Ahead of the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, some of The Hockey Writers’ finest put together a mock draft of our own. In an effort to keep the draft realistic, we were able to make pre-draft trades and make side deals with the incoming franchise. For our draft, Tony Wolak served as the Seattle Kraken’s general manager (GM). I had the honor of serving as the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Let’s take a look at how it played out for the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions.
Protection List Strategy
During the expansion draft, teams will have two options for their protection lists. They can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender, or they can protect eight skaters and a goaltender. A strong case could be made for the Lightning to use either strategy; however, I decided to take the 7-3-1 approach. This was my protection list:
- Forwards- Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn
- Defensemen- Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak
- Goaltender- Andrei Vasilevskiy
This protection list leaves some notable names exposed: Ryan McDonagh, Ross Colton, Mathieu Joseph, and Cal Foote. My goal was simply an attempt to keep as much of the core of the team together as possible. However, the Lightning do project to be approximately $3.5 million over the salary cap entering next season. Quite frankly, something has to give.
Now that the season is officially over, I would consider changing my protection strategy in order to protect McDonagh. Although his contract is intimidating, he has been instrumental in the Lightning’s back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. Keeping Hedman, Sergachev, Cernak, and McDonagh on the team would give the team their best chance of winning another Cup in the near future.
Pre-Draft Wheeling and Dealing
The biggest challenge for the Lightning this offseason is offloading several salaries in order to get under the salary cap and re-sign pending free agents. To do this, I attempted to move both Tyler Johnson and Ryan McDonagh. One of the most difficult parts of this exercise was the inability to judge whether a player would waive a no-trade clause (NTC) in their contract. However, I did feel that Johnson would be willing to do so. Ultimately, Brandon Seltenrich, the acting GM of the Buffalo Sabres, Alex Chauvancy, the acting GM of the New Jersey Devils, and I put together a three-way deal.
- Tampa Bay acquired D Rasmus Ristolainen
- Buffalo acquired C Tyler Johnson and the Lightning’s 2021 third-round pick (retains $2,700,000 of Ristolainen’s salary)
- New Jersey acquired the Lightning’s 2023 third-round pick (retains $1,350,000 of Ristolainen’s salary)
In eight seasons with the Sabres, Ristolainen has played in 542 games, tallying 46 goals and 199 assists. No, his advanced statistics haven’t been up to par, but the team around him hasn’t helped either. It is time for a change of scenery, and I think he would benefit from a move to Tampa. This is a risky trade for several reasons. First, I was taking a gamble that Ristolainen would have a bounce-back season with a new team. He has yet to live up to his full potential and is still young at the age of 26. He would benefit from playing alongside Hedman, Sergachev, and Cernak, who could mentor him and help him improve his game.
Second, the Lightning have a shortage of early-round draft picks in the next two drafts – they currently don’t have a first or second-round pick in 2021. They are also without a second and third-round pick in 2022. In the end, I made the trade because I wanted to send McDonagh to Seattle. I had a side deal in place with Seattle, but unfortunately, the trade fell through, and their GM decided to go another direction. The Lightning would still have a lot of work to do in order to clear more cap space before the 2021-22 season starts.
Pending Free Agents
The Lightning’s roster will look significantly different next season. Due to their financial state, several free agents are going to find a new home this offseason. Here is a look at the Lightning’s current pending free agents:
- Unrestricted Free Agents- Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Gemel Smith, David Savard, Luke Schenn, Curtis McElhinney, Christopher Gibson
- Restricted Free Agents- Ross Colton, Alex Barre-Boulet, Cal Foote
Goodrow was the first domino to fall, as the Lightning traded him to the New York Rangers in exchange for a 2022 seventh-round pick.
It would not be surprising to see Coleman, Savard, and McElhinney in a new uniform next season, too. In particular, Coleman is likely due for a big payday after his solid performances over the last two seasons in Tampa. It would be very difficult for the Lightning to come up with enough cap space to retain his services. With that said, the Lightning should focus on bringing back Colton, Barre-Boulet, and Foote, as all three players showed that they have what it takes to compete at hockey’s highest level.
In the end, the Kraken selected Foote in our mock draft. This is a great move by the new franchise, which would gain a young defenseman with a lot of potential. The 22-year-old was originally selected in the first round, 14th overall, in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. In 35 games played with the Lightning this season, Foote tallied 3 points, 29 blocked shots, and 39 hits.
If I did not make the trade for Ristolainen, this pick would have hurt a lot worse. Although he made many mistakes this season, Foote will likely join the Lightning full time this coming season if he is on the roster this fall. In summary, the Lightning defensive corps would be composed of Hedman, Sergachev, Cernack, McDonagh, Ristolainen, and Jan Rutta. They could also look at bringing back Schenn and Ben Thomas. Of course, they’ll have to trade several players to get back under the salary cap and fill out the roster.
I do not envy general manager Julien BriseBois’ job, not one bit. To say he has his work cut out for him this offseason would be an understatement. The important thing to remember is that the Lightning are only going to lose one player to the Kraken. Fortunately, they have a tremendously talented roster with many good, young players coming up the ranks. Although it will be tough to lose someone, the Lightning have the depth to fill that hole in the team. Regardless of what happens, the reigning Stanley Cup Champions will be a contender again next season.
Andrew is a freelance writer who covers the Tampa Bay Lightning at The Hockey Writers. He is a passionate hockey fan who grew up near Tampa, Florida. He is a husband, father to a Golden Retriever, and is studying to be a Physician Assistant. Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Mulville