Unpacking the Lightning’s Slow Free Agency

Prior to the start of 2019 NHL Free Agency on July 1, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois was busy. Rumors swirled around the franchise, connecting them to major free-agents like Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski.

With the Lightning heading for an impending cap-crunch, though, a signing was seemingly impossible. Despite this, a daft draft-day trade that sent J.T. Miller and his $5.6 million per year cap number to the Vancouver Canucks appeared to open up enough wiggle room for BriseBois to make one big signing.

J.T. Miller, Tampa Bay Lightning
One year after signing a five-year extension, J.T. Miller was traded to the Vancouver Canucks by the Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, since free-agency started, the Lightning have been relatively quiet. Besides addressing a need at goaltending, no major signings have been made.

This begs the question, have the Lightning done enough to improve as teams around them add big-name free agents?

Lightning Refusing to Make Mistakes

There is a simple answer as to why BriseBois has largely refused to spend money in his first free-agency. He has learned from his time in the league that overspending on a player in free-agency can have drastic negative effects on a franchise.

Let’s use Pavelski and his three-year, $21 million contract by the Dallas Stars as a discussion point. For the Stars, this cost could be well worth it, as they were desperate to add a top-scoring talent to their roster.

Joe Pavelski Sharks
Despite showing interest in Joe Pavelski, the Lightning were unable to land the big-name free agent. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For the Lightning, though, Pavelski would have been a luxury addition. They are a team built on scoring depth, and while he is better than a number of their top-forwards, at that cost, his contract could become an anchor to the franchise by Year 3.

If the Lightning won a Stanley Cup during those three seasons, then that risk would have been well founded. However, with the cap always present, one high-risk contract could be enough to cost a great young talent in a year or two.

Lightning Leaning on Depth

Instead of taking risks at free-agency, BriseBois has instead chosen to trust his depth players. By not making a major signing, he has shown that he believes in his young players to fill in the gaps.

It starts on defense, where the Lightning had a clear need for a permanent partner for Victor Hedman. While a big-name free agent could have been the perfect fit, BriseBois has instead shown that he believes Mikhail Sergachev is ready to take on the role. If he is right, then Tampa Bay not only found a partner for Hedman but also has a young, cost-controlled player who will be with the team for years on a reasonable contract.

Behind Sergachev, the Lightning have Cal Foote, their first-round pick from the 2017 Draft. Foote is one of those young defensemen who looks ready to make the roster out of training camp. While he will likely start the year with the Syracuse Crunch, when he gets his first call-up, he could easily lock down a starting role as Erik Cernak did in the 2018-19 season.

Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev
Entering his third season with the Lightning, Mikhail Sergachev looks primed to take over a top-pairing role alongside Victor Hedman. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

On the forward front, the Lightning are currently brimming with young players ready to take on a bigger role with the franchise. First is Carter Verhaeghe, who was the top scorer for the Crunch last season. Given how well he played, he should not only make the roster out of training camp, but he could threaten to work his way into a top-six role if given the opportunity.

The Lightning also have players like Alex Barre-Boulet, Mitchell Stephens and Alexander Volkov, who will be fighting for a bottom-pairing role with the franchise. With these players potentially ready to start in the NHL, signing depth veterans in free-agency really would just muddle the situation.

Lightning Made Smart Choices in Free Agency

By choosing to largely sit out his first free-agency as general manager of the Lightning, BriseBois has made the smart, safe decision. Given the amount of money and term getting thrown around, it would have been almost impossible for the team to pick up a free-agent at a reasonable cost.

Related: 2019 Draft a Big Win for Lightning

This isn’t a perfect plan by any means. These young players may not be as ready to take on an NHL role as we think, and the Lightning may have to scramble to fill holes in their roster at training camp.

However, there is no guarantee that an expensive free-agent will fit with a franchise either. Prior to the start of the season, this is all a bit of a gamble. By trusting his depth and not dolling out big contracts, BriseBois will still be able to place a few bets without risking losing everything should he be wrong.