Before the 2022 NHL trade deadline, there were some reasonable questions about the Tampa Bay Lightning’s forward corps. While their roster of Stanley Cup-winning stars were playing well and general manager Julien BriseBois’ low-cost veteran additions had found a consistent place in their bottom-six, their new-look third line just wasn’t cutting it.
After massive changes swept key players off their roster during the 2021 offseason, BriseBois leaned on two top prospects to take on ice-time. While Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk had glimpses of starting talent, it was clear that they weren’t quite ready for prime time just yet. If the Lightning were a fringe playoff team this wouldn’t have been an issue, but considering their Stanley Cup window, it left an area for the franchise to improve upon at the trade deadline.
And improve it did. After swinging two big deadline trades, BriseBois acquired Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul to build another new-look third line alongside Ross Colton.
While it took some time, this third line started finding itself toward the end of the regular season, and by Round 1 of the 2022 NHL Playoffs, they became a difference-maker on the ice. They contributed key goals for the Lightning, including a game-winner by Colton, Paul, and Hagel. Now as the Lightning look toward the Florida Panthers in Round 2, this line is primed for another impactful series.
Lightning Have Right Pieces for a Dominant Third Line
One of the reasons why BriseBois gave up so much for Hagel was his contract. Not only was he signed to a multi-year deal carrying just $1.5 million against the cap, but when that contract expires in 2024, he is going to be a restricted free agent, meaning the team still has control over his future.
Paul, on the other hand, was more of a traditional deadline rental, whose contract expires in 2022. This will leave him as an unrestricted free agent, meaning any team could try and obtain his services.
Before the trade, there likely wouldn’t have been the biggest market for Paul. Sure, he would have found a home in the NHL, but his time with the Ottawa Senators suggested a solid bottom-six forward who probably wouldn’t have received an offer much higher than his current $1.35 million per year cap hit.
Since joining the Lightning, Paul has blossomed into a potential free-agent darling. Similar to a player like Barclay Goodrow, he has gone from being a low-cost, low-impact forward to a player who is scoring the biggest goals of his life in the biggest games of the season.
This should raise his asking price exponentially, as he is just 27-years-old, and is showcasing that his best years are still in front of him. Paul may not have the same body of work of as Goodrow when he hit the open market, but he will likely find a general manager willing to pay him above market value for the potential he has shown.
Paul Needs To Be Part of the Lightning’s Future
After his impressive play throughout Round 1 of the 2022 NHL postseason, including his incredible two goals in Game 7, Paul has moved up the Lightning’s priority list. While he may have been a fringe player to keep if he was willing to take a reasonable contract, he is now a must-sign for BriseBois.
The reason for this is more than just his strong postseason play. For the Lightning, the potential to keep this third line together for more than a few months should be incredibly enticing. They are already showing signs of chemistry that normally takes years to form, and their impact on the ice will only grow with time.
Now, of course, this should all be within reason. If a team goes out and offers Paul a contract like what Goodrow earned, which was six years, $3.6 million per year, then the Lightning should rightfully walk away. He is an incredible fit right now, but that sort of term and cost is simply too much for Tampa Bay to take on.
However, if they can lock him down to a multi-year deal paying somewhere between the two to three million, then that could be a fantastic investment for the franchise. If the Lightning are able to keep this third line together for three or more years, they could develop into a dominant force unlike anything the team has featured before.
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Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.