Steve Yzerman’s summer plans: Make the Lightning better

Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman addresses the media the day after the Lightning's playoff run ended. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman addresses the media the day after the Lightning's playoff run ended. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published May 25, 2018|Updated May 26, 2018

TAMPA — Captain Steven Stamkos said the Lightning's window for contending for a Stanley Cup championship is not closing.

"I think it's wide open," he said Thursday, one day after the Lightning lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final to the Capitals.

General manager Steve Yzerman thinks it is, too, and it is Yzerman's job to keep that window open.

Yzerman's team fell one game shy of reaching the Stanley Cup final, which indicates to him it is not good enough to win it all. How does he fix that? Not by blowing up the roster, he said. But, he added, the team has to be better.

"And how is that? Is that in the way we play? Is that in changing personnel? Personnel will change regardless, whether it's just evolution year to year," Yzerman said Thursday. "How much it changes depends on what options, what opportunities are out there. It's difficult to change significantly for us at this stage. It's a challenge. We need to improve."

And improving the team is Yzerman's main job.

Does he do it through free agency, like last summer, when he signed defenseman Dan Girardi and forward Chris Kunitz? Or a trade, like he did last summer, when he swapped forward Jonathan Drouin for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev? Does he bring up some kids, like he did with forwards Yanni Gourde and, late in the season, Tony Cirelli? Does he make changes to coach Jon Cooper's staff?

"You kind of look at everything," he said.

Kunitz can be an unrestricted free agent July 1. So can defenseman Andrej Sustr. Forward Matthew Peca can be an unrestricted free agent.

Headed to restricted free agency are forwards J.T. Miller, Cedric Paquette and Adam Erne, defenseman Slater Koekkoek and goalie Louis Domingue.

Plus, forward Nikita Kucherov is eligible to sign a contract extension July 1.

Also, forward Tyler Johnson's no-trade clause kicks in July 1, so that is something to be considered.

The players naturally believe in the current group and will reassemble in early September for training camp intent on reaching their goal, which is the same one they have had since 2015, when they lost to the Blackhawks in the Cup final.

"I definitely think we're capable," forward Ryan Callahan said. "Our body of work has shown that we're right there. The guys that we have in that (locker) room have the ability to take that next step. The core has been together for quite a while and accomplished some good things. We want to win together, that's for sure."

The core, with a few tweaks, will remain largely intact for the 2018-19 season.

Kunitz, who will be 38 in September, might find a better offer elsewhere. Sustr and Koekkoek, healthy scratches toward the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, could do well with a change of scenery.
There could be a trade or two, mostly minor unless Yzerman moves Johnson while he still has the flexibility.

Cooper said there is a "razor-thin" line between the top teams in the league and those at the bottom. He believes his team is poised to get over that Eastern Conference final hump after stumbling in a Game 7 during the 2016 playoffs and again this spring. He believes the Lightning had the talent to do that this year but added it has to improve.

The Capitals improved last offseason, not by adding a big piece, but by adding younger, faster players. It helped them that Alex Ovechkin, their best player, changed his game to become more of a two-way player.

Perhaps one of the Lightning's top scorers could do the same. That is one way to keep the Stanley-Cup-contender window open.

"When you have a guy like (Andrei Vasilevskiy) in net, that's what you build upon," Stamkos said. "And we have so many great young players, the expectations are going to be just as high. It's about fulfilling them."

Getting back to the question at heart: Is this Lightning team good enough or does Yzerman have a lot of work ahead of him this offseason?

"I don't know if there is an exact answer for you," Yzerman said. "We'll find out a year from now. We'll try to improve. We need to be better. A lot of positives (this season). Got to Game 7 of the conference finals, but ultimately, if we're trying to win the Stanley Cup, we need to improve."

Noteworthy: The NHL awards are June 20 in Las Vegas, with Victor Hedman a finalist for the Norris Trophy (top defenseman), Vasilevskiy a finalist for the Vezina Trophy (top goalie) and Yzerman a finalist for GM of the year. . . . The draft is June 22-23 in Dallas.

Contact Roger Mooney at Follow @rogermooney50.