End of Lightning Playoff Run Begins Pivotal Off-Season

As Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final came to an end on Thursday night at Consol Energy Center, so too did the hopes of a return to the Stanley Cup Final for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Despite Stamkos’ Return, Penguins Advance to Stanley Cup Final

After the Lightning took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, the Pittsburgh Penguins dominated the better part of two straight games to win the series and earn the chance to face the San Jose Sharks for the Stanley Cup. The Lightning overcame a number of challenges during the course of the regular season and entering the playoffs to get to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, but during the last two games of the series, it became evident that the Penguins were giving the Lightning an obstacle it may not overcome. Despite the return of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos in Game 7, who played just under 12 minutes, the Lightning fell to the Penguins 2-1.

Lightning Miss Two Opportunities to Win Series

Entering Game 7, the Lightning were just days removed from squandering an opportunity to win the series on home ice. For the Lightning, Game 6 was mired in sloppy play, a limited number of shots (until the third period), and an overall sense that something just wasn’t quite right. Missing from the Lightning’s play was that extra gear that a Stanley Cup team is able to shift into when pushed to the edge. It was not until the third period of that contest that the Lightning found that gear, but it was too little too late and the Penguins forced a Game 7.

Lightning Cannot Find “Extra Gear” in Game 7

Game 7 offered the Lightning an opportunity to put the ghosts of Game 6 behind it, and during the better part of the first period it looked like they may have done just that. However, near the end of the first the momentum shifted in the Penguins favor and this carried over into the second.

The Penguins would take a 1-0 lead early in the period before the Lightning would tie the game on a goal by Jonathan Drouin. For a brief moment it seemed like the Lightning, who were outshot 21-5 in the period, could hang with the Penguins. Despite the barrage of Penguins shots and offensive pressure, fueled in part by multiple power plays during the second period, the game was tied.

However, that narrow window of hope closed just 30 seconds later, as Penguins’ right wing Bryan Rust would score his second goal of the game to make it 2-1. It was a lead the Penguins would never relinquish, and a goal that ultimately sealed the series.

After two bites at the hypothetical playoff apple, the Lightning were unable to put together 60 straight minutes of play as the better of the two teams, and the failure to do so cost it the series. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped nearly 92% of the 72 shots he faced in Games 6 and 7 (stopping 37 of 39 in Game 7) and the Lightning managed just 47 shots over that same span (just 17 shots in Game 7). After stepping in for Ben Bishop in Game 1, Vasilevskiy gave the Lightning a chance to win every game in the series.

Steve Yzerman Faces Series of Major Decisions for Franchise

The end of the 2015-16 playoffs for the Lightning marks the beginning of what will be the first of two pivotal summers for GM Steve Yzerman,  with no shortage of important decisions that will dictate the course of the franchise. In fact, just after Game 7, Yzerman publicly acknowledged this:

Will He Stay or Go? Stamkos Becomes Unrestricted Free Agent on July 1st

At, or near, the top of a long list will be addressing the Stamkos contract issue. Stamkos is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, and there has been no shortage of rumors swirling about his future with the Lightning (or the Maple Leafs, depending on who you ask). There are some people that believe Stamkos has played his last game in a Lightning uniform.

Stamkos, who has often shied away from speaking publicly about contract negotiations over the course of the season, recently said, “I’m sure if both sides want it to work out, we’ll work something out.” Yzerman has a tough balancing act on his hands in this case. On one hand, Stamkos is the face of the franchise and a premier goal scorer in this league (even despite an “off” year in 2015-16, with just 36 goals). On the other hand, given the league’s salary cap (currently at $71.4 million and potentially headed for $74 million for 2016-17) Yzerman cannot afford to “overpay” Stamkos and sacrifice losing other core members of the franchise. Yzerman’s ability to keep Stamkos may ultimately revolve around the player’s willingness to take slightly less than his market value in order to stay with a strong franchise.

Drouin’s Return to Lightning and New Attitude Make Staying Likely

After a roller coaster season for Drouin that saw him go from the dog house to the penthouse, Yzerman must decide what to do with the talented 21 year-old left wing. From the time he returned to the Lightning just before the end of the regular season, Drouin was noticeably one of (or the) best player on the ice in every game he played. Drouin’s play became most noticeable during this year’s playoffs, where he compiled five goals and nine assists in 17 games. Although Drouin took some careless penalties at times, he played at a high level each night and took advantage of an increased role in the absence of Stamkos. Almost as important, Drouin’s attitude and “team first” mentality was evident in interviews with Drouin, his teammates, and Coach Cooper.

