TAMPA — The Lightning’s search to be their best when it matters most — in the postseason — is a year-round process. But with the trade deadline (March 3) approaching, general manager Julien BriseBois’ search to upgrade the roster will intensify.
As has been the case in recent years, it will be difficult to make a deal. During this time of the year, BriseBois works hard to temper expectations, but still manages to sift through salary-cap limitations and dwindling draft capital to improve the team, as he did last season with the acquisitions of forwards Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel.
Speaking Tuesday morning during midseason media availability, BriseBois said he likes where the Lightning are, entrenched in a playoff position and right around where they typically have been at this time of year in terms of point percentage.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve set ourselves up to make the playoffs and now we’re going to use the second half to solidify that ...,” BriseBois said.
“We’ve been very fortunate the last few years. I’ve been able to make different moves that I think have helped our group and pushed it forward. We’re going to be on the lookout for that again this year because I do believe we’re a Stanley Cup contender and anything we can do to push this team over the top, I think it’s my duty to do that.”
The Lightning currently have $719,000 in cap space, less than the league minimum of $750,000. And after unloading two first-round picks at last year’s deadline to acquire Hagel, they don’t have a first-round pick the next two seasons to use as a negotiating tool.
BriseBois said any move the Lightning might make would likely be a money-in, money-out one, similar how they acquired Paul; the team traded forward Mathieu Joseph along with a first-round pick. Paul, a pending free agent at the time, signed a seven-year contract extension this offseason to remain in Tampa after helping the Lightning reach the Cup final again.
Since 2020, the Lightning have traded away five first-round picks in deals for Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, David Savard and Hagel, and all helped the Lightning get deep into the postseason, with the first three aiding in the Lightning’s Cup titles. And while tradeable assets have diminished, BriseBois said that the stars aligned for the Lightning to have a championship-caliber team full of high-end players in their prime at the same time. And as long as that window is clearly open, he will do everything he can to help this group win another Cup.
“I think going into this year, I felt like we were set up to be a Stanley Cup contender and I wanted us to have no regret when it’s all said and done,” he said. “Let’s capitalize on the opportunity that we have this season to hopefully go on another magical run.”
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BriseBois said that the trade market has been very quiet league-wide — “like crickets” — but he expects more discussions as teams fall out of the race, become sellers and the availability of players becomes clearer. He is confident that opportunities to get better will present themselves.
The Lightning’s professional scouting and analytics departments have been successful in finding those fits, players who can contribute immediately and down the road. And they have a veteran locker room that makes newcomers quickly feel comfortable and that they’re a part of something special. Paul loved his time in Tampa so much that he wanted to return, and the Lightning paid a premium for Hagel because he was on a team-friendly deal and only become a restricted free agent after the 2023-24 season.
BriseBois noted that it is too soon to really tell what kind of player they could pursue, but said someone who can “help defend and make us a harder team to play against” would be attractive. The Lightning have allowed 3.00 goals a game, most allowed through their first 45 games since 2012-13 (3.13), Jon Cooper’s first season as head coach.
“We gave up a lot of short-handed goals against,” BriseBois said. “We’ve given up goals late and games where really there’s no reason to give up those goals. And they haven’t really cost us points ... but (have cost us) in the emotion of the win.”
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