When Steve Yzerman traded Valtteri Filppula at the deadline, he not only saved the Tampa Bay Lightning $5 million in cap space, he also opened up an expansion draft protection spot. That’s important because it increases the depth of forwards that the Lightning can keep from Vegas.
Previously, Filppula was on the exempt list, along with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Ryan Callahan. That meant that the Lightning had to protect him because of his no movement clause. Having moved Valtteri at the deadline, that is no longer a problem for the Lightning. So who should the Lightning protect?
Lightning’s Obvious Protection Choices
The Lightning should protect Stamkos, Hedman and Callahan, all of whom are exempt from the draft anyway. Stamkos is the Lightning’s best forward, Hedman the best defenseman. Callahan is an alternate captain for the Lightning and remains a valuable leader and middle six forward.
Along with those three, the Lightning will protect goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Now that Ben Bishop’s gone, Vas is the only long-term solution in the net for the Lightning.
Among forwards the Lightning will protect, there are some names that stick out like, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov. Both are young forwards under contract for a while, who it will be important to keep. There’s also Alex Killorn, who can play on any line well.
The Vegas Golden Knights may draft restricted free agents, and the Lightning have some key ones, like Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat, as well as Tyler Johnson. The Lightning will need to use protection spots to keep these forwards on their team. This means they have one forward spot left. There are names like Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown still left open.
On defense, the Lightning must protect Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman’s defensive partner. They still have a spot left, for players like Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn or Andrej Sustr.
Exempted players (because they have not played for enough years) include Greg McKegg, Adam Erne, Brayden Point and Byron Froese. On defense, there’s Erik Cernak and Jake Dotchin.
The forwards competing for the last protection spot for the Lightning are J.T. Brown and Cedric Paquette. Both are young forwards who play on the bottom six for Tampa Bay.
Paquette is a center who’s been on the Lightning for three full years. He’s 23, and at the end of his current contract will be a restricted free agent. Paquette’s making $800,000 a year, and his contract is extremely responsible for a depth center.
He’s not been bad at his job either as, in the last three years, Paquette has put up totals of 19, 11 and 10 points. The forward has four shorthanded goals in his time in Tampa. And he’s averaging 12:41 minutes a night and winning 47.6 percent of his faceoffs.
For someone on the bottom six, those aren’t bad numbers. Paquette has proven capable of double digits in goals, scoring 12 two years ago.
Unfortunately, Paquette was injured recently and has never played a full 82 game season for the Lightning. Cedric has also taken plenty of penalties, with 51 penalty minutes each in the last two years and 80 this year. So there are downsides as well as upsides to his play, and to his protection.
J.T. Brown is a 26-year-old right winger. He’s played for Tampa Bay for four years and has two years left on his contract, including this one. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of it.
Over the last four years, Brown has produced 19, 9, 22 and 5 points. The 22 points came in his year with the most games, at 78. Like Paquette, he has never played a full season. He’s also produced an average of 12:06 minutes a game, one shorthanded goal and one game-winning goal.
Again, not bad numbers for a depth player. The thing is, with so many injuries to the Lightning this year, J.T. Brown is still playing on the fourth line. He had a chance to be elevated to the second or third, but he remains on the bottom. There’s a reason for that. He’s had 55 giveaways over his career and is scoring on only 4.3 percent of shots.
The best idea is to keep Paquette over Brown. Paquette is a center, which is somewhat more valuable than a winger. Leaving J.T. Brown open leaves room for players like Erne or Point to stay permanently. Having a good depth center like Cedric is just more important now for the Lightning.
There’s one spot open for one of Tampa’s bottom three defensemen. Those three are Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn. Of course, the Lightning will be keeping Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. Jonathon Dotchin is exempt from the expansion draft as a first-year pro.
Garrison is 32 and has the most minutes (18:55 average) played of the three current Lightning defensemen left open. This year, #5 has nine points, but the last three seasons before this one, he had 33, 30 and 11. He also has 81 blocks this year and had 105 last year.
The downside of Garrison is that he becomes a free agent after next year, he has far more giveaways than takeaways, and he’s clearly past his prime. Just look at those numbers – a huge drop from his 30 point seasons.
Braydon Coburn & Andrej Sustr
Braydon Coburn isn’t much better. He’s 31 and far removed from even his last twenty point season. At least Garrison’s peak was relatively recently. Coburn is also only averaging 16 minutes a night this year. He’s never been great for the Lightning, and his $3.7 million dollar contract is an overpayment. He’s likely exposed in the expansion draft.
Which brings up Andrej Sustr, the youngest of the Lightning’s remaining defenseman. Number 62 is only 26 years old. In his last three years, he’s had 13, 21 and 10 points. That’s only playing an average of 17 minutes a night while being paired with Coburn.
This year, Andrej has 84 blocks, a game-winning goal, and has started 55% of his shifts in the defensive zone. He’s the Lightning’s other defensive defenseman, behind Stralman. Sustr’s contract is small this year, and he’s a restricted free agent this summer.
The Lightning have a lot of restricted free agents and have to sign a lot of them this summer. There are priorities before Sustr, including Johnson, Palat, and Drouin. But Andrej is protected if the Lightning are going to keep any of these defensemen.
Who’s Staying & Who’s Going
The Lightning will need to expose two forwards, a defenseman and a goaltender. They currently don’t have a goaltender under contract to expose. They have two forwards, in J.T. Brown and Erik Condra, and two defensemen in Garrison and Coburn.
The Lightning will likely need to extend Peter Budaj before the expansion draft, which is a win-win. If Vegas takes Budaj, the Lightning get to keep their other players. If they don’t, the Lightning get to keep a competent, veteran, backup goaltender.
The last two protection spots should go to Cedric Paquette and Andrej Sustr. The Lightning will have to keep a number of restricted free agents, but that’s what they got this offseason.