Lightning Free Agency and Trade Season Preview

The NHL free agency period starts July 1 and while the Lightning were active in past years, the shallow pool of players available this year may mean they spend more time observing than participating.

It’s no secret the Lightning need a defenseman and Assistant General Manager Julien Brisebois recently told the Syracuse Post-Standard the team plans to add two blueliners before the fall. A look at the numbers says that’s true.

Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher frequently dresses seven defensemen and the team could easily carry eight on the roster throughout the year.

Expected to start the season on the Tampa Bay defense are Victor Hedman, Eric Brewer, Brian Lee, Brendan Mikkelson, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and Keith Aulie. The first hole is in the top-4, where someone like free agent Ryan Suter of Nashville would fit perfectly. Of course, he’d fit “perfectly” on to 29 other NHL rosters, too.

The Lightning were bombarded with injuries on the backline last year, led by veteran Mattias Ohlund missing the entire year with knee problems. While Ohlund is trying to make a comeback, that may not happen until next year – if at all. The bottom line is Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman likely isn’t counting on any contribution from the veteran Swede.

Speaking of Yzerman, he recently told the Tampa Bay Times that if he can’t get defensive additions through free agency or trade, he could look to the AHL for help. The options there include frequent flier Evan Oberg, reigning AHL Defenseman of the Year Mark Barberio, or hard-hitting Radko Gudas, who was arguably Norfolk’s best defenseman in their Calder Cup run last season. Gudas is also a right-handed shot, which is craved by Tampa Bay.

Suter is the ideal and easiest (asset-wise) addition for the Lightning and is reportedly spending Day 1 of free agency at his farm in Wisconsin. If that’s that case, Yzerman needs to be at the barn at 5 A.M. to help with chores to have a chance. Behind him in the barn will be Lightning owner Jeff Vinik with a suitcase full of cash. Overalls are optional for Vinik, but whatever it takes.

The Lightning have a chance at Suter, but then again Lloyd Christmas had a chance with Mary Swanson in Dumb and Dumber, too. He’s going to get a deal that could push $10 million and/or 10 years. That could destroy the Lightning’s future salary structure.

Suter is really the only free agent option to unquestionably fill a top-4 hole. The Flyers’ Matt Carle – a former member of the Lightning – is another possibility, but he’s more of a 4/5 and someone will spend a lot of money to land him. Probably more than what he’s worth. But that’s the nature of free agency.

The other opening is in the bottom pair as Bergeron projects to be the No.7 defenseman/power play specialist and Aulie, who would have to pass through waivers to go to AHL Syracuse, may be serving popcorn in the pressbox as a scratch until his game is NHL ready. Aulie as a scratch may be a result of increased depth in case of injury, too.

Fre agency options for the third pair spot could be Carlo Colaiacovo if the Lightning want a puckmover, or Bryan Allen or Michael Rozsival if they would rather have someone more savvy defensively.

Up front, the Lightning are pretty well set aside from some depth signings for AHL Syracuse. Expect 1-2 additions that could benefit the Crunch. One role they could fill at the NHL level is third line center, and former Bolt Dominic Moore may be the leading option. He likes the Tampa area and with the signing of Paul Gaustad by the Predators on Saturday, he's one of the only defensive-minded centers on the market. Moore was/is a Boucher favorite.

Depending on where Moore, Suter, Carle, and other free agents end up, the Lightning may have to use the trade route to find their next big-minute defenseman. Here’s a look at some possible top-4 options that could be available and on Yzerman’s radar:

Jay Bouwmeester, 29, Calgary
Bouwmeester’s name was brought up a few weeks ago on Bolt Prospects’ Twitter account and was met with a flurry of NO’s. Lightning fans aren’t fans of him from his Panther days, plus he hasn’t completely matched his pre-draft hype. Calgary currently has nine defensemen on one-way contracts and someone will have to move. Bouwmeester’s contract, which has two years left on it, is heavy at $6.6 million, but he skates well, is good in his own zone, and with a change of scenery could thrive again. The Lightning would probably have to give up a forward prospect and remind Jay Feaster they’re taking on J-Bo’s salary.

Jamie McBain, 24, Carolina
The ‘Canes made a splash when they acquired and signed Jordan Staal, so they’ll likely keep their top-2 defensemen, Joni Pitkanen and Justin Faulk, in place. Now’s not the time for them to take risks on defense and Pitkanen is more likely to move than Faulk. McBain is a young puckmover who could see some of his minutes taken by incoming Ryan Murphy, a highly-touted rookie out of OHL Kitchener. McBain would be a target that’s not a traditional, defensive-minded top-4 defenseman, but may be on the cusp of being one. He has the ability to be a fine 2-way defenseman in the immediate future. The ‘Canes are strong at forward so a center/wing prospect from the Lightning may not get a deal done. This is a longshot, especially when you consider it would be an intra-division trade.

