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The Lightning just lost six players, but not their superiority

John Romano | Depth could be a problem for the reigning Stanley Cup champions, but Tampa Bay still has the best core group of players in the NHL.
When you begin a game with Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brayden Point in your lineup, you're going to have more good nights than bad.
When you begin a game with Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brayden Point in your lineup, you're going to have more good nights than bad. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 29

TAMPA — Yes, it’s officially over for the Lightning. The era, that is, not the winning. Definitely not the winning.

So say goodbye to Johnny and Yanni. And remember to thank Blake and Barclay on their way out the door. The old gang will never be together again on the ice, and that’s a melancholy thought this morning.

But hold your tears for some other sporting mishap, because the Lightning will be just fine.

Will they be the favorites to win a third Stanley Cup in a row in 2022? Perhaps not, but they’re certainly among the top half-dozen teams who will begin the season in October with a realistic chance at eventually showering in champagne.

It’s the subtle difference between a team that’s supposed to win, and a team that’s able to win.

“We’re not going to be the same team,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “But our top-six is the same. Our D-corps is pretty much the same. We still have Andrei Vasilevskiy there as the best goaltender in the world helping us win games. Our first power-play unit is the same.”

So what’s different? The entire third line is gone, and that’s a blow. A couple of useful defensemen have left, too. And, of course, Tyler Johnson has been traded after nine years and too many happy moments to recount.

And while none of those moves were preferable, they were inevitable. The NHL’s salary cap finally accomplished what the Bruins, the Islanders, the Stars and the Canadiens were unable to do the past two seasons.

“We had an abundance of riches that was not sustainable,” BriseBois said. “Having that deep of a roster at both forward and on D, it wasn’t sustainable in a flat (salary) cap world, which is why we all really wanted to capitalize on the opportunity that was presented to us to win the Stanley Cup in 2021, and it’s why we pushed even more chips into the middle of the table to bring in David Savard.”

So Savard is gone to Montreal as a free agent after a brief stay on the third defensive pairing. And Yanni Gourde was claimed by Seattle in the expansion draft, Barclay Goodrow signed with the Rangers and Blake Coleman went to Calgary. Even Luke Schenn has gone on to greater riches in Vancouver. That’s a lot of familiar faces, but not necessarily irreplaceable pieces.

Look at it this way:

The Lightning used 21 players in the last postseason and they just lost six of them. If you divided those 21 players into three groups based on their value, the Lightning did not lose any of their top seven performers. They might have lost 4-5 of the middle seven, and 1-2 of the bottom seven.

That’s a lot of talent, and a lot of depth, to replace.

But it’s not as if the roster was devastated.

“The reality is, either guys that were already on the team are going to be asked to do more and maybe play a different role, and some of the young guys are going to be asked to fill in the holes, as well,” BriseBois said. “It’s a combination of things.

“When you look at the players that are going to be in our opening night lineup, assuming everyone is healthy, it’s a really competitive team and there’s lot of reasons to be optimistic about next season.”

This is what made the Johnson trade a masterstroke. It’s not that Johnson didn’t have value, but his $5 million salary for each of the next three seasons was too much of a burden for a team filled with superstars to handle.

So for the price of Tampa Bay’s second-round draft pick in 2023 — and $6.875 million of owner Jeff Vinik’s money to pay Brent Seabrook to come from Chicago and sit on long term injured reserve for two years — BriseBois will be able to sign restricted free agents such as Ross Colton, Cal Foote, Alex Barre-Boulet and a couple of other younger players to fill in all of those new gaps.

It’s not ideal. Some of the new guys will inevitably turn out to be disappointments. And the rowdiness of that third line with Gourde, Coleman and Goodrow will be difficult to replicate with so many young players.

But BriseBois has already hedged his bets with a couple of under-the-radar signings. Zach Bogosian is back on a team-friendly deal (three years at $850,000 per season) and is a pretty even swap for Savard. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was another bargain signing (two years for $2 million) and will take some of the Goodrow/Coleman minutes on the penalty kill, as well as being excellent on faceoffs.

And if it hurts your soul to say goodbye to so many popular players so quickly, just remember that Vasilevskiy is still in goal. And Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov are still on the top line. And Victor Hedman is still on the blue line.

That’s four of the NHL’s top 20 players in one lineup.

Try finding another team that can say the same thing.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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