Predicting the Lightning’s Fourth Line

There are relatively few question marks for the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into the 2018-19 season. Based on their offseason free-agent signings (or lack thereof) and the general state of their roster, one could reasonably predict the team’s starting forward lineup based off last season. You know that names like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos will be on the top line while Tyler Johnson, J.T. Miller, Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point will be filling in the rest of the top six. Their third line also seems set as well, with Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli likely reprising their playoff roles with the team.

Ryan Callahan
After having a major surgery this offseason, Ryan Callahan is expected to miss the first few months of the NHL season, creating extra uncertainty on the Lightning’s fourth line. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

However, once you get to the fourth line, things get interesting for the team. With the departure of Chris Kunitz and a long-term injury keeping Ryan Callahan out of the lineup until November, the only returning member of Tampa Bay’s bottom line for opening night will be Cedric Paquette. This leaves the Lightning’s fourth line in a state of limbo, with up to two roster spots up for grabs this training camp.

Lightning Have a Surplus of Bottom-Line Players

Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Lightning have a surplus of players who could make a claim to fourth-line minutes. Since depth is important throughout a grueling NHL season, these additional players will allow the team plenty of fresh bodies and options to take some of the load off of starting players.

Cory Conacher
Despite being a healthy scratch for the majority of the 2017-18 season, Cory Conacher could find some consistent playtime this season on the Lightning’s fourth-line with the departure of Chris Kunitz. (Andy Martin Jr.)

For example, along with bottom-six forwards like Cory Conacher and Adam Erne, Tampa Bay will carry seven to eight defenseman on their roster with the likes of Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin signed for the season. This gives Lightning head coach Jon Cooper the option to run 11 forwards and seven defenseman, something that he has shown an affinity towards in years past.

While this seventh defender affords the Lightning the option to shave a few minutes off of the nightly workload of top defenders like Victor Hedman, it also takes a starting spot away from a fourth liner, making an already tough competition all the more difficult.

Andreoff Provides Lightning Flexibility

While Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman decided not to sign a veteran free-agent like Kunitz this off-season, he did make one move to give the fourth-line some flexibility. By trading Peter Budaj to the LA Kings for grinder Andy Andreoff, he not only saved some cap space, but he also got a short-term replacement for Callahan.

Andy Andreoff
Andy Andreoff is expected to be a short-term replacement for the injured Ryan Callahan. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

No, Andreoff will not be a breakout player for the Lightning this season, but he is exactly what they need to replace Callahan. In a complementary role alongside Paquette, he could act as a pesky player with decent hitting potential who will, hopefully, find some success on the penalty kill as well.

If things go well and Anderoff finds his game on the Lightning’s fourth-line, he is a cheap option to keep on the roster for the season. If he struggles or is passed by the likes of Erne out of training camp, he can easily be sent to the Syracuse Crunch to provide a veteran presence for the Lightning’s young AHL affiliate. Either way, he gives the franchise options heading into the new season.

Crunch Players Earning an NHL Tryout

Speaking of the Crunch, there are a handful of young players who had breakout rookie seasons last year in Syracuse that will be fighting for roster spots out of training camp as well. Names you will likely hear in this conversation include Mitchell Stephens, Mathieu Joseph and Alexander Volkov. With a strong showing, any one of these players could claim a limited fourth-line role to start off the year.

With this in mind, though, the Lightning have no reason to rush any of their young players into NHL ice time right now. Even if they look ready to play out of training camp, Yzerman may choose to send the youngsters back to Syracuse so they can play meaningful minutes as leaders of that team instead of playing for five to seven minutes a night in the NHL.

So, What Will the Lightning’s Fourth Line Look Like?

Even with all of this uncertainty, there are two likely looks for the Lightning’s fourth line come opening night. The first and simplest option would have Paquette at center, Andreoff at left wing, and Erne at right wing. This would give Tampa Bay a traditional shut-down fourth line, with three grinders capable of annoying their opponents for 5-10 minutes each night.

Should the team run seven defensemen, though, things get a little more complicated. In this layout, one could see Paquette remaining at center, with a small, speedy forward like Conacher playing at right wing. This would act as a complement to a double shifting top-line forward like Kucherov or Point, giving the Lightning a more offensive-minded fourth line that could keep the pressure on their opponent.

Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau, Mathieu Joseph
Should a player like Mathieu Joseph impress during the preseason, he could easily seize a fourth-line role with the Lightning. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

No matter what happens, one can expect the Lightning’s fourth-line to be thrown into upheaval once Callahan returns from his injury. This could make all moves made up until that point moot, as he will muscle his way back into the lineup when healthy. This means that a few months into the season, the Lightning will have to make another round of decisions on who to keep on the nightly roster and who to potentially waive to make space for their veteran grinder.