Lightning’s Path Forward if Everything Goes Wrong

It’s not uncommon for teams coming off a long run to the Stanley Cup Final to start the next season slowly, especially when you are the losing franchise in that venture. Reaching the Final is a feat of sports that requires players to put it all on the line for months, leading to injuries and exhaustion that can take a long time to recover from.

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Due to this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that reached three-straight Stanley Cup Finals, looked a bit gassed to start the 2022-23 NHL season. Through their first four games, they posted a record of 1-3-0 and got soundly beat as they were unable to play the complete 60 minutes needed to win.

Pat Maroon Tampa Bay Lightning
After multiple runs to the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning started showing some wear to start the 2022-23 NHL Season. (Photo by Florence Labelle/NHLI via Getty Images)

Now, this isn’t a time to panic or write off the Lightning as a washed-up franchise, as they should still be able to recover from this slow start. They have the talent to get this ship righted, and as long as they can reel off a few wins before the end of October, they should have no problem putting themselves back in the postseason hunt. In fact, they went 2-0-0 in the games following this slow start, evening up their record while making them look like a contender once again.

There is a chance, however, that time catches up to the Lightning in 2022-23, and that they don’t recover from this slow start. While it may seem unlikely now, teams will have random bad years due to injuries and other issues that can derail a season. If this happens, it would create havoc for Tampa Bay, as they are a franchise that is built to win now and have little need to think about the future as their future is today.

So, if everything goes wrong, what should Lightning fans keep in mind as the regular season progresses?

Lightning’s First-Round Pick in 2023

Part of what prompted this story idea involved a discussion with a peer about Tampa Bay’s First-Round pick at the 2023 NHL Draft. They said to me, jokingly, “The Hagel trade would be a real disaster if the Lightning win the Draft Lottery this year, right?”

Of course, this would be a catastrophe for the Lightning, as no general manager trades a future first-round pick (let alone two) for a player they believe will put them over the top only to miss the playoffs entirely.

Brandon Hagel Tampa Bay Lightning
When the Lightning acquired Brandon Hagel, they made sure that their first-round picks were top-10 protected, meaning that they would be safe if everything goes wrong in either 2023 or 2024. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

However, when Tampa Bay made the trade for Brandon Hagel and gave up their 2023 and 2024 first-round pick, they did build in a contingency plan just in case. These picks are top-10 protected, meaning that if the Lightning have a complete meltdown in either season and end up with a top-ten selection then it will shift and they will send an unprotected first-rounder in 2025 or 2026 to the Chicago Blackhawks.

This means that if things go wrong in 2022-23, the Lightning will at least be able to rest easy knowing they won’t be sending a top-10 pick to Chicago. Sure, in this scenario they would be pushing that issue out to the future, but at least in the present, they wouldn’t have to worry.

Lightning Have a Few Assets for the Trade Deadline

Another aspect Lightning fans should consider if things go sideways is the trade deadline. As a franchise competing for the Stanley Cup, they have only been sellers at the deadline once since the 2014-15 season, and even then it wasn’t a total selloff because they were still a competitive team with an outside chance to make the playoffs. Let’s say that Tampa Bay are clearly not going to make the playoffs by the 2023 Trade Deadline, then that begs the question as to who they could trade in order to recoup some future assets that they have been jettisoning from the franchise.

Surprisingly, the team has a number of players that could draw a lot of interest at the deadline. First a foremost is Alex Killorn, who is in the final season of his contract. As a veteran big-bodied forward who has been producing at a 20-goal clip during the regular season, there would be a lot of teams who would love to add them to their roster, especially if they are looking for leadership in the locker room.

Alex Killorn Tampa Bay Lightning
As a veteran player reaching the end of his contract with the Lightning, Alex Killorn could draw a lot of interest if he hit the trade market. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Other veteran forwards who could garner interest on the trade market are Corey Perry, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Pierre Edouard-Bellemare. While none of these players are game-breakers, they can chip in those key points during the postseason that can shift a series your way. Any team would love to add them to their bottom six, and they could fetch a medium-quality prospect or pick in a trade.

In terms of goaltending and defense, the Lightning really only have one option each that are tradeable in 2023. Defenseman Ian Cole would be a tradeable asset at the deadline, as teams love to add hardworking defenders who can block shots and lay down hits in the postseason. In net, Brian Elliot could possibly fetch a low-tier draft pick, as he is at least a proven commodity and a decent backup option that could shore up a team’s tandem.

Lightning Aren’t Built to Miss the Postseason

Despite having a few tradeable assets on their roster, when you look at the Lightning, they really aren’t built to miss the playoffs. They are a franchise that is currently in their championship window, and their contract situation reflects that.

Related: Lightning’s Reverse Retro 2.0 Is a Perfect Rendition of a Bad Time

However, if things go really wrong, the 2022-23 season wouldn’t be the worst time for the Lightning to miss the postseason. The 2023 Draft is considered to be one of the deepest since 2015, and the team wouldn’t be on the hook to trade their top pick to Chicago due to the conditions of the deal. They could also recoup some mid-tier draft capital at the deadline, which they could use to help restock their dry cupboards with prospects.

So, while it would be bad, it wouldn’t be the end of the world for Tampa Bay to miss the postseason in 2023. Once again, I wouldn’t bet on this happening, but it’s something to keep in mind as the season progresses.

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