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Lightning Offseason: Hotseat Rankings


By Guest Contributor Andrew Weiss

Another NHL season is in the books. The Washington Capitals claimed the Stanley Cup, which meant watching several high-quality videos of a drunk Alex Ovechkin. In order for the Capitals to have won it all, however, they had to go through the Tampa Bay Lightning. This has seemingly become a rite of passage for champions, as three of the past four Stanley Cup winners have defeated the Lightning in the playoffs late in May or early in June. This is a sign that the Lightning have produced successful, strong seasons that led to long postseason runs. It has also painfully reminded fans that Tampa remains a step away from another suntan for Stanley.

You can bet Steve Yzerman, general manager and Jedi of the Lightning, spent just a few mere minutes after the loss to the Capitals before figuring out his next step. A patient, intimidating man, Yzerman was a finalist for the GM of the Year award for good reason. His sneaky good trade to acquire Louis Domingue in late 2017 gave the Lightning a backup goalie they could rely on, which only added to his track record.

This is a man with high exceptions, no worry, and cold, calculating determination. Not someone that takes pleasure in the fact that the Lightning have finished just shy of their goal season after season three of the last four years.

Trying to read his mind is impossible. The closest thing is the following list, a hotseat ranking of the roster from 2017-2018 to determine who is gone, who is close, and who is a fixture for years in Tampa.

The scale originally was going to be 1-10, before realizing it was much easier doing it on a scale of one Matt Carle to 10 Matt Carles. The more Matt Carles a player has, the closer he is to the door.

Forwards

Ryan Callahan - 4 Matt Carles / 10

Fans repeatedly clamor for a Callahan buyout, and not without reason. The 33-year-old forward makes $5.8 million a season until the end of 2020, and no longer produces on the stat sheet to defend the money. However, a buyout of Callahan would only stretch out the issue (e.g. TB is paying the aforementioned Matt Carle for two more seasons), and the Rochester native has been a solid fixture on Tampa’s penalty kill. The unit, which finished in the bottom third of the league, needs all the help it can get. It started off well to begin 2017, but suffered soon after Callahan was injured and never regained its footing. The timing was not coincidental. He is certainly overpaid by a wide margin for a bottom-six forward, but this is more likely to be a bite-the-bullet player than anyone else. That, and the fact that Tampa is enamored with him, leaves him unlikely to hit the chopping block. It may not be surprising to see him return after his contract is up for a lower term, much-lower pay deal.

Anthony Cirelli - 1 Matt Carles / 10

“Tony” was fantastic in his first season in Tampa, playing extremely well in his role as a third line center. He emerged as a top penalty killer as the season went on, and the coaching staff began to trust him with even more responsibility. His play, combined with Brayden Point’s on the second line, has solidified the pivot spot and makes other centers more expendable. He isn't going anywhere.

Cory Conacher - 5 Matt Carles / 10

The return of Conacher, after he was traded for Ben Bishop in what seems like decades ago, was solid. Now, he didn't take over games, or play high-end hockey while with Tampa. He was crunched out of playing time due to the immensely talented team around him, and was often a healthy scratch. However, he not only played well with Syracuse in the AHL, he also accepted the role of 13th forward with pride. Whenever he drew in the lineup, due to injury or shakeups, he provided a spark on whichever line he hopped on with. Now, thanks to the incredible depth of the franchise, he might be squeezed out of the Lightning for a second time. That said, he has proven time and time again that it is hard to count him out, and he has one more year left on his contract.

Adam Erne - 2 Matt Carles / 10

Another season, another injury for Adam Erne. His flashes of potential as a scoring power forward are incredibly enticing, and his ceiling is a top-six forward with scoring line potential and checking line talent that’s already there. However, his injuries set back a promising trial with the Lightning. If he can stay off of the injured list, he could push for more playing time on a deep Tampa team. The more pricey forwards the Lightning add, the more cost-effective forwards like Erne will be needed to complement them.

Yanni Gourde - 2 Matt Carles / 10

If Gourde buries that open-net Victor Hedman feed in Game 7 against Washington, we might not have an article about hotseat rankings. But here we are, and Gourde is here with us. His rookie year was phenomenal, even for an over-aged rookie. The 26-year-old has one year left on his current deal, making a cool million, and figures to be fighting for a shiny new contract. However, how much can Tampa afford to pay him when more important core members need new deals of their own?

