Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning defense needs major upgrade

If ever there was an example of the Lightning's biggest need, it occurred during Tuesday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Jets.

There were times Tampa Bay could not even gain control of the puck in the defensive zone, producing long stretches in which Winnipeg peppered the net.

There were times Tampa Bay had the puck that just making an accurate pass out of the defensive zone was an adventure.

And there were plenty of times the Lightning simply had to chip the puck out of the defensive zone to regroup before having to defend again, a process that creates momentum for the team with the puck and tires the team on its heels.

In other words, the Lightning needs, again, an upgrade on defense. It needs someone a little faster. It needs someone confident with the puck, who can make a play under pressure rather than bail.

Tampa Bay hasn't had that since Dan Boyle was traded in the summer of 2008. It is a tough commodity to find. But if Tampa Bay is to become a legitimate playoff threat, it must find that spark plug.

It doesn't appear magic bullets are to be had via free agency, and Mark Barberio at AHL Syracuse, whom some believe might one day fill that role, does not seem ready.

That leaves the trade route, and that is where Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman can deal from strength. He said as much after he sent rookie Cory Conacher to the Senators for goaltender Ben Bishop at the trade deadline and indicated there is enough organizational depth at forward to use as bait in additional deals.

Prominent in trade speculation at the deadline was Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle, who had 22 goals, 102 points the previous two seasons and entering Saturday had nine goals, 24 points in 43 games.

He is expensive, with $16.5 million owed the next three seasons, and with Tampa Bay only $2.6 million under next season's $64.3 million salary cap, this probably is more a mental exercise than anything. But the Coyotes, given their financial situation, might be motivated sellers and willing to take some salary back, and the Lightning can create cap room with perhaps a contract buyout and the expected shedding, in some fashion, of the contract of injured defenseman Mattias Ohlund.

And with organizational depth at forward that includes Brett Connolly, J.T. Brown, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik and Tanner Richard — not to mention substantial depth at goaltender — Tampa Bay has attractive assets to deal.

So, it can do something. Actually, it must.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristo[email protected]m. View his blog at lightning.tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.

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