One reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup was due to their depth. Heading into the playoffs, the team was flush with talent after making a number of smart signings and trades throughout the prior year to add the players needed to survive a long postseason run.
This was especially noticeable on defense, in which the Lightning built a core of veteran depth including Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian, Jan Rutta, and Luke Schenn to fill out an already strong line-up of defenders. This depth really paid off, as keystone players like Ryan McDonagh could miss a few games due to injury without derailing the series for Tampa Bay.
With the 2020 playoffs feeling like a distant memory now, the Lightning are starting to plan for their next push in 2021. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the season, the team has been a force on the ice, piling up wins and all but securing their spot in the postseason before the trade deadline. Under normal circumstances, general manager Julien BriseBois would be looking to add more depth to his roster, but that simply may not be possible due to a number of reasons.
First and most obvious is the cap, which Tampa Bay is hard up against. Even with some creative use of Long-Term Injury Reserve (LTIR), the Lightning have very little actual cap-space to work with, making it nearly impossible to make a trade without clearing out some salary in the process.
Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways for BriseBois to make some space if he is willing to deal a young NHL-caliber prospect or a top pick. For example, with Ross Colton forcing his way into the nightly line-up and Mitchell Stephens preparing to come off of LTIR, the Lightning traded budding forward Alexander Volkov to the Anaheim Ducks. While Volkov still was a high-upside prospect, Colton proved that he was ready to play right now, and given their current cap crunch the team couldn’t keep all three players and stay compliant.
This sort of move could be made again before the deadline, with the Lightning trading a high-upside prospect and/ or a pick along with a more expensive contract in order to clear enough space to make one meaningful deadline trade. However, there is one key piece to this equation that will make a deal like this even more difficult… the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
Lightning Must Prepare for a Kraken Trade
With the 2021 Expansion Draft mere months away, BriseBois will already be drawing up the Lightning’s game plan for how they will handle that venture. If he were to swing a trade at the deadline, for example, that would leave his cupboards bare heading into the draft, giving him less ammunition to influence the Kraken’s selection.
See, the expansion draft will be an opportunity for the Lightning to offload a veteran contract to Seattle at the cost of future assets, similar to the deal they worked out with the Vegas Golden Knights back in 2017. In that trade, they sent a second-round pick and prospect Nikita Gusev to Vegas in order for them to select veteran defenseman, Jason Garrison. This move was fruitful for Tampa Bay, as they cleared close to $5 million in cap space, which was then used to sign some of their young restricted free agents.
Heading into the next expansion draft, the Lightning will be in a tougher position than they were in 2017. In order to sway the Kraken’s hand (or tentacles) to select a player with a $5 cap hit, BriseBois will need to give up more.
Given the premium on cap space, this will likely mean at least a first-round pick and a prospect will be necessary to make the Kraken select anyone of value from the Lightning. While Tampa Bay could use a 2022 first-rounder in that deal, that pick may have more value than one in 2021 due to some uncertainty surrounding the draft.
Also, it’s worth considering that if Tampa Bay deals a first-round pick in 2022, then they wouldn’t have a selection in the first or second round of that draft. So, if they trade a their 2021 first at the deadline, they would be going two years without a draft selection in the first or second round, which goes against how the franchise has been built over the last decade.
Lightning in a No-Win Deadline Scenario
While it is easy to look at the Lightning’s current roster and find holes that you would like to see filled at the trade deadline, it is seeming like it will be impossible for BriseBois to make any moves to address these issues. Between being hard against the cap and the looming expansion draft, there are very few options to make enough cap space without hurting the team long-term.
This doesn’t mean that the Lightning can’t go on a run in the 2021 playoffs, of course. This is an experienced roster with many of the same players that won it all last season. If they can stay healthy, they should be a force once again that no team will want to face.
However, as we all know, the NHL postseason is a gauntlet and injuries will inevitably occur. When they do, the Lightning’s depth will be tested, and unlike last season, their defensive pool just isn’t as deep as you may hope for.
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.