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Any way you slice it, Lightning’s depth will be exposed in expansion draft

The Stanley Cup champs have tough decisions to make for protection lists. Regardless, they’ll lose a valued player to Seattle.
Ryan McDonagh was arguably the top defenseman in the postseason. Will the Lightning risk leaving him unprotected for the expansion draft, thinking the Kraken won't take on his salary, or will other players like Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson go unprotected instead?
Ryan McDonagh was arguably the top defenseman in the postseason. Will the Lightning risk leaving him unprotected for the expansion draft, thinking the Kraken won't take on his salary, or will other players like Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson go unprotected instead? [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 17
Updated Jul. 18

TAMPA — For nearly two months, the rest of the NHL had a close-up look at what a championship team looks like, including Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis, who watched at least one Lightning playoff game with a bird’s-eye view from the Amalie Arena press box.

Now Francis can pick from the Lightning’s treasure trove of depth pieces in building his team from scratch in Wednesday’s expansion draft.

In a lot of ways, it’s a no-lose situation for the Kraken, who begin play next season.

Building an expansion team is much like putting together a puzzle, picking the right pieces to form a competitive roster. But the expansion format now is built to allow first-year clubs to be competitive right away. The Golden Knights advanced to the Stanley Cup final in their first year, 2017-18. The lost to the Capitals.

Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois has been in regular contact with the Kraken, discussing trade scenarios that would allow him to determine who on his roster goes to Seattle. But any deal would involve a draft-pick sweetener, and Tampa Bay is running low on picks after dealing some to help it build back-to-back Cup champions.

The Lightning on Saturday submitted their list of protected players for the expansion draft; the list will be released by the league today. Teams had two options for making their protected list: a combination of seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender, or eight skaters regardless of position and a goaltender.

“There isn’t one (factor) that’s overriding,” BriseBois said about choosing which players to protect. “Ultimately, we’re trying to keep the strongest group possible so that we can hopefully get on another ride and bring the Cup back again next year.”

Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh upends Canadiens right wing Josh Anderson during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh upends Canadiens right wing Josh Anderson during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Ultimately, the Lightning’s biggest decision was expected to be whether to protect veteran Ryan McDonagh, whose stock skyrocketed during a postseason in which he arguably was the league’s top defenseman.

If the Lightning chose to protect him, they likely protected four defensemen total: McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. That would have left four forwards to protect. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos have no-move clauses; any player with a no-movement clause must be protected unless he waives it. The other two forward spots presumably went to Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli.

That scenario would have left several key pieces to the Lightning’s Cup runs vulnerable, including veteran forwards Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson, all of whom make between $4.45 million and $5.3 million.

And even if those four forwards weren’t protected and one isn’t drafted by Seattle, the Lightning might be forced to move one — maybe two — to get under the $81.5 million salary cap.

The best teams are built from the back out. A good goaltender is needed, but after that, building a stout defense corps is paramount to winning, especially in the postseason, which is what we saw from the Lightning during the past two playoff runs.

If the Lightning opted to leave McDonagh unprotected, would the Kraken take him? McDonagh turned 32 last month, and he’s owed $6.75 million a year for the next five seasons. That’s a huge financial commitment for a new team to take on. But there might not be a player available with a better combination of playoff experience, leadership and toughness to build a defense around.

“I would assume that would be the guy that Seattle would take,” Lightning TV broadcast analyst Brian Engblom said. “I certainly would. What a player, what a person he is. That would be the cornerstone of your (defense) all around. He’s top level. So if you decide to go that route, I think you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose him.”

Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph, right, or left wing Ross Colton may possible be up for grabs for the Seattle Kraken.
Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph, right, or left wing Ross Colton may possible be up for grabs for the Seattle Kraken. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Other possible options for the Kraken: one of the Lightning’s younger — and cheaper — contributors, such as forwards Ross Colton or Mathieu Joseph, or defenseman Cal Foote, all of whom are in line for significant roles next season because of the inevitable cap-induced turnover.

When Vegas entered the league four years ago, the Lightning, also handcuffed by cap issues then, dealt veteran defenseman Jason Garrison and his $4.6 million salary to the Golden Knights. They also shipped forward prospect Nikita Gusev and swapped a second-round pick in that year’s draft for a fourth-rounder the following year.

That trade allowed the Lightning to keep a pair of young defensemen, Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek, neither of whom are still with them. Koekkoek was traded to Chicago in 2019 in a deal that netted current Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta.

Expansion-draft wrangling could be the start of a trade-heavy offseason.

On Saturday, the Lightning traded the rights to forward Barclay Goodrow, who can be an unrestricted free agent July 28, to the Rangers for a seventh-round pick in next year’s draft.

The Lightning also have forward Blake Coleman and defenseman David Savard who can be unrestricted free agents.

The league’s expansion draft trade/waiver freeze went into effect 3 p.m. Saturday and goes through 1 p.m. Thursday.

With the amateur draft Friday and Saturday, and then free agency opening four days after that, the Lightning will be busy with the No. 1 priority of clearing cap space.

“I would expect that once we’ve passed the expansion draft, I think there will be a certain number of trades coming up,” BriseBois said of the league. “(Other teams are) looking for players and maybe they have cap issues of their own, so there’s a lot of chatter going on, as there usually is at this time of the year.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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