TAMPA — The Vegas Golden Knights made out very well in Wednesday's prime-time expansion draft.
But the Lightning didn't do too badly, either.
By making a side deal with Vegas, Tampa Bay was able to hold on to young defensemen Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek, who weren't on its draft protection list and who are expected to compete for roster spots in training camp. And the Lightning was able to free up $4.6 million in cap space for next season, with Vegas agreeing to make veteran defenseman Jason Garrison its selection from Tampa Bay.
That gives general manager Steve Yzerman flexibility to be aggressive in bolstering his blue line or adding another skilled forward this summer. Plenty of movement is expected at this weekend's amateur draft in Chicago.
Sure, it came at a cost, the Lightning also sending Vegas the rights to Russian wing prospect Nikita Gusev and one of its second-round draft picks this weekend and a fourth-round pick next year. But if you combine what Tampa Bay was able to retain and what it could gain, it didn't leave Sin City a loser.
"We can't just look at this year. We have to plan somewhat ahead," Yzerman said. "Things always change, but you still have to keep an eye on the future."
Yzerman said he came to an agreement with Vegas GM George McPhee last week on the side deal, which is why he felt comfortable leaving Koekkoek and Dotchin unprotected for the draft (he chose to protect defenseman Braydon Coburn instead). Dotchin, 23, a 2012 sixth-round pick, played himself into Tampa Bay's plans as a rookie last season, impressing in a top pairing with Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman. "It's safe to say he exceeded our expectations," Yzerman said.
Koekkoek, a first-round pick in 2012, started last season with Tampa Bay but finished strong in AHL Syracuse's run to the Calder Cup final. "He really matured as a player and evolved as a player," Yzerman said. "He will get an opportunity to compete for a spot."
Koekkoek could slide into the spot vacated by Garrison, 32, whose game declined last season, his third with Tampa Bay. Garrison had heard the rumors he might be Vegas-bound, finding out Tuesday while at his South Florida home. He flew to Vegas on Wednesday to be one of a handful of players at the nationally televised draft during the league's awards show.
"It's a new challenge, and that's how you have to mentally prepare yourself for it," Garrison told the Tampa Bay Times. "I'll miss Tampa a lot. I have a lot of really good friends there, been such a great organization since Day 1. But this is a new chapter."
Gusev was a seventh-round pick in 2012. He is a playmaking wing who has one year left on his KHL contract with SKA St. Petersburg in Russia. Gusev has no immediate plans to return to North America, his agent, Dan Milstein, said. Yzerman said he didn't know if Gusev ever would return.
"We feel we have a lot of young forwards. Several of them turn pro this year," Yzerman said. "If there's one thing we could give, it would be a forward prospect."
The Lightning had already added touted defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev in last week's Jonathan Drouin blockbuster trade with Montreal. And now, with around $23 million in cap space for next season, that should be plenty enough to sign potential restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Yzerman said he's also very interested and hopeful he can resign Yanni Gourde, who can be an unrestricted free agent July 1.
Yzerman declined to say whether he had another deal lined up for when the leaguewide roster freeze is lifted at 8 a.m. today. But it sounded like this could be a busy few weeks.
"We'll wait and see what happens in the next day or so and reassess the situation and see if there are hypothetical opportunities," Yzerman said. "We're going to explore every opportunity to make our team better."