Lightning’s first option for upgrades: AHL Syracuse

DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Wing Adam Erne, who played 26 games with the Lightning last season, has been impressive with AHL Syracuse this season and is "playing his way out of the American League," Lightning GM Steve Yzerman says.
DIRK SHADD | Times Wing Adam Erne, who played 26 games with the Lightning last season, has been impressive with AHL Syracuse this season and is "playing his way out of the American League," Lightning GM Steve Yzerman says.
Published December 22 2017
Updated December 23 2017

TAMPA — His team is the best in the league, the first to 50 points.

He has two elite scorers in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov; a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman in Victor Hedman, and all-world No. 1 goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Yet Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman sounds like a man who might have a few things on his Christmas list as the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaches.

"By no means do we think we’re perfect," Yzerman said. "We look at areas where we can improve. We’ll try to do that in our organization, first off. Otherwise, we’re constantly looking around the league to see what’s out there."

This has the makings of a special season for the Lightning, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Yzerman tries to add another piece. But Tampa Bay will likely examine a few internal options first, especially while Ryan Callahan is out at least a month with an upper-body injury. Cory Conacher, expected to be called up for a one-game cameo in early December, has played his way into the lineup. His 10th game was Thursday, meaning he’d have to clear waivers to get sent back down to AHL Syracuse. Don’t see him going anywhere soon.

RELATED: After a rough stretch, penalty kill comes up big for Lightning in win over Wild.

Another forward likely to get a look is Adam Erne, who has been extremely impressive with the Crunch, inching closer to his next callup.

"He’s taken a significant step," Yzerman said. "He’s constantly playing well in all aspects of the game on a nightly basis. He’s becoming really, really a top American League player. He’s playing his way out of the American League."

There also are Crunch forwards Anthony Cirelli and Alex Volkov, the latter about whom Syracuse coach Ben Groulx said it’s "not if, but when" he makes the NHL jump.

The Lightning will also canvas the league, having already kept a close watch on the Blue Jackets, who have scouted Tampa Bay and Syracuse games. Yzerman could kick the tires on the potentially available big fish, such as the Islanders’ John Tavares, who can be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the Senators’ Erik Karlsson, who can be an unrestricted free agent after next season and has already said he wants to make what he’s worth.

But any acquisition more likely would be an under-the-radar final piece, like Darryl Sydor was for the 2004 Stanley Cup-winning team.

As good as Tampa Bay has been, it makes sense for Yzerman to look for options for a top-nine wing or an upgrade on defense. The Lightning’s penalty kill unit entered Saturday No. 22 in the league, and there have been too many games in which Vasilevskiy has needed to be the team’s best player.

"It’s been a good start, but there’s still lots and lots of work to do," Yzerman said. "It’s only going to get harder."

RELATED: Nikita Kucherov in elite company with points pace.

His turn

The narrative of Vladislav Namestnikov no longer being a secret is an old one.

Namestnikov, 25, is playing the best hockey of his life. He scored his career-high 15th goal Thursday night against the Senators.

The real question is: Has Namestnikov played his way into the Lightning’s plans beyond this season? Namestnikov, a first-round draft pick in 2011 (32 picks before Nikita Kucherov), can be a restricted free agent this summer. Though no contract talks are expected until the offseason, Namestnikov’s emergence, and his chemistry with Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, could ensure he sticks around as opposed to being trade bait.

The Lightning always knew Namestnikov had talent. It was just a matter of finding the elusive consistency.

"It’s fairly rare that someone can come into the league right away," coach Jon Cooper said. "Some guys develop a little bit later. It’s not about ‘If I’m a first-rounder or second-rounder, I’ve got to get into the league in two years.’ Everybody’s growth is at a different pace.

"Vladdy had some injuries early on. Then it was about getting a little bigger, little bit stronger. When those things start to come into play, he’s got more experience. He’s getting his chance and making the best of it."

Slap shots

• Jonathan Drouin makes his anticipated return to Tampa on Thursday when the Canadiens arrive. Who would have thought the rookie defenseman he was traded for in the offseason, Mikhail Sergachev, would have more points (23) than any Canadien at this point of the season?

• Nikita Kucherov is the first NHL player to 50 points and the second fastest in franchise history (after Vinny Lecavalier). What’s more striking is that of his 23 goals entering Saturday’s game against the Wild, 20 had come at even strength. Seventeen of Kucherov’s 40 goals last season came on the power play.

• The "Vegas Flu" is a popular theory — and joke — when it comes to opposing teams having trouble beating the expansion Golden Knights while staying in Sin City. But it was unfair for me to speculate — even in jest — that it might have had something to do with the flu bug that went around the Lightning dressing room last week.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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