As the Tampa Bay Lightning know all too well, there are few certainties in the world of hockey. You can step on the ice with one of the best teams in league history and lose, or win it all with a group that finished second place in their division.
Normally this uncertainty stays on the ice, but due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, it has stretched to all aspects of the game. Right now, the Lightning find themselves in a deep cap hole, needing to re-sign three key restricted free-agents without the space to do so.
This has created a unique brand of uncertainty on defense for the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Even without the Pandemic, 2020 was going to be a difficult year. With Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak needing new contracts along with Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian’s team-friendly one-year deals expiring, change was inevitable this offseason.
So, with a cap-crunch baring down and key players left in contract limbo, where does this leave Tampa Bay’s defensive core?
Best Case Scenario: Lightning Return a Dominant Core
The best-case scenario for the Lightning is simple. First, they find a way to re-sign Sergachev and Cernak to bridge deals, keeping these young, Stanley Cup-winning players on their roster for years to come.
Second, Tampa Bay calls up Cal Foote and he immediately steps into a starting role for the 2020-21 season. As their top prospect, there is a lot of expectations on Foote, but he has the ability to make an impact even as a rookie.
If this all occurs, you will have a defensive corps that is among the best in the NHL. With names like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh paired with Sergachev and Cernak, even a somewhat weak bottom-six of Brayden Coburn, Luke Schenn, and/or Foote can easily be covered up.
Sure, this feels like a bit of a long-shot when you look at the books, but it is possible that the Lightning open up some cap space and sign everyone for the start of the 2020-21 season.
Worst Case Scenario: Lightning Miss Out
There’s been one horrifying scenario hanging around the back of every Lightning fan’s head since the start of the offseason. It’s a simple what-if question, but it’s something that will keep you up at night. That question is… what happens if the Lightning can’t figure things out?
Sure, it may be unlikely that Tampa Bay will start the season without at least one of Sergachev or Cernak, but there’s a distinct possibility that it could happen. And without them in the line-up, the Lightning’s defense goes from top-10 in the league to, arguably, bottom-10.
While Hedman and McDonagh are great players, expecting Foote to take on top-four starting time immediately is asking a lot from a rookie. However, the real concern comes from filling out the rest of the line-up.
Suddenly, you have Schenn and Coburn taking on top-six ice-time every night, which is not ideal given their level of play right now. You also have to sign at least one more player to start the season or call-up an AHL veteran to take on some playing time each night.
Lightning Have a Long Ways to Go on Defense
For the Lightning, this offseason will be one of the extremes. On one end, things work out and you return a dominant core with the right mixture of all-star talent, youth, and veteran leadership that can terrorize the league for years to come.
On the other side, however, you have a team with elite talent at the top, but is lacking important role players and top-four potential.
This makes it incredibly difficult to imagine the 2020-21 season for the Lightning on defense. This unit was going to experience some change compared to the one that won the Stanley Cup, but the depth of that change could be anything from the lose of some superficial pieces to a completely new look outside of Hedman and McDonagh.
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.