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With playoffs iffy, Nesterov deal could be just the start of Lightning trades

Facebook picture of Joe Smith. (John Pendygraft | TIMES)
Facebook picture of Joe Smith. (John Pendygraft | TIMES)
Published Jan. 29, 2017

TAMPA — Lightning GM Steve Yzerman finally made a move.

It wasn't the blockbuster trade fans were hoping for: D Nikita Nesterov was dealt Thursday to the Canadiens for defense prospect Jonathan Racine and a sixth-round draft pick this year.

But could the trade be just the tip of the iceberg for Lightning moves ahead of the March 1 trade deadline? That's what Elliotte Friedman of Canada's Sportsnet suggested Friday on Calgary radio.

Yzerman isn't expected to blow up his roster by next month, nor should he. The Lightning was a preseason Stanley Cup favorite for a reason. A strong core is in place, and Yzerman prefers to add to it rather than break it up.

But with the Lightning a long shot to make the playoffs right now, it makes sense for Yzerman to consider moves that could help him prepare for June's expansion draft and the salary cap crunch looming this summer. That's why you'll see G Ben Bishop's name continue to surface in trade rumors. Tampa Bay likely wants to see if it can get something for the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, as opposed to losing him for nothing this summer as an unrestricted free agent.

Holding on to Bishop for a full season was a good plan when it was for another Cup run. But with no playoffs? This is not to say that Bishop, with a partial no-move clause in his contract, will get traded. But a trade is worth exploring in that context.

It's also worth listening to offers for C Tyler Johnson, especially if the Lightning doesn't believe it can afford Johnson and forwards Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat this summer, when all can be restricted free agents. Yzerman could wait until the offseason and sort it all out.

But don't be surprised if Yzerman gets a head start this month.

ON THE MOVE: Though the Nesterov trade didn't net a hefty return — Racine is a lower-level prospect — it made sense. And it was something both sides wanted.

The Lightning, which would have likely lost Nesterov on waivers if it had tried to send him down to AHL Syracuse, got something for the depth defenseman, who was set to be a restricted free agent this summer. Tampa Bay wanted to keep D Luke Witkowski, who also must go through waivers to be sent down, and this opens a lineup spot.

Nesterov wanted to stay in Tampa Bay, but he also wanted to play. He was a healthy scratch 13 times this season with the Lightning and struggled to stick full time. Agent Dan Milstein asked Yzerman if Nesterov could get a chance with another team if ice time wasn't available with the Lightning.

Nesterov thanked the team, city and fans in an Instagram post. "He loved the team and the city," Milstein said. "But in the end, it was about furthering his hockey career."

HIS TURN: Nesterov's trade doesn't necessarily mean that D Slater Koekkoek is on his way to Tampa.

Koekkoek got sent back to Syracuse this month, and it appears he might remain there. Yzerman said that with Koekkoek not needing to go through waivers, the 2012 first-round pick is better off getting more minutes in the AHL.

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"He's an important part of our future, and I see a very bright future for him still," Yzerman said. "So if we need a left(-handed) shot or we feel Slater will come up and play a lot, then I'll bring him back up."

You can make a case that it would be better for Koekkoek's development to get NHL playing time, but that's a column for another day.

NUTS AND BOLTS: RW Ryan Callahan hasn't been asked to waive his no-move clause for the expansion draft, so he wouldn't have to be protected in the draft for players for the Las Vegas team that will begin play next season. … D Jake Dotchin was reassigned to Syracuse on Saturday. … LW Michael Bournival and C Gabriel Dumont cleared waivers.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.