Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: It's time for the Lightning to trade Ben Bishop

He is the Lightning's most valuable player.

He is the reason the Lightning has made the playoffs the past three seasons. He is the reason it nearly won the Stanley Cup a year ago. He is the reason it came close to that again this season.

If you were listing all the reasons the Lightning could win the Stanley Cup next season, his name would be at the top.

He is goalie Ben Bishop. No player means more to this franchise.

And the Lightning should trade him. Right now.

Sounds crazy, right? Franchises might go decades without getting a goalie this good. For most of its history, the Lightning desperately needed and constantly searched for a goalie this good. Finally it has one — one of the best goalies on the planet — so why in the world would it get rid of him?

Because it would be crazy not to.

Now before we go any further, let's get something straight. In a perfect world, Bishop would be the Lightning's No. 1 goalie for years to come. He's not only an outstanding goalie but a heck of a good guy. He's well-liked, particularly by those inside the organization. He's a good teammate and a good representative of the franchise.

It's easy to run off a player who is a lousy teammate, a rotten person and a goalie who can't stop a medicine ball. It's quite another to suggest that the Lightning gets rid of a player who is as solid off the ice as he is on it.

If I'm Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, it would break my heart to trade Bishop.

But emotions can't be involved in making business decisions, and trading Bishop simply is good business.

Bishop gets hurt too much, he's due too much money, the Lightning has a hot prospect who is ready to be a No. 1 goalie. And chances are, the Lightning is going to lose a goalie in the next year or two anyway.

So let's make a deal.

Start with the injury factor. As reliable as Bishop has been getting Tampa Bay to the playoffs, he has been just as unreliable when the Lightning gets there. The best ability is availability, and Bishop has been unavailable at crucial stages of the postseason each of the past three seasons.

The Lightning was swept in the opening round by Montreal in 2014 as Bishop sat with a wrist injury. In 2015, Bishop missed one full Stanley Cup final game and a portion of another, and was less than 100 percent for a couple more because of a groin injury. This postseason, Bishop missed all but 13 minutes of a seven-game loss to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final because of a leg injury.

In each case, Bishop was legitimately hurt, and you can't blame a player for getting hurt. No one should suggest that he is soft. If he could have played, he would have. But bottom line is he couldn't play. The biggest games of the year and Bishop was in street clothes.

Eventually, the Lightning has to decide whether it wants to count on a goalie who, history suggests, will miss time at the worst possible time.

Next is Bishop's contract. For starters, he does have a partial no-move clause, meaning he could be traded only to certain teams. But it's the rest of the contract that is important. Bishop has one more year left on his deal and can be an unrestricted free agent next summer. He is in line for big raise, from $5.9 million to maybe more than $8 million a year. That's too much to pay for a team trying to figure out how to pay a slew of other stars.

Also consider that Bishop turns 30 next season. To keep him, you might have to sign him to a long-term deal that would pay him millions well into his 30s and maybe past his prime.

Meantime, the Lightning has a promising goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will be much more salary-cap friendly than Bishop over the next few years.

See, this is the key. The Lightning already has his replacement.

Vasilevskiy, by all accounts, is on his way to becoming an elite goaltender, maybe even better than Bishop, maybe better than any goalie in the league. He turns just 22 next month and already has shown he can handle big-time NHL pressure. He won a Stanley Cup final game in 2015 and nearly knocked off the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins in this season's conference final.

Is he better than Bishop right now? Not quite. Has he proven he can be a No. 1 goalie for more than a playoff series? Well, not yet. Has he proven he can be a No. 1 goalie for a whole season? No, he hasn't.

But eventually the Lightning needs to make a call on moving forward with either Bishop or Vasilevskiy, and that time is now.

The longer you wait to trade Bishop, the more his value goes down because he moves closer to free agency. It's best to trade him now when his stock is at its highest. And Vasilevskiy has shown enough that it's time to take a leap of faith. He's too good to keep as a backup any longer.

Finally, there's the news that broke this week. The NHL is expected to place an expansion team in Las Vegas, perhaps as soon as 2017. The way expansion-draft rules are likely to be set up, teams would be able to protect only one goalie. That means there would be a good chance an expansion team goes after one of the Lightning's goalies. Why lose one for nothing when you can trade one for something?

For all these reasons, it makes sense to move a goalie.

And the goalie who makes the most sense to move is Bishop.

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