade at right wing following the departure of Anthony Duclair. Corey Sznajder from AllThreeZones ranks Kubalik as a solid passer, but one-timers are his strength. The winger ranked in the 84th percentile of center lane passes per 60 amongst forwards in 2022-23 with the Red Wings. Furthermore, Kubalik ranked in the 99th percentile of one-timers and the 94th percentile of one-timer assists per hour that season.

As a team, the Lightning ranked in the 94th percentile of one-timers, and their center lane passing could use improvement next season. Kubalik helps address the team’s weaknesses while the team complements his best attributes. AFP Analytics projects Kubalik to earn only $1 million on his next deal for a single season. In short, the Lightning front office should be all over this signing, and Kubalik makes the most sense for the organization.

Alex Nylander

Before a brief stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Alex Nylander averaged 12 minutes of ice time per game in his limited NHL experience. Then, the 26-year-old was given an opportunity in Columbus and shined with an increased role. Averaging 17 minutes a night with the Blue Jackets, Nylander potted 11 goals and four assists for 15 points in 23 games. Before his breakout run, Nylander appeared in just 14 regular season games over the last three NHL seasons, all with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Alex Nylander Columbus Blue Jackets
Alex Nylander, Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images)

After watching the 2016 8th-overall selection succeed as a late bloomer, everyone continued to root for him. Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets did not extend him an offer and he remains an unrestricted free agent. While his 17.74 shooting percentage is not sustainable, the Lightning could add a skilled offensive sniper to the middle-six to bolster the secondary scoring. Perhaps under head coach Jon Cooper, Nylander can mature and develop a proper two-way game. Plus, the price tag would not be hefty. AFPanalytics projects the winger to earn a one-year deal worth roughly $1.3 million.

Kailer Yamamoto

Kailer Yamamoto is slightly different from Kubalik and Nylander. He isn’t a point producer but prefers to play a fast game in transition and on the forecheck while remaining responsible defensively. Following an underwhelming final season with the Edmonton Oilers, Yamamoto signed with the Seattle Kraken in an attempt to replicate his 20-goal, 41-point season from just two seasons ago. However, Yamamoto found himself in a depth role with Seattle, only scoring eight goals and 16 points in 59 games. Now on the free agent market, the 2017 first-round draft pick offers solid middle-six upside.

Now-former Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol did not deploy Yamamoto properly last season. The winger plays a complete defensive game but ranked last amongst Seattle forwards in defensive zone start percentage. Moreover, his time on ice per game dropped five minutes compared to the previous three seasons in Edmonton. Meanwhile, Yamamoto grades as one of the league’s most efficient players on the forecheck (via AllThreeZones) and likes distributing the puck on zone entries. AFPanalytics predicts the 25-year-old at $2 million for two years for his next deal.

Lightning in Desperate Need of Top-Six Winger

Intriguing short-term options remain in free agency, but none of these three players should be the long-term solution for the Lightning in a top-six role. Inconsistency is a concern among the three targets listed above. However, at a cost-effective price, they are great short-term, middle-six options to add a punch of youth to an aging Tampa Bay roster. Be on the lookout for a potential trade by BriseBois; Frank Vatrano of the Anaheim Ducks remains a rumored target.

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