Part of any NHL franchise is change. No matter how good or bad a team is, they will ultimately lose players that you really don’t want to see leave through a trade, free agency, or sometimes other means. Oftentimes when it is just a depth player who is lost for nothing, it isn’t thought about again, but every so often a team will lose a player who was stuck in their bottom six that goes on to become a star.
In recent years, the Tampa Bay Lightning have two major examples of this happening. First was when they let Jonathan Marchessault walk in the 2016 offseason to the Florida Panthers for a relatively small two-year contract. In the following 2016-17 season, he went on to score 30 goals before being selected at the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft and becoming a face of the fledgling franchise.
Four years later history repeated itself when the Lightning let Carter Verhaeghe walk in free agency to sign a two-year deal with the Panthers. Once again, the former depth forward found his groove with Florida almost immediately, and he went on to post 18 goals and 36 points in just 43 games played. This time, however, Verhaeghe signed an extension to stay with the Panthers instead of being selected at the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.
Now, losing these potential top-six forwards for nothing didn’t hurt the Lightning in the long run, as they likely weren’t ever going to get the opportunity to reach these scoring totals in Tampa Bay. The team is incredibly deep, after all, so it takes some truly spectacular play to break into that part of the lineup.
Lightning Lack a Proper Role for Barre-Boulet
As the Lightning participate in training camp before the start of the 2021-22 season, it feels like history may once again be repeating itself. With a deep and talented forward corps dotted with veteran talent, some prospects may end up in a smaller role than they could be ready to take on.
One of these players is Alex Barre-Boulet, who has been a top prospect for the Lightning since he signed as an undrafted free agent out of the QMJHL back in 2018. Once he hit the AHL full-time, he showed top-six potential as he lead the Syracuse Crunch in both goalscoring and points in 2019-20.
Throughout the 2020-21 season, Barre-Boulet largely lacked a role with the franchise, as he spent the season split between the Taxis Squad, 15 games with the Lightning, and 10 games with the Crunch. When he was on the ice, he continued to score but was unable to break his way into Tampa Bay’s starting lineup in a meaningful way like fellow rookie Ross Colton did.
Now, heading into the 2021-22 season, it’s difficult to know where Barre-Boulet fits into the roster. As a scoring forward, he should be fighting for time in the top-six, yet due to the Lightning’s depth, the only spot available may be on the fourth line. While he could find success there, it gets harder to be a goalscorer when you have limited ice-time while largely starting in the defensive zone.
Where Does Barre-Boulet Fit for the Lightning?
There is one important difference between the situation Barre-Boulet is in and what happened to Marchessault and Verhaeghe. In the 2021 offseason, the Lightning committed to Barre-Boulet with a three-year extension that will pay him roughly $758 thousand per year.
This contract puts Tampa Bay in a much better position with Barre-Boulet, as it is their way of telling him that he is a part of the future even if he doesn’t necessarily have a spot on the roster right now. So, he can stay stashed on their roster making near league minimum until an injury ultimately strikes and he can get the call to jump into the lineup in a top-six role as he did last season.
Also, over the next two seasons, the Lightning’s top-six could open up significantly, with the potential departures of franchise faces like Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn. As that happens, Barre-Boulet could prove that he is ready to take on that ice-time, which would give Tampa Bay a talented yet affordable replacement for the cap-strapped team.
However, despite putting himself in a great position to find success with the Lightning, there is always the chance that Barre-Boulet just doesn’t manage to break into their strong roster. There’s no shame in this, as there is a reason why the franchise is still considered a favorite for the 2022 Stanley Cup despite all of the losses they suffered this offseason.
Should that happen, Barre-Boulet might find himself as a trade chip in the coming years, as there are plenty of teams who could use a potential top-six forward who comes from a winning pedigree. Sure, it might not garner a huge return, but if you’re the Lightning, you don’t want to lose another potential star for nothing.
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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.