Niklas Hjalmarsson, 25, Chicago
Hjalmarsson's name has been floating around trade rumor websites in the last few months and if he's available, Tampa Bay will likely be interested. His salary is $3.5 million for two more seasons, then he will be a young free agent. The Lightning may be able to send a forward prospect to Chicago, though Chicago has improved in that area recently. Chicago wants to get deep into the playoffs again and the Bolts may not have what the Hawks need to get there while also losing Hjalmarsson. Considering Chicago's questionable goaltending, might Dustin Tokarski be a name to keep an eye on? Hjalmarsson is one to watch.

Kyle Quincey, 26, Detroit
Wouldn’t this be ironic? Detroit lost Nik Lidstrom and Brad Stuart this spring but are considered the favorites for Suter. Prized prospect Brendan Smith is ready for big minutes, and while Quincey was just qualified as a restricted free agent, he could be moved. He made $3.25 million last year, which may be a lot for a third pair role in Detroit. He could potentially be had – but not for a first round pick like the Lightning received for him in February. Quincey would be a second pair option in Tampa. When he was acquired from Colorado Yzerman considered keeping him, but favored the first round pick.

Ian White, 28, Detroit
Another option if Suter signs with the Wings, White is a smallish defenseman, but a right-handed shot. White, who makes $2.875 million, will be an unrestricted free agent after next year so he wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg now.

Jonathan Ericsson, 28, Detroit
This is a longshot, but Ericsson could be on the block if Suter is signed by Detroit. Ericsson’s defensive game is his calling card, but he’s prone to mistakes and may not be capable of playing the effective minutes Tampa Bay needs.

Michael Del Zotto, 22, New York Rangers
The Rangers were among the final bidders for Justin Schultz and they could be with Detroit at the front of the line for Suter. Should they sign Suter, it would give them a scary-good top-4 of Suter, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Ryan McDonough. That would push Del Zotto down to the bottom pair and may make him expendable. The hometown friend of Lightning star Steven Stamkos would be a top-4 option with Tampa Bay capable of 50+ points. Again, this is contingent on the Rangers signing Suter. The Rangers also have highly-regarded Tim Erixon and Michael Sauer behind Del Zotto, in addition to Anton Stralman.

Michael Sauer, 24, New York Rangers
Sauer may be available regardless if the Rangers sign Suter. The question is his health – he missed most of the regular season and playoffs with a concussion. If he’s healthy, he could be a relatively affordable addition to Tampa Bay’s defense, but the health question is a big one. Sauer is a righty shot who was plus-20 as a rookie two seasons ago.

Rostislav Klesla, 30, Phoenix
The emergence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and expected arrival of Brandon Gormley may push Klesla down to the third pair for Phoenix, thus making him too expensive for his slot. While he’s not as hot a commodity as he was early in his career, he could provide quality top-4 play in Tampa. Fellow Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle is rumored to be on the block, but for a No.1 center that Tampa Bay doesn’t have to give. Klesla has two years left on his contract at around $3 million per year.

Dan Boyle, 35, San Jose
While many Lightning fans want nothing to do with Bouwmeester, they would welcome the return of the team’s former riverboat gambler, Dan Boyle. Boyle makes $6.6 million and has two years left on his deal, but would be a welcome addition to Tampa Bay’s lineup and the chances of him re-signing at 37 are good. San Jose has added Brad Stuart and Brent Burns to their top-4 in the last two years and they may see a window to get something for Boyle now rather than watching him walk in two years. Boyle’s no trade clause ends today (June 30) and his new clause just stipulates he submit a list of eight teams to which he would not accept a trade. Boyle still has property and family in Tampa, so it’s highly unlikely the Bolts would be on that list. It may take someone like Brett Connolly to get Boyle. Is giving up the next half-dozen years of Connolly for two guaranteed years of Boyle worth it?

Mike Green, 26, Washington
Green had an awful year for the Caps and is on this list simply because his name has been in rumors. It’s unlikely that Washington would want to trade him within the division, and with Tampa’s priority being to keep the puck out of their own net, Green doesn’t exactly fit their wish list. But Green is a right-handed offensive weapon when he’s healthy and could be available.

Tobias Enstrom, 27, Winnipeg
Enstrom is a big part of the Jets’ roster, but he will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next year. And while this would be an intra-division trade now, Winnipeg will move out of the Southeast in the near future. Enstrom is an undersized, but strong 2-way defenseman who has never played on a high-end offensive team and still has put up good numbers. The key here is how much the Lightning are willing to give up for potentially one year of Enstrom.