Whenever a franchise wins the Stanley Cup in the salary cap era, you know that change will soon follow. It’s hard enough to keep great teams together, but with the threat of a cap crunch always looming, it makes retaining a complete team with those talented players borderline impossible.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, this talent bleed occurred throughout the offseason after they won the 2020 Stanley Cup. It started with the departure of veteran players who signed low-cost, one-year deals last season, and seemingly ended with a trade to clear some much-needed cap space.
Due to these moves and injuries, the Lightning’s forward corps will look significantly different than the group that won the Stanley Cup. Nowhere will these changes be more apparent than in Tampa Bay’s bottom six, where the franchise will be seeing some turnover after a busy offseason.
Lightning’s Third-Line Should Remain Together
At the 2020 trade deadline, the Lightning took two big swings, acquiring forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. While these players were costly additions, they paid off almost immediately in the playoffs, where they found chemistry flanking Yanni Gourde on the third-line.
This line was, consistently, one of Tampa Bays’ best, as they brought needed energy and toughness to the team each and every time they set foot on the ice. This tenacity, along with Gourde and Coleman’s scoring acumen, made this line a constant threat that was annoying to play against.
Given how well they played together throughout the playoffs, breaking up this third-line would be a classic example of trying to fix something that isn’t broken. So, expect Tampa Bay to start the season with this line intact and acting as one of the driving forces of the team throughout the shortened 2020-21 season.
Lightning’s Fourth-Line Seeing Meaningful Changes
For the first time in six seasons, Cedric Paquette won’t be the starting fourth-line center for the Lightning. This will change the complexion of the fourth-line, as he was a pesty, physical presence that every team needs to compete in the NHL.
With his departure, however, Tampa Bay signaled that it was time for someone else to step up and take over his ice-time. Given where he is at in his development, the heir-apparent to the starting fourth-line center role should be Mitchell Stephens.
Throughout the 2019-20 season, Stephens played in 38 games, posting three goals and six points. While these statistics aren’t mind-blowing, he never looked out of place on the ice, and in a few starts in the playoffs, he seemed ready to take on starting NHL ice-time.
Alongside Stephens, we know that Pat Maroon will be returning to the Lightning’s fourth-line after he signed a two-year extension this offseason, bringing his particular brand of physicality and leadership back to the franchise.
This leaves one last question mark in the Lightning’s bottom-six, which could be filled by one of two players. Most likely, it appears that Alexander Volkov will be taking over that spot, as he has been on the verge with Tampa Bay for the better part of a year now. He signed a one-year ‘show me’ contract this offseason that sets him up to take that next step with the franchise or move on next offseason.
However, this final spot could also go to Mathieu Joseph, who has already played a complete NHL season with Tampa Bay. While he regressed in 2019-20, he is still a young, fast forward with offensive upside that could rebound and take over this role on the fourth-line.
Lightning’s Bottom Six Will Be a Driving Force
While they may be known more for their top-six scoring potential, a key factor in the Lightning’s 2020 Stanley Cup victory was the play of their bottom-six. Even with some changes heading into the 2020-21 season, this will still be a focal point of the franchise.
If they can keep Goodrow, Gourde, and Coleman together, then that could be one of the best third-lines in all of the NHL. And, despite losing Paquette’s physicality, a fourth-line of Maroon, Stephens, and Volkov/ Joseph brings a unique element that may not be as physical but has a higher skill-ceiling.
So, even with some changes, the Lightning’s bottom-six looks like a strength for the franchise. If these players can live up to their potential, then they will be a key part of Tampa Bay’s shot at repeating as Stanley Cup Champions.
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.