GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Lightning's annual organizational meetings took place this weekend, scouts and executives gathering at a Scottsdale, Ariz., resort.
General manager Steve Yzerman has a lot to think about.
It doesn't appear Yzerman is considering a coaching change, recently telling the Tampa Bay Times that coach Jon Cooper is "doing an excellent job." But there are six weeks until the March 1 trade deadline, and this is when Yzerman evaluates the team's needs and strategy for it.
The Lightning is in desperation mode, closer to the Eastern Conference cellar than a playoff spot. Tampa Bay is fortunate Boston has struggled. It is just five points behind the third-place Bruins in the Atlantic Division with one game in hand, but Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Coyotes put it last in the division, with four teams between it and Boston. You have to wonder if the next several weeks could decide if the preseason Stanley Cup favorite is a buyer or seller at the deadline. It may also determine some players' futures.
Yzerman has been trying to improve via trade, but he has called this the most difficult market he has seen. So many teams, including Tampa Bay, still feel within striking distance of the playoffs and don't want to make a move. The salary cap is limiting. There's a sense among the Lightning that what is available via trade requires Yzerman sacrificing more long term for a short-term fix, and that doesn't seem like something he'd want to do.
The situation is complicated.
• Goalie Ben Bishop may be a top trade chip because he's heading into unrestricted free agency. But Tampa Bay needs the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist if it wants to get back into the playoff picture, and heading into Saturday's loss, Bishop had been sharp since returning from a lower-body injury last week. All appears quiet on the Bishop front for now, and it's very possible Bishop, who has a partial no-move clause in his contract, ends the season with Tampa Bay. The goalie market is flooded, with the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury and the Islanders' Jaroslav Halak among possible trade targets. It's hard to see Tampa Bay netting a huge return with Bishop a few months from free agency.
• It's hard to imagine the Lightning being able to afford all of forwards Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, who can be restricted free agents this summer. Drouin, 21, shouldn't be going anywhere; the 2013 draft's No. 3 overall pick has emerged as a dynamic go-to-guy. Does Tampa Bay at least listen to offers for Johnson? He was an All-Star in 2014-15 and is a clutch postseason performer, but he hasn't had the type of impact some expected since C Steven Stamkos went out with a knee injury in mid November.
• Keep an eye on the Blues. GM Doug Armstrong caught the Lightning games Monday and Tuesday in Southern California after the Blues finished their West Coast trip. It could have been coincidence and convenience, but good friends Armstrong and Yzerman both need to make a move. And their teams scouted each other heavily last season after Drouin requested a trade. The Blues are struggling at center, a position at which Tampa Bay has depth, and the Lightning needs a top-four defenseman. Would center Valtteri Filppula, who must be protected in June's expansion draft due to a partial no-move clause, consider a move if the Lightning is out of contention?
The Lightning is expected to get a superstar center (Stamkos) back in March. But by then it might be too late.
DROUIN IT: Drouin's highlight-reel filled week was another example of his growing comfort with and confidence in playing in the league. Drouin said the game began slowing for him a few months ago; he has been able to see the ice like he did in a dominating junior career in Halifax. That has showed; Drouin had 23 points in his past 22 games entering Saturday.
SLAP SHOTS: What an impressive job by first-year AHL Syracuse coach Benoit Groulx, who has the Crunch in first place in the North Division despite losing 11 callups to the Lightning and now playing with five players on professional tryout contracts. Could see Groulx in contention for NHL jobs in coming years. … Owner Jeff Vinik was at the first three games of the Lightning's trip in California with his son.