For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft was relatively painless. While the Vegas Golden Knights built a Stanley Cup contender using leverage granted by the NHL, the Lightning managed to navigate the tricky situation relatively well, ridding themselves of Jason Garrison’s contract by offering up Nikita Gusev, a 2017 second-round selection and a 2018 fourth-rounder.
While that’s wasn’t an inexpensive move, it was necessary to clear needed cap space while moving on from Garrison who was no longer viable for a ‘win-now’ Lightning organization.
With the 2021 Seattle Expansion Draft approximately a year away, the Lightning will soon need to navigate another tough situation. With a wealth of talent, which player could the Lightning lose?
Given their depth at the position, the Lightning will likely lose a forward in 2021. Considering the timing of the expansion draft, there’s one name that instantly jumps to mind: Tyler Johnson.
As a Washington native and a solid top-six forward, Johnson could be appealing to the new franchise. He has the potential to provide scoring as either a center or winger while giving the budding team a local face and storyline for new fans to appreciate.
Also, Johnson has an easy-to-swallow $5 million contract that expires in the 2024 offseason. For an expansion team, that’s a reasonable cap hit for a player who could become one of the first faces of their franchise.
Now, Seattle may not choose Johnson, of course. He will be 32 years old by the time of the draft, with three years left on his deal. Given his inconsistent play at times, they may see better value on the board by raiding the Lightning’s youth instead of taking an aging player.
In many ways, it’s fitting that Johnson and Ondrej Palat are both in this discussion, as their NHL careers have been tied together for the better part of a decade.
Similar to Johnson, Palat will be appealing to a new franchise as he could slot into their top-six as a defensive-minded forward who would take on penalty-killing time each night. While his scoring is far from explosive, he was on pace for 20 goals and 50 points in 2019-20, showing that he still has value at all ends of the ice.
Really, the only negatives are Palat’s injury history and the fact that he makes a little more money than Johnson, clocking in at a $5.3 million cap hit. If he can stay healthy and productive, that is money well spent, but if he struggles with injuries as he did in 2017-18 and 2018-19, he may quickly become a missed pick for Seattle.
Even then, if he plays well, he could be signed to a short-term contract once his current deal expires in 2022. That would give Seattle some negotiating room to reduce his cap hit, or they could move on from Palat if the timing is deemed right.
Here’s a theoretical situation. When the Lightning signed Ryan McDonagh to a seven-year contract in the 2018 offseason, the move was instantly questioned. While McDonagh was and still is a great defenseman, a seven-year deal that lasts until he is 37 years old has warning signs all over it.
Also, with Mikhail Sergachev developing into a defensive stud, McDonagh may soon be forced onto the third-pairing to give Sergeachev a bigger role. If that happens, you would be paying him $6.75 million a year to be the Lightning’s #5 defenseman.
Given that McDonagh’s contract was signed by then-general manager Steve Yzerman, current GM Julien BriseBois may look to the expansion draft as an opportunity to move on from a deal that he was stuck with just weeks before he took over the job.
Now, a move of this sort would not be cheap. It would likely cost the Lightning at least a 2021 first-round selection, a 2022 second or third-rounder, and maybe even an additional prospect to get Seattle to take on the remaining five years of that contract. However, a move like this could be beneficial to both franchises. Seattle would get an experienced defenseman who will immediately slot into their top-four, and Tampa Bay would clear more than $6 million of cap space.
Is this move likely? No, but it is possible given the Lightning’s current cap struggles.
2021 Expansion Draft Still a Long Way Off
A lot can change between now and the 2021 expansion draft. Players may be traded, injured, or have breakout seasons that will change how they are perceived around the league. Someone who seems like a likely choice now may be impossible to move in a year.
Related: NHL Seattle Has Long Road Ahead
However, the Lightning look to be in good shape preparing for 2021. Yes, they will lose a talented player, but they may be able to use that to their advantage and clear some needed cap space as they did back in 2017. Even if it only offers temporary relief, it will help the franchise keep the stars that they need in order to stay competitive in the NHL.
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.