During Yzerman’s exit interview on Friday, when asked about Drouin, he said, ” I think the best thing for this team right now is Jonathan Drouin being on it.” With just one year remaining on an entry level contract, it seems likely that Yzerman will do whatever he can to keep Drouin in a Lightning uniform.

Kucherov to Command Large Pay Raise as Restricted Free Agent

Nikita Kucherov is coming off the heels of a career year in the 2015-16 regular season, and will certainly receive lots of attention from numerous teams in the league when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer. Kucherov, who made $711,666 this season, scored 30 goals and tallied 66 points in the regular season, and followed with 11 goals and 19 points in 17 games during the postseason. Kucherov, 22, is destined to have his best years in front of him and will certainly command a major increase in pay on his next deal. In a perfect world, Yzerman will get Kucherov signed ahead of free agency. If Yzerman is unsuccessful, when Kucherov hits the market, you can expect offer sheets from other teams that may make keeping him a challenge.

Bishop or Vasilevskiy: The Time to Decide Might Be Now

It is not very often that a Vezina trophy finalist in the prime of his career is part of a discussion for a potential trade. However, it is also uncommon to have a goalie of Vasilevskiy’s caliber waiting in the wings.

The “Bishop vs. Vasilevskiy” scenario does not arise just because of a playoff injury this year, but based in large part on a combination of timing and economics. With talk of NHL expansion (potentially 1-2 teams) it is possible that, depending upon its timing and number of franchises, the Lightning could be forced to protect just one goalie, exposing the others to an expansion draft. The Lightning cannot afford to lose either goalie for nothing, which is exactly what happens in an expansion draft. That, coupled with Bishop’s contract (set to expire after next season) and his perceived value (likely at an all-time high after his Vezina-caliber season) make moving Bishop an interesting idea. Bishop commented on the talented tandem after Game 7:

A goalie like Bishop does not come around very often (nor does Vasilevksiy), and if he is moved this summer, it has the potential to be the kind of trade that will be questioned for years if it turned out poorly. Also a potential impeding factor to any of this is that Ben Bishop has a no-trade clause, meaning Bishop is in complete control of where he would go. Yzerman, though, must think long-term and weigh the pros and cons of the team’s current goaltending situation.

In the event that Yzerman decides to keep Bishop, he will certainly be due for a pay raise in his next contract. A major consideration at that point would be term (Bishop turns 30 in November) and what to do with Vasilevskiy, as keeping him as a back-up for the foreseeable future is not a realistic option.

Other Major Considerations this Summer and Next

The decisions Yzerman makes this summer will be made with a focus on the long-term strength of this franchise. Despite the decisions discussed above, Yzerman will also have to consider moving higher-priced players like Valteri Filppula and Matt Carle, two aging players who are likely considered to be “overpaid” at this point in their respective careers, and whose movement provides cap relief for the spending that will need to take place over this summer and next.

Other restricted free agents that will garner attention are Alex Killorn, Vladislav Namestnikov, J.T. Brown, and Cedric Paquette. Each of these players played a role in the success of this team the last two years, the most notable of which being Killorn, whom established himself as a respectable power forward and will be coveted in the event that he is unable to reach a deal with the Lightning.

Do not be surprised if Yzerman attempts to re-sign other players ahead of their own free agency next summer. At the end of the 2016-17 season, Victor Hedman and Brian Boyle will become unrestricted free agents, while Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin, and Andrej Sustr each become restricted free agents. Although each of those players plays an important role for this franchise, no other player will be more sought after than Victor Hedman. Yzerman will likely get to work on a Hedman extension as soon as possible, amidst the other juggling he will be doing.

As much as fans have identified with this team the last two seasons, as Yzerman has made minimal changes to its roster between this year and last, the reality of the timing and salary cap is such that the lineup for this franchise is set to change.

Although a Lightning loss in Game 7 ended on-ice action for the franchise, it also marked the beginning of what is certain to be a tremendous amount of activity for the team off of it.