In the last few seasons, Tampa Bay Lightning fans have looked at each other and asked a simple question, “What should we do about Tyler Johnson?” While this is technically not the offseason, it is June, so it’s time to dig into this annual question.
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For as long as he has been with the franchise, Johnson has been a conversation starter. From helping the Lightning’s then AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, win the 2012 Calder Cup to being named the AHL MVP in 2013, to breaking into the NHL with a Calder Trophy nomination in 2014 and being a member of one of the best lines in hockey, posting the first postseason hat trick in franchise history in 2015, he did it all in his first five seasons with the club.
Since that exceptional start to his career, Johnson has been a consistently good player. He’s a Swiss-army knife who plays all over the line-up, consistently posting at least 20 goals and between 40-50 points even after missing time due to injury.
He is a solid player with a decent $5 million cap hit that isn’t breaking the bank. With all of this in mind, why would the Lightning want to move on from their former star?
Johnson’s Luster Wearing Off for Lightning
When you enter the league as strongly as Johnson did, it’s easy for expectations to be set at an unrealistically high level. After his breakout 2014-15 season, when he posted 29 goals and 72 points in 77 games, many expected that to be his output, not his ceiling.
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Due to a mixture of injuries and getting replaced in the lineup, Johnson’s production has slipped dramatically. In the five seasons since that 72-point campaign, he’s only posted 50 points once while seeing his overall ice time dip below 15 minutes per night this season.
If he was being paid like a middle-six, 40-point forward, this wouldn’t be an issue, but Johnson has a $5 million hit that extends until the 2023-24 season. Given the fact that his play has already declined and that the Lightning are in a cap crunch with many young talents due for raises, it would make sense to move on from Johnson.
Can Lightning Trade Johnson?
Even if the Lightning were in the market to trade Johnson, it won’t happen anytime soon. Through the 2021 offseason, he has a full no-trade clause that would need to be waived before a deal could be made.
Given that he has played his entire NHL career in Tampa Bay, and the franchise has contended for the Stanley Cup in the past five seasons or so, it’s unlikely that Johnson would willingly leave for a worse situation. While there may be a market for his talents, the team that he would likely want to join may not be able to afford the cap hit or term left on his contract.
Johnson Likely Stays With Lightning Through 2021
With everything in mind, it seems unlikely that Johnson will be traded during the 2019 offseason, whenever that may be. His no-trade clause and cap hit would make moving him difficult under normal circumstances, and with the uncertainty of the NHL cap limit going forward, other franchises likely won’t want to splurge on an ageing veteran forward.
The 2021 offseason, however, is a very different story. Johnson’s no-trade clause will become a modified trade-clause (allowing for a list of 20 teams to which he would accept a trade), and with the Seattle expansion draft, the Lightning will have many options to trade him if necessary.
However, even if they can’t move on from Johnson, he is not a drain on the franchise. His play is good enough to justify his cap hit, even if he has slipped recently. If things go well, and he returns to his 2015 form, even briefly, it could help the Lightning take that step toward winning a Stanley Cup.
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.