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Lightning more likely to lose than add pieces at start of NHL free agency

General manager Julien BriseBois said the team has to prioritize clearing cap space before it can add to its core.
Forward Blake Coleman, who scored one of the most memorable goals in Lightning history, is likely to enter free agency, his agent said Tuesday.
Forward Blake Coleman, who scored one of the most memorable goals in Lightning history, is likely to enter free agency, his agent said Tuesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 27
Updated Jul. 28

TAMPA — Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois is building a puzzle.

He has the corner pieces sorted — goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, captain Steven Stamkos, postseason scoring leader Nikita Kucherov and Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman are the foundations of this franchise.

He has some of the edge pieces intact — defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, Cal Foote and Mikhail Sergachev and forwards Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli and Ross Colton have proven themselves invaluable in a short time with the Lightning.

But now BriseBois is on to a bigger task: figuring out the pieces to fill in the center. Which brings us to today’s start of free agency.

Related: Lightning’s Tyler Johnson traded to Blackhawks

Following the departures of center Yanni Gourde to Seattle in the expansion draft and wing Barclay Goodrow to the Rangers, it’s likely that Tampa Bay will lose its entire third line.

Wing Blake Coleman (whose diving goal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final is one of the most memorable in franchise history), in addition to defensemen David Savard (who set up Colton’s Cup-clincher in Game 5) and Luke Schenn are scheduled to enter free agency.

Coleman’s agent, Brian Bartlett, said Tuesday afternoon that he expected his client to do just that.

“Unless something totally unexpected happens,” Bartlett said, “our understanding is that Tampa doesn’t have the cap space to bring back Blake, despite a mutual interest in coming back.”

Related: Lightning community rallies behind Sonya Bryson-Kirksey with fundraiser, T-shirt

BriseBois said following Saturday’s amateur draft that Goodrow and Gourde wouldn’t be the only players the Lightning lose this offseason, something that was borne out by the trade late Tuesday of veteran forward Tyler Johnson to the Blackhawks. Tampa Bay cleared $5 million in cap space without taking on any additional salary since defenseman Brent Seabrook, who was acquired in the trade, will be placed on long-term injury reserve for the remainder of his contract.

BriseBois said the development of some of the organization’s younger players, such as forwards Colton and Alex Barre-Boulet and defenseman Cal Foote, will be crucial to making up for those losses.

“I don’t expect us to make any splash when the market opens,” BriseBois said. “We just don’t have the cap space to do that. We still have to move some money off of our cap as it is. But I am comfortable that we have some young players that are ready to assume a bigger role.”

On Monday, the team issued qualifying offers to seven of its younger players, including Colton, Barre-Boulet and Foote, who are restricted free agents. By issuing the offers, the Lightning maintain the right of first refusal or draft pick compensation should any of the players choose to sign an offer sheet with another NHL team.

Related: Lightning draft defenseman Roman Schmidt with top pick

Colton and Foote worked their way into regular spots in the lineup this past season, Colton capitalizing on the opportunity to play in the playoffs. Foote ultimately lost his spot when the team acquired Savard, a 10-year veteran, just before the trade deadline.

With the loss of Goodrow, and likely Coleman, the Lightning will need to reevaluate their special teams, as well, especially when it comes to the penalty kill.

Goodrow and Coleman joined McDonagh and Cernak on the top unit of one of the best penalty-killing teams in the league (the Lightning finished with fourth at 82.4-percent efficiency). Gourde also logged time on Tampa Bay’s second power-play unit.

Related: Did Lightning find first-round value in fourth round of NHL draft?

While BriseBois doesn’t expect the Lightning to be active at the start of free agency, the Johnson trade should alleviate some of the pressure to move a player such as Alex Killorn or Ondrej Palat, who like Johnson, sit in that $5 million salary range.

Other players who haven’t taken that NHL step yet also will be key for the Lightning. Players like forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk are “knocking at the door,” while Mathieu Joseph and Mitchell Stephens might be prepared to move into bigger roles.

“They’re ready to be presented with an opportunity to put their best foot forward and show that they belong in the show, as well,” BriseBois said. “I would expect a lot of the holes that are being created right now are going to end up being filled by our younger players, are going to be filled organically.”

Lightning free agents

Players who who spent time in the NHL this past season who are scheduled to become free agents on Wednesday.

Unrestricted

Blake Coleman, forward

Christopher Gibson, goaltender

Curtis McElhinney, goaltender

David Savard, defenseman

Luke Schenn, defenseman

Restricted

Alex Barre-Boulet, forward *

Ross Colton forward *

Cal Foote, defenseman *

* Issued qualifying offers

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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