To say that the Tampa Bay Lightning have had a busy offseason would be an understatement. On the opening night of the 2021-22 season, they will have a significantly different roster. They didn’t just lose anyone, either. Many of the players who were instrumental to their back-to-back Stanley Cup success have found new homes. In addition to losing David Savard and trading away Tyler Johnson, the Lightning lost their entire third-line forward group. Yanni Gourde was selected by the Seattle Kraken during the expansion draft. Blake Coleman signed with the Calgary Flames as a free agent. Barclay Goodrow was traded to and signed by the New York Rangers.
The reality of the situation is that the Lightning had remarkable depth on a very talented roster and were never going to be able to retain everyone in a flat-cap world. However, it is hard to imagine how they win back-to-back Stanley Cups without their dominant third line. So, where do they go from here?
The Kids Are Alright
The “next man up” mentality is nothing new for the Lightning, who do a phenomenal job of developing prospects within their system. It is time for the next generation of young talent to take on a bigger role. The third line could be filled out by a trio of 24-year-old forwards this season, namely Ross Colton, Mitchell Stephens, and Mathieu Joseph. During their development, each spent 99 games or more with the Lightning’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Syracuse Crunch.
Both Colton and Joseph enter the 2021-22 season with a significant amount of NHL experience. Joseph has played in 163 regular and 10 postseason games. Colton, entering his second NHL season, has played in 53 total games. He has already shown that he is capable of maintaining a high level of play on hockey’s biggest stage, scoring the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Lightning have options with Stephens, who has 45 NHL games under his belt. He showed promise during the 2019-20 season and was set to take on a bigger role during the 2020-21 season. Unfortunately, his season was derailed by a lower-body injury, playing in just seven games. When he returned from injury, he dominated in his stint with the Crunch, tallying a goal and seven assists in four games. He will enter the season healthy and could slot in as the third- or fourth-line center. Each of these three forwards has the speed, physicality, and creativity to form a formidable third line this fall.
There’s a New Kid in Town
Despite being up against the cap again this offseason, general manager Julien BriseBois did a good job of adding veteran depth to a now youth-filled roster. On the first day of free agency, he signed Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to a two-year, one-way contract worth $1 million average annual value (AAV). When speaking about the addition of Bellemare, BriseBois said:
“Our third line was incredible, and those players are going to be missed. That’s part of the reason why we were excited to bring in Bellemare. He can assume some of those minutes… taking big face-offs, especially in the defensive zone. He’s a sneaky underrated, really good defensive forward and, by all accounts, a great guy to have in the locker room.”‘Why Lightning’s value buys in free agency were an ideal start in reshaping team for another run’ by Joe Smith, The Athletic, July 28, 2021
Bellemare, like Stephens, is a good candidate to slot in as either the third- or fourth-line center. The 36-year-old forward brings much-needed veteran leadership and physicality to the team. In the absence of Goodrow and Coleman, he will likely play a significant role on the penalty kill, too. He ranked third on the Colorado Avalanche last season, averaging 2:08 penalty kill minutes per game. He was also fifth on the team in blocked shots, 36.
Corey Perry, another recent free agency signing, is also 36 years old and put pen to paper on a two-year, one-way contract worth $1 million AAV. Despite his best fit likely being on the right wing of the fourth line, he would be an intriguing option for the third line, too. The 16-season veteran is known for his grit and knack for getting under his opponent’s skin. He played a significant role for the Montreal Canadiens during their 2021 postseason run, scoring four goals and six assists.
Although it is less likely they will play on the third line, don’t rule out some fresh faces from making a splash this season. Alex Barre-Boulet got his first taste of the NHL last season, playing in 15 games. He will be competing with youngsters Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh for a roster spot this season. Katchouk and Raddysh have played in more than 150 games for the Crunch and appear to be NHL ready. As the Lightning continue to develop their youth, it would not be surprising to see these three forwards rotated into the lineup.
The Lightning will have a new look next season, but they still have the talent to compete for another Stanley Cup. When speaking about the team, BriseBois said,
“No, we’re not going to be the same team. But our top line is the same, our D-core is pretty much the same. We still have Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best goalie in the world. Our first power-play unit, our first PK are the same… When you look at players that are going to be in our opening night lineup, assuming everyone is healthy, this is a really competitive team and there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about next season.”‘Why Lightning’s value buys in free agency were an ideal start in reshaping team for another run’ by Joe Smith, The Athletic, July 28, 2021
BriseBois still has work to do as Cal Foote, Colton, Barre-Boulet, Raddysh, and Katchouk are still restricted free agents and have yet to accept their qualifying offers. However, BriseBois remains confident he can sign these players and remain under the salary cap. It remains to be seen how he will pull it off and the addition of Perry makes it even more precarious. The fact that the Lightning lost Gourde, Coleman, and Goodrow in one offseason and still look capable of putting together a significant playoff run speaks volumes about their depth and development system. The Lightning will put together a formidable third line for the season ahead, you can count on it.
Andrew is a freelance writer who covers the Tampa Bay Lightning at The Hockey Writers. He is a passionate hockey fan who grew up near Tampa, Florida. He is a husband, father to a Golden Retriever, and is studying to be a Physician Assistant. Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Mulville