TAMPA — The Lightning is rolling, picking up a point in six straight games, a season high.
Tampa Bay entered Monday just five points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
And that certainly complicates things for Lightning GM Steve Yzerman heading into the March 1 trade deadline.
That holds especially true when it comes to what to do with pending unrestricted free agents like Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle. It would also help to know if captain Steven Stamkos will play this season; Yzerman said Stamkos has done light skating and is progressing, but he's still on the four-to six-month recovery timeline from mid November knee surgery.
"We're fighting to try to get one of the eight playoff spots," Yzerman said. "This is a good thing, we're playing well, we're winning games. Does it make it a little bit more difficult as to what direction to go? I guess. It's not just 'buyers' and 'sellers.' You can be somewhere in the middle of that, too.
"We're competing for a playoff spot, so if I'm going to move people. I'm not just giving people away here. If it makes sense, I'll do it. If it doesn't make sense, I'm not. It's not a fire sale."
Yzerman hasn't discussed specific needs, though you'd have to imagine the blueline would be a key area of focus; the Lightning and the defensemen-rich Predators have been scouting each other recently. But Yzerman said Tampa Bay is not looking at acquiring a rental player. He noted that a lot of decisions have to be make for the long term, whether that's done this week or this summer.
Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin are all restricted free agents after the season, when there will be another cap crunch. If the Lightning can move a contract like Valtteri Filppula's or Jason Garrison's, that could free up space. Even if Bishop leaves as an unrestricted free agent, that's $6 million the Lightning can spend elsewhere.
With many teams having cap issues, trades are challenging. And Yzerman said the June expansion draft has become part of conversations.
"You're acquiring a player and forcing yourself to make another decision," Yzerman said. "Protection issues, that is a factor in acquiring and trading players."
There have been questions whether draft picks are valued as much at this deadline considering what's being considered a weak draft. But Yzerman argues the contrary.
"I think the deadline is changing, we've kind of watched that over the years that teams that are so-called buyers aren't as aggressive as they've been in the past," Yzerman said. "So you might argue the other position, that picks become more valuable."
Stamkos would be a huge in-house deadline acquisition. His return this season is still uncertain but hasn't been ruled out, Yzerman said. The same holds true for wing Ryan Callahan (hip), with the Lightning expecting to have clarity this week. Callahan has been rehabbing his surgically repaired right hip the past five weeks and has a follow-up with doctors scheduled this week.
If Stamkos and Callahan aren't coming back this season, that would free up significant cap space. But if they return, and come off long-term injured reserve, Tampa Bay has to account for the remaining cap hit.
"Right now, we're acting that we have to be in a situation to be compliant when both players come back," Yzerman said.
The decisions on Bishop and Boyle could be tough. Boyle has reportedly drawn interest from the Maple Leafs, Oilers and Blue Jackets, but he's the kind of versatile veteran you need for a playoff run. Bishop has been playing his best hockey of the season, winning his past four starts. That could certainly boost his trade value. But could keeping Bishop be Tampa Bay's best shot at getting to the postseason?
"I think we all would love a clearer picture of exactly what we want to do," Yzerman said. "But it doesn't always work out that way."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.