Heading into the 2019 NHL All-Star weekend, there were few people in the NHL happier than Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois. After Steve Yzerman stepped down from the role in the 2018 offseason, BriseBois inherited a stacked franchise that he helped assemble alongside Yzerman over the course of the last decade.
By the All-Star break, the Lightning were in first place in the league, and their AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, were in a playoff position as well. If everything went smoothly, there was little concern that the first-year general manager would need to make any major additions at the trade deadline given the depth featured in Tampa Bay.
However, things rarely stick to the script. On Jan. 28th, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded a bevy of prospects and a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Jake Muzzin. While he may not have been the biggest name on the Kings’ blue line, Muzzin is a fantastic defenseman who brings needed experience and consistency to Toronto’s blue line.
By making this definitive move, the Maple Leafs shored up a defense corps that was, inarguably, their biggest area of weakest. It may be too early to know if this blockbuster will payoff for the franchise, but at the moment, it seems like the perfect answer given all available options.
After seeing this key improvement to one of their biggest rivals, this may cause the Lightning to rethink their deadline plans. This leads to the question: will BriseBois react and attempt to shore up his roster at the trade deadline, or will he trust his depth and run with the players who made it to the top of the league in the first half of the season?
Where Can Lightning Improve?
Before any trade is made, though, one has to be thinking, just how much can this roster improve at the trade deadline? Throughout the first half of the season, the Lightning were one of the most complete teams in recent memory. They featured the top offensive unit in the NHL, a stable of talented defensemen and a Vezina-level goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
As Diana C. Nearhos of the Tampa Bay Times said about the Lightning:
Most complete means a team with many options, not reliant on one element. So we are back where we started: This Lightning team is dynamic.
On paper, there really isn’t one area the Lightning have to improve upon at the deadline. Unlike at the 2018 Trade Deadline, when they desperately needed a defenseman, anyone that BriseBois could add would be more of a luxury than a necessity. For example, Tampa Bay could use an experienced right-shot defenseman capable of playing first or second-pairing minutes in case rookie Erik Cernak struggles in the playoffs. However, Cernak has been solid throughout his rookie season, so would it be worth giving up picks and prospects for a player who may not be anything more than a healthy scratch come April?
The same thing can be said about adding a depth winger like Wayne Simmonds or Micheal Ferland to the roster. As rumors swirl about BriseBois inquiring on these forwards, neither really makes sense given how this Lightning roster is assembled. Sure, a bit of assurance depth and grit would be useful in the playoffs, but would it be worth trading a young, cost-controlled roster player like Adam Erne to bring in a luxury forward?
Will BriseBois Keep up With the Maple Leafs?
If Yzerman were still the general manager of the Lightning, one could say with confidence that the franchise would stand pat with their current roster. During his time as general manager, Yzerman rarely gave up future assets for a purely short-term return. Even the major deadline deals that he made brought back players under contract for the next season, and he signed them to extensions as well, maximizing every trade’s value.
But BriseBois is not Yzerman. Even if he worked with him for eight years as an assistant general manager, we don’t know if he will prescribe to his predecessor’s notion of never giving up future assets for a short-term return. This being his first trade deadline, he may decide to go out and spend big on a rental that he believes will put the Lightning over the top instead of standing pat and risking getting outpaced by a team like the Maple Leafs, who were a little more willing to pay for an upgrade.
Yes, it would be an unprecedented move for the franchise, but the Lightning are in a position to give up some future assets to make a move if it is deemed necessary. While it still feels unlikely that Tampa Bay will make a trade, the Atlantic Division is going to experience an arms race this deadline with so many good teams that are seemingly only one or two pieces away from being great.
This could force BriseBois into making a big trade for a rental player like Simmonds or Ferland just to keep up with his competition, a move that would either define him as one of the great minds in Lightning history if it leads to a Stanley Cup, or place a blemish on his record if it fails.