The Lightning’s Forward Future: Steady or Stagnant?

Despite the fact that the 2019-20 season hasn’t even kicked off yet, it’s never too early to look towards the Tampa Bay Lightning’s future. In this instance, just by looking at next season’s roster, you can glean the idea that the Lightning’s forward corps is relatively set in stone.

Of the 12 forwards currently on their roster, six are signed through the 2021-22 season (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and Yanni Gourde). Outside of those core players, fourth-liner Cedric Paquette signed an extension during the 2019 offseason that will keep him with the franchise for the next two seasons.

Nikita Kucherov #86, Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 and Steven Stamkos
Many of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s core forwards have been signed to long-term contracts, including Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Three other starting forwards (Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, and Danik Martel) are restricted free-agents at the end of this season, who will likely be re-signed to bridge deals barring something unexpected. All this leaves for the Lightning is restricted free agent mystery Brayden Point, and veteran Pat Maroon, whom Tampa Bay signed to a one-year contract this offseason.

What this means for the Lightning is that their forward corps at the start of the 2020-21 season could look almost identical to the corps that starts in 2019-20. This begs the question, is this consistency a positive or a negative for the franchise?

Years of Experience Bonds Lightning

Arguably the biggest positive to having a forward corps that is locked in for the future is chemistry. Few teams have played together as long as the Lightning, with a number of their forwards having been teammates since they won the Calder Cup back in 2012.

These years of ice-time provides an unrivaled level of trust and knowledge that simply can’t be emulated under any other circumstance. Simply put, the Lightning know their teammates’ scoring tendencies, allowing them to set up opportunities that look like something out of a video game.

Ondrej Palate and Tyler Johnson
Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson have played for the Lightning franchise since the 2011-12 season, when they started together at the AHL level. (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)

It also doesn’t hurt that the Lightning features some of the top forward talent and depth in the league. From record-setters like Kucherov and Stamkos to role-players like Paquette and Cirelli, the Bolts have had little need to make massive changes to their nightly line-up.

Can Consistency Breed Contempt for Lightning?

It’s not all positives for the Lightning, though. While having a forward corps locked-in for years to come, this can become a major issue as those players begin to decline.

It may not be immediately noticeable, but time and injury will slow the play of even the best forwards. For example, core pieces like Johnson and Palat have seen their point totals slip in recent years, as their play went from team leading to simply above average.

Colorado Avalanche Semyon Varlamov Tampa Bay Lightning Alex Killorn
Alex Killorn has become a focal point of the Lightning’s stagnating forward corps, as his play has failed to live up to his seven-year, $31.5-million contract. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Now, this is not necessarily an issue as long as the team continues to win. If the Lightning fall short of winning the Stanley Cup in 2020, however, approaching the 2020-21 season with largely the same roster would look a bit silly.

Since so much of the core is signed for years to come, though, it would be difficult to near impossible for general manager Julien BriseBois to make significant changes. Trading players with both money and term left on their contract is difficult, so the team may be forced to simply march the same line-up out for the 2020-21 season.

Change May Not Be Necessary for Lightning

Even if the Lightning are able to reach their ultimate goal of the Stanley Cup during the 2020 playoffs, it still may be a good idea for their forward core to receive a shake-up heading into next season. With a number of highly talented prospects becoming NHL ready and a cap-crunch incoming, BriseBois will likely have to part ways with some of his veteran forwards to make everything work.

Related: Is Verhaeghe the Lightning’s Next Breakout Rookie?

If nothing changes, though, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the franchise. Based on raw talent alone, Tampa Bay could very well find success with this roster for years to come. It just creates a bit of a ‘definition of insanity’ moment for the Lightning, as they continue to do the same thing year after year and expect a different result.

Only time will tell if the Lightning will need to make significant changes come the 2020 offseason. For better or for worse, though, it looks like the team that starts in 2019-20 could be almost identical to the one that starts in 2020-21.