Tyler Johnson - 8 Matt Carles / 10

Johnson has had a strong career in Tampa, the only team to give the diminutive forward a shot. His playoff performances have been solid, and his time as a member of the Triplets started off the high expectation trend that has followed both him and the team since 2015. However, his play has trailed off a bit in recent years, and he has stretches of disappearing acts that are both frustrating and confusing. The injury bug has certainly played a role in that, but hockey is a business that asks “what have you done for me lately?” That might not be fair, but with Steven Stamkos and Point holding down the top two center lines, Yzerman might not be inclined to pay a third line center $5 million until 2024. Especially with young Tony Cirelli filling that role well. Now, Johnson can certainly play wing, but the question remains: is his contract and play more helpful in Tampa, or elsewhere?

Alex Killorn - 6 Matt Carles / 10

The coaching staff loves him. The front office loves him. His teammates loves him. His contract loves him. Killorn is feeling the love. However, fans are not. The forward makes $4.45 million a season until 2022, and has Callahan-contract vibes. His scoring has stayed average at best (130th in 2018 despite career year), and his “playoff performer” role that earned him that money disappeared outside of a couple games in 2018. Now, Killorn isn't likely to be traded (see the whole “love” thing) and is less likely to feel pressure about it. However, if his play continues to dip, expect fewer happy Harvard grads and more trade rumors.

Nikita Kucherov - 2 Matt Carles / 10

If you have an issue with Kucherov’s poor play in the end of the Eastern Conference Final, fine. If you want him gone, traded, or paid underwhelming amounts in his next deal, good luck. The man had 100 points on the nose to lead Tampa in 2017-2018, dazzled incredible skill, and is only 25. He is entering his prime, and he is ready to dominant the NHL for years. The only question is how much he is asking for in his next deal. Yzerman is likely to give “Kuch” whatever he asks for in the next calendar year… unless it is $10 million or more. That is when things get interesting. Plan on things getting interesting.

J.T. Miller - 1 Matt Carles / 10

Miller was a restricted free agent and Yzerman signed him to a hefty contract. Miller is what Killorn was thought to become when Killorn got his 7-year deal. He is a solid, versatile forward that can play any spot up front, take face-offs, and be both a complementary player and a driving force – and produce while doing so. He isn't a star, as we saw in the playoffs, but he is a needed player for Tampa.

Ondrej Palat - 2 Matt Carles / 10

Take that whole “everyone loves him” line from Killorn and apply it here. Palat is a coach’s trooper, has a fair contract, and is one of the best defensive players on the Lightning. He should be a member of Tampa’s core for a long time.

Cedric Paquette - 6 Matt Carles / 10

The restricted free agent is a polarizing player to say the least. When successful, he is a grit and grind machine, aggressive on the forecheck, and solid at wearing down other teams all night. When he isn’t playing well, he is lumbering and ineffective with mental errors, with the painful offensive zone or penalty kill penalties, which creates a 5-on-3 that isn't deserved. The coaches love him, one way or another, but he could be pushed out eventually by a bristling youngster from Syracuse. What to watch for: the years on Paquette’s upcoming contract. If it’s 3-5 years, they view him as a semi-core player. If it’s a one-year deal, they see what many of us do.

Brayden Point - minus-85 Matt Carles / 10

The most consistent forward for Tampa this season, Point showed up in every game at both ends of the ice. The 22-year-old has one year left on his entry level deal, and he is up for a big upgrade in pay. Yzerman will be more than happy to pay the man, with a deal more likely sooner than later. A team of Brayden Points would win the Stanley Cup in 16 postseason games. If Ottawa asks for Point as part of any Erik Karlsson deal, Yzerman should hang up the phone. He’s too big of a future core piece.

Steven Stamkos - 1 Matt Carle / 10

One year into his new deal and Stamkos already looks like a steal. $8.5 million means almost $100,000 a point, as he finished with 86 on the season in 78 games played. Fans were upset with his postseason play for some reason, even if his Game 6 and Game 7 against Washington was subpar. He had 16 points in 17 games, tied for the team lead in goals, and adjusted to a playmaking style. The captain remains a key figure in Tampa, and he will for years.

Defensemen

Braydon Coburn - 4 Matt Carles / 10

Coburn had a sneaky good postseason for Tampa, looking solid in his own end and fearless past the red line. His deal runs up after 2019, and he might be looking for a new home with Cal Foote and Mikhail Sergachev looking for more playing time. He will remain in Tampa as a sixth defenseman for 2018-2019, and can play bottom four minutes in a solid capacity.

