TAMPA — Ben Bishop may be the Lightning's biggest decision at next week's trade deadline.
You have the best goalie in franchise history playing his best hockey of the season. Bishop, 30, has won five straight starts, including Tuesday's 4-1 victory over the Oilers at Amalie Arena. Over that span, Bishop has allowed a combined six goals, helping Tampa Bay stay in striking distance of a playoff berth.
"He's just in command of his game," coach Jon Cooper said. "He looks intimidating when he's in there."
You ride the hot hand, right? But for how long? Bishop may be in his last week in a Lightning uniform, his name a part of trade speculation leading up to the March 1 deadline. Bishop is an unrestricted free agent next summer, when Tampa Bay would lose him for nothing.
Play him or trade him. It's a tough call for general manager Steve Yzerman.
"I don't want to lose any of our guys at the trade deadline," Cooper said. "We're in a different position now than we've been since I've been here. I don't believe in the whole buyers and sellers. It's how are we going to make the playoffs?
"This team has stayed together three straight years, we've had the same group and had a lot of success with that group. We've got this group in the room and we're going to roll with them."
Bishop isn't the only trade target among Lightning players. Center Brian Boyle, also a pending unrestricted free agent, is drawing interest from Tuesday's opponent, the Oilers, Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs, among others. Tyler Johnson, whose Triplets line is on fire (eight points Tuesday), could be an answer for a top-six forward for the Islanders or Predators, with both teams having scouts at Tuesday's game.
But the writing on the wall for Bishop's departure began at June's NHL draft, when he was nearly dealt to the Flames. When asked the likelihood of Bishop remaining with Tampa Bay after the deadline, Yzerman declined to answer. But Yzerman made it clear he isn't giving anyone away.
It's hard to know what the market is for goaltenders. Calgary, which is in town Thursday, may have some interest. And Bishop, who has a partial no-trade clause, already considered the Flames enough over the summer to talk contract.
But for now, Bishop remains. Just don't expect him to get all the starts. Cooper said Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has also played well, will continue to get time, too.
"There's no sense in sitting here saying, 'We're going to ride one,' " Cooper said. "Is playing one guy two in a row riding him? I say playing someone 10 games in a row is riding him. I don't see that happening."
Cooper said the team's improved defensive play and Bishop's resurgence go hand in hand. While it can, the Lightning should hand the net to Bishop.
"I feel like I'm getting some bounces now, not getting many fluky ones," Bishop said. "Guys are playing well and it's kind of a snowball effect. Hopefully we can keep building."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Palat 12 (Kucherov), 4:26. Penalties—Hedman, TB, (tripping), 5:29.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Palat 13 (Johnson, Kucherov), 0:16. 3, Edmonton, Pakarinen 1 (Klefbom, Larsson), 10:17. Penalties—Benning, EDM, (hooking), 17:51.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 22 (Stralman, Johnson), 0:49. 5, Tampa Bay, Namestnikov 8 (Kucherov), 19:59. Penalties—Lucic, EDM, (cross checking), 1:21; Dotchin, TB, (unsportsmanlike conduct), 1:21. Shots on Goal—Edmonton 7-9-5—21. Tampa Bay 12-10-6—28. Power-play opportunities—Edmonton 0 of 1; Tampa Bay 0 of 1. Goalies—Edmonton, Brossoit 1-1-0 (27 shots-24 saves). Tampa Bay, Bishop 16-12-3 (21-20). A—19,092 (19,092). Referees—Frederick L'Ecuyer, Chris Rooney. Linesmen—Devin Berg, John Grandt.