Johnson’s Future with Lightning Uncertain Entering 2020-21 Season

He’s back, and most would say it’s very unexpected.

Heading into the offseason, it was almost a forgone conclusion that Tyler Johnson’s time with the Tampa Bay Lightning was up. But after being dangled in front of other teams to be traded, to no avail, and then later waived, Johnson has somehow remained on the team’s roster as the 2020-21 regular season inches closer.

Now cap compliant after a series of moves, it would appear that Johnson will begin the season with the Lightning, but that doesn’t mean the Lightning won’t try to get rid of him again.

Getting Cap Compliant

The Lightning came into the offseason with serious salary cap issues. Coming off the franchise’s second Stanley Cup championship, the Bolts had very little money to spend, and big free agents to re-sign. After extending the contract of defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, the Lightning were actually about $2 million above the cap.

However, a hip injury to Nikita Kucherov that will force him to miss the entire 2020-21 regular season freed up $9.5 million for the Lightning.

Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning will be without former Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov in the 2020-21 regular season due to a hip injury. The injury freed up nearly $10 million in cap space for Tampa Bay. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But after signing both Erik Cernak and Anthony Cirelli to extensions, even Kucherov’s injury wasn’t enough to get Tampa Bay under the cap.

This resulted in the Lightning making a trade with the Ottawa Senators, sending Cedric Paquette and Braydon Coburn to Ottawa in exchange for goaltender Anders Nilsson and forward Marian Gaborik, both of whom are injured, so they won’t count against the cap.

So, with the Lightning now looking to be cap compliant going into the season, it gives the team more time to decide what to do with Johnson.

Trade or Expansion Draft

There are realistically only two ways that the Lightning will be able to move Johnson going forward.

The first way is through a trade. The Lightning already attempted to trade Johnson over the offseason. But with his age being on the wrong side of 30, as well as an underwhelming 2019-20 season, a season in which he posted his lowest totals in goals and points since coming to Tampa Bay, all to be topped off with a contract that has four years remaining with a $5 million average annual value, there weren’t any takers on Johnson.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any going forward. The Lightning could attempt to trade the American-born forward this upcoming season close to the trade deadline. Teams tend to get more desperate at the trade deadline, willing to take on bad contracts or overpay for players they feel can give them a stronger chance at a Stanley Cup run.

Tyler Johnson Tampa Bay Lightning
Tyler Johnson could be playing his last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning as they could try to trade him midseason, or could strike a deal that sends him to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft next offseason. Johnson has four years remaining on his current contract with Tampa Bay. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But if Tampa Bay can’t deal Johnson then, the next most realistic scenario would be for the Lightning to leave him unprotected ahead of the expansion draft next offseason. The Lightning can make the NHL’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken, a deal so that they will take Johnson in the expansion draft. The Bolts might have to give up draft picks or a prospect or two in order to pull it off, but it’s certainly plausible. It’s what they did with the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 Expansion Draft.

Staying Put

The last thing that the Lightning could do in all these scenarios is just hold onto Johnson and let him play out his contract. His production doesn’t match the money he’s making, and he is getting older, but he has been a very good player in Tampa Bay throughout his career. And he is a favorite among the fans.

Should the Lightning choose this route, they would certainly pay the price for it. More salary cap problems and an aging forward would be all they get in return for their loyalty to their forward.

The best thing for the Lightning moving forward is to move Johnson. Whether it be through a trade or through the expansion draft, it’s unfortunately necessary. His age, production and contract make it nearly impossible for the team to justify keeping him. With more contract extensions to come in future years, as well as roster spots needed for young, upcoming players, moving Johnson would only help Tampa Bay.

And though they’ve failed once to do so this offseason, the Lightning must turn over every stone to accomplish this a second time around.

He might be back this time, but it would be in Tampa Bay’s best interest to make sure it isn’t for long.

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