Jake Dotchin - 8 Matt Carles / 10

Dotchin has one year left on his deal, and might be looking at a new home before that. Rumors had him in trade deals throughout the spring, including as a piece for Vancouver’s Chris Tanev. After a solid end of the 2016-2017 season, Dotchin was expected to step up this past season. He failed to do so, and might be on the outs soon enough.

Dan Girardi - 4 Matt Carles / 10

People laughed when Yzerman signed Girardi, who was coming off of a poor season in New York and got bought out. Girardi lived up to Yzerman’s expectations, playing a solid second pairing this season, killing penalties and blocking shots with no regard for personal harm. Whatever is in the water in New York, Callahan and Girardi drank plenty. He will be around for 2018-2019 and can play either second or third pair minutes.

Victor Hedman - minus-77 Matt Carles / 10

The man just won the first Norris Trophy in Lightning history after years of incredible play. His deal, which pays $7.875 million until 2025, is such a steal that Yzerman might need a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Remember when Tampa fans called Hedman a bust after one to two years of NHL play? Let the lesson of patience stay with you.

Slater Koekkoek - 9 Matt Carles / 10

Koekkoek remains an enigma. He has solid size, skating, and playmaking ability from the blue line, yet has looked lost in his own zone at times. Not enough to warrant a lack of playing time that has besieged him the last few seasons, mind you. The restricted free agent might find a new home elsewhere in a trade, and that might help out both him and the team in the long run. With Todd Richards running the defense now, perhaps Koekkoek gets the ice time he’s capable of.

Ryan McDonagh - 1 Matt Carles / 10

A quiet postseason for McDonagh turned some heads, but his play in his own zone was a vast improvement on what Tampa had before the trade deadline. Some fans weren’t immediately impressed with him coming off the trade and injury, and that first impression has stuck with them. He may not be the stud he was a few years ago, but he’s not too far off. Even when his deal comes to an end years from now he’ll still be a quality PKer, third pair guy, and an unofficial or official alternate captain. Until then TB will get quality and somewhat underappreciated play.

Mikhail Sergachev - 1 Matt Carle / 10

The young Russian was amazing in his first year in Tampa, especially as a teenager. He is only going to get better, and you can tell how highly Yzerman thinks of him. The GM reportedly refused to offer him in trade deals with Ottawa for Erik Karlsson at the deadline, and the Sens are apparently asking for him again. Yzerman is still saying no, just like Bergevin did with the Habs until Yzerman offered up Drouin.

Anton Stralman - 4 Matt Carles / 10

Another quietly solid year for Stralman on the blue line. He is one of the most under-appreciated defensemen in hockey, even if he appeared to lose a step at times this past season. He is a free agent after 2018-2019, one of four defensemen for Tampa without a deal past next season. He may or may not get a new deal, but if he does, it would have to be less than the $4.5 million he makes now and for short term.

Andrej Sustr - 10 Matt Carles / 10

The decline in play when Sustr was on the ice was palpable for Tampa, and that was seen when McDonagh arrived. Sustr has the size any coach drools over, but just can’t play at a high enough level for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The free agent is waiting for a call from another NHL team and could find himself without an NHL job in the near future like previous “why is he playing?” players like Carle and Nikita Nesterov. He still has some value in the league as a 6/7 defenseman who can kill penalties.

Goaltenders

Louis Domingue - 2 Matt Carles / 10

Domingue has just signed a new two-year deal to be the backup in Tampa, and what a steal of a deal for Yzerman. Both that new contract, and the trade that brought the 26-year-old to Tampa. He served his role well, going 7-3-1 with a 2.89 goals against average and a .914 save percentage with Tampa last season. He can play more than a couple games in a stretch if needed, and doesn’t require the development that a young 20’s keeper would need. Perfect.

Andrei Vasilevskiy - negative infinity Matt Carles / 10

Wow. What a season for “Vasy” as the young Russian was dominant all year long, even through a second half swoon that is very relative. First year as a starter, first time being a Vezina nominee. He’ll earn a few of those soon enough. Next up, his contract. How much term/money for a franchise goaltender? Depending on his ask, and Yzerman’s brass you-know-whats, it could range around eight years and $6-7 million.