TAMPA — When your team is still playing hockey in late June, no one questions your methods.
Trade draft picks? No problem. Trade prospects, too? It’s gotta be done. Push the salary cap, sign older players, spend millions on long-term injured reserve cases, take risks on rental players? All included in the price of success.
But, eventually, July arrives and so do the questions, doubts and dilemmas.
Yes, the Lightning can still be a force in the NHL in 2022-23. Any team with Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman is undoubtedly a contender.
General manger Julien BriseBois has done a brilliant job keeping the core of this team together, and the victories still coming, for the better part of a decade. The Lightning have been in 46 more playoff games than any franchise in the league since 2015. Forty-six! That’s the very definition of dominance.
But the calculations are getting harder and harder to come by, and the future is coming faster and faster. The farm system is fairly bare, and the roster was among the oldest in the postseason.
Starting in February 2018, the Lightning have dealt six first-round draft picks and three second-round picks to acquire Ryan McDonagh, Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, David Savard, Brandon Hagel and some long-term injured reserve players to create salary-cap space.
They have also traded prospects they had picked in the first rounds in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2019 (and three others from the second round) in deals for Blake Coleman, Mikhail Sergachev, Jan Rutta and others.
That’s 11 first-round picks and six second-round picks between 2012 and 2024 that are no longer part of Tampa Bay’s plans. That’s an entire generation of prospects sacrificed for immediate help.
Was it worth it?
Without a doubt.
Two Stanley Cups and four trips to the Eastern Conference finals in the past five seasons make it a no-brainer.
The question is whether you continue pushing that envelope, or start planning for a different kind of future. The answer is not quite as automatic as years past, but it still seems pretty obvious.
The window may be inching shut for this particular group of players, but it’s not closed yet. And you can’t cheat yourself out of a chance for the 2023 Stanley Cup by worrying about the 2024 regular season.
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“I think it’s a balance,” BriseBois said Tuesday morning. “I think our core guys are still in the prime of their careers. I don’t see it as mileage as much as valuable experience they have they can draw upon in the future when we go on another playoff run.”
So what does that mean specifically?
Nick Paul and Ondrej Palat are unrestricted free agents (along with Rutta) and the Lightning are not likely to re-sign both forwards under current cap conditions. So do you let one walk away? Or do you test the market to see if you might be able to move the final year of Alex Killorn’s contract?
Dealing Killorn, who will be 33 in September and has a limited no-trade contract, would not be ideal, but the Lightning have shown a willingness in the past to part with fan favorites to create needed cap space. And, at this, point there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution among other players under contract.
And if there was one obvious deficiency on this roster in the postseason it was a lack of speed against younger, faster teams such as Florida, New York and Colorado.
“You start with, who are the players that drive the bus and contribute the most to the success of the team looking ahead,” BriseBois said. “We’re not looking back, we’re always looking ahead.
“You make sure you secure them and then whatever is left in terms of cap space, you use that, you use your draft picks, you use your owner’s financial resources, you use all of your other assets to surround that core with as good a support group as possible. Guys that complement the core and build a championship team.”
The core remains the same, and the chance to contend still exists. It’s just a question of what the Lightning are willing to do to pull off one more championship run.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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