For Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2016-17 regular season has come and gone and for the first time in four years, they are not one of 16 teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Lightning (almost) overcame an underwhelming first two-thirds of the regular season and came just one point shy of earning a playoff berth. In a season plagued by injuries and inconsistent play for the better part of the year, the Lightning finished on a strong note, going 8-1-1 in their final 10 games.
In the team’s exit interviews with the media on Monday to begin the offseason, general manager Steve Yzerman reflected on the season and his words are a clear sign that there will be moves of some sort on the horizon.
“We, as a team got humbled a little bit here. I know there was a lot of injuries but ultimately, I don’t think injuries are the reason we did not make the playoffs. It didn’t help by any means, but we’ve gotta figure out ways to win games. There are teams that are in the playoffs today that overcame a similar situation to us this year to make it into the playoffs,” he said during the press conference on Monday.
With those injuries, however, came the chance for the Lightning to have a good look at some of their top prospects from the American Hockey League at the NHL level. It’s also a great opportunity for the franchise to learn from the experience and refine their roster some to prepare for taking the next step.
“But there are a lot of positive things here and we’re encouraged by a lot of the things and ultimately I think we’re all better, we’ll all learn from it. The coaching staff, myself, even our players that go through this experience again. It’s somewhat of, I guess, a road to try to win a Stanley Cup and we hit a major bump in the road and we’ll continue on towards that goal.”
For the second straight summer, Yzerman and his staff are faced with making big decisions that will have a lasting impact on the franchise.
In this first of a five-part series, we will look at the five biggest questions that they will face this offseason. What will become quite clear as we evaluate these is that each decision is connected with another and they will all be governed by the NHL’s salary cap — a figure that was set at $73 million this past season but will not be known for 2017-18 until late June.
But with that, let’s begin.
Who is Going to Vegas?
The first of many questions the Lightning will face this season is which player will be selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft on June 21. Each NHL team must submit their expansion draft protection lists to the league by June 17 at 5:00 P.M. ET. Teams have options — protect 11 players (seven forwards, three defenseman and a goaltender) or nine players (eight skaters, one goaltender), subject to a handful of other rules regarding professional hockey experience. Expect Yzerman to go with that first option.
But who will be protected? As we know in the NHL, anything can happen, but this is who seems the most likely at this point. Keep in mind that because of no-movement clauses, the Lightning must protect Ryan Callahan, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos. It’s possible that given Callahan’s remaining contract (three more years at $5.8 million each) and recent injuries that he’s asked to waive his NMC. This doesn’t mean he would be picked or that the Lightning want to move him. In fact, it would mean quite the opposite. It would expose Callahan in the expansion draft but at the same time, give the Lightning another slot for protection.
Forwards and Goaltender
Here’s how the Lightning’s forward and goaltender situation would look for the protection list. Let’s assume Callahan is not asked to waive his NMC clause.
Forwards — Ryan Callahan, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos
Goaltender — Andrei Vasilevskiy
It’s important to remember that because of having just one year of professional experience, Brayden Point is exempt from this process.
Where things get most interesting for the club is with defensemen. After Hedman’s protection slot, the Lightning have just two more remaining with three names leading the way — Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek and Anton Stralman. You see where this is going.
As it stands now, the Lightning will be forced to expose either Dotchin or Koekkoek. Dotchin is coming off a 35-game call-up this past season which saw him paired with Hedman and helped balance out the Lightning defense pairs. Dotchin is part of this expansion draft equation because he has more than two years of combined professional experience.
Dotchin is a 23-year-old blueliner and former sixth-round pick in 2012 who showed that he’s wise beyond his years at the NHL level. While Dotchin lacks the skating ability of Koekkoek right now, he makes up for that by playing a positionally sound game and one where he makes few mistakes. He also has a bit of a mean streak and that’s something the Lightning blue line needs.
On the other hand, Koekkoek has 41 games of regular season experience and another 10 postseason contests. He’s been a prospect they have brought along slowly and it’s felt like it was only a matter of time before he got his shot at full-time play at the NHL level. That opportunity didn’t come this season but will it come in a different uniform?
Like Dotchin, Koekkoek is 23 but was a first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Koekkoek has been developed carefully by the organization and perhaps his most impressive performance in the NHL came during the 2015-16 postseason. He stepped into the lineup for an injured Stralman and played like a prospect who was earning his way to a full-time roster spot in the NHL. However, that didn’t happen this season and his future in Tampa remains to be seen.
Both players are set to become restricted free agents this summer as their entry-level contracts come to an end.
Who is Leaving?
You’d have to think that in this situation, Golden Knights GM George McPhee and his staff would be eyeing either forward Vladislav Namestnikov and Dotchin or Koekkoek, whoever is left exposed. It’s possible a player like Alex Killorn is exposed, but more likely that he’s protected. He has six years left on a seven-year contract that pays him $4.45 million per year. While he’s coming out of an off-season (he scored 12 of his 19 goals by the end of 2016), he has a unique skill set in today’s game. Whether he is part of a potential trade this summer or figures into the team’s long-term plans for the future remains to be seen. But exposing him in the expansion draft seems rather unlikely at this point.
Namestnikov is a 24-year-old winger that has one year left with a cap-friendly $1.9375 million due next season. While he’s shown signs of being the player the Lightning hoped he’d be when they selected him in the first round in 2011, the bulk of his play has indicated he’s not the top-six forward he needs to be for the club. But he’s got good speed and can be a versatile player because of it. The opportunity to play on an expansion team in a bigger role may help his career along. It also is relatively “low-risk” for the Knights, given his one-year term.
What it may ultimately come down to for the Knights is what they see in Namestnikov — a player with more than 200 games of NHL experience — or if they want to take a chance on either Dotchin or Koekkoek.
Going with one of those two young blueliners is a gamble for Vegas, but one that could pay off big for them down the road.
This five-part series will continue on Monday, as we take an in-depth look at the free agency situation the Lightning face this summer. On Tuesday, we’ll take a look at the Lightning prospects who saw NHL action this season and who may be ready to graduate. On Wednesday, we’ll address how the Lightning will seek to improve their defense corps this summer. On Thursday, we’ll re-visit the Lightning goaltender situation and if Peter Budaj fits into the team’s future at that position .
The summer started early for the Lightning but there is a lot of moving pieces this offseason worth evaluating.