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Offseason already underway, how Tampa Bay Lightning might approach expansion draft strategy



by Erik Erlendsson | @Erik_Erlendsson | Like us on Facebook
July 14, 2021

TAMPA – The buzz has yet to wear off for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the dent in the Stanley Cup
is yet to be fully hammered out and the wake from the parade still resonates through the waters around the Channelside District.

Next season, however, is already here.

Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois and his staff barely had enough time to sip the champagne and beer out of the Cup before the focus quickly shifted.

And the first order of business is to prepare for next week’s expansion draft as the Seattle Kraken select a 30-man roster ahead of their inaugural season.

The Lightning have some interesting decision to make when it comes to their protection list, which is due to the league by Saturday. With intrigue over who will be left exposed and the possibility of a side deal made with the Kraken ahead of the expansion draft on July 21, it will be an interesting coming days for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions when it comes to their roster for next season.

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First, a quick refresher on the expansion draft rules.

Vegas is exempt from the draft, which means Seattle will be picking one player from the remaining 30 teams in the league. The Kraken must draft a team that consists of at least 20 players under contract for the 2021-22 season and come in at least a cumulative of 60-percent of the $81.5 million salary cap. Of the 30 players selected, Seattle must choose at least 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders.

The list of protected players are due to the league on Saturday with those lists being released on Sunday. The expansion draft will be held at 8 p.m. in Seattle on July 21 and carried by ESPN2.

This, of course, means that every team in the league (except Vegas) will lose one player, and only one player.

For the defending Stanley Cup champions, there’s a good chance they lose a player who just helped them along a 282-day journey to become just the second team in the salary cap era to repeat as champions. And the depth that proved to be the Lightning’s greatest asset during that run will take a significant hit.

Barring any potential side deals pulled off by BriseBois – similar to 2017 when Tampa Bay gave up a second- and fourth-round pick and the rights to Nikita Gusev so Vegas would take Jason Garrison – the Lightning have a bit of a dilemma to deal with when it comes to choosing who to protect.

As a reminder, any player with a no move clause in their contract must be protected unless they agree to waive it for the purpose of the expansion draft. No Lightning players among the three with a NMC were asked to waive them.

So, what direction might Tampa Bay lean when it comes to determining which option to choose when it comes to protection?

It is very tempting to flirt with the idea of protecting more than three defensemen. Tampa Bay does not have the depth on the back end that there is among the forward group, a big reason why the Lightning added David Savard at the trade deadline.

But it makes more sense to utilize protecting two additional forwards to maximize protecting the overall depth the Lightning do have, particularly when the likely loss of pending unrestricted free agents Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow are factored in to the thought process.

Tampa Bay also has two forwards who have the NMC in their contract and will be on the protected list – Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

In analyzing the forward group as a whole, the protected list will include: Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Stamkos and Kucherov. And if the team opts to utilize the eight skater option, then those would be the only forwards on this list. This is why protecting three more forwards makes more sense for Tampa Bay.

And there are two prevailing thoughts when it comes to who the other three forwards on this list might be.

Logic suggests that Yanni Gourde makes his way on to this list, he was so valuable in the postseason with his work during 5-on-5 play with Goodrow and Coleman.

But what might be interesting is who the other two forwards might wind up being.

The first theory is the most logical, those final two spots are reserved for Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn, which keeps the top six forwards intact and maintains consistency with Gourde as the third line center.

What about this thought? What if, knowing that Tampa Bay needs to shed salary and will be in need of players on cheaper contracts to fill roles, instead the Lightning look to expose Palat, Killorn and Tyler Johnson, all of whom carry a a salary cap hit in the $5 million range, and protect Ross Colton or Mathieu Joseph or Alex Barre-Boulet instead. Colton, the goal-scoring hero in the Cup clinching Game 5 against Montreal, is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Barre-Boulet is a restricted free agent coming out of his entry level deal, as are Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk. Joseph and Mitchell Stephens both one year remaining on their contracts.

So, I’d venture on the forward protected list looking like this:

Stamkos, Kucherov, Point, Cirelli, Gourde, Palat, Killorn

The alternate list would look like this:

Stamkos, Kucherov, Point, Cirelli, Gourde, Colton, Joseph

The defense is a bit easier, though it does offer a bit of an issue when it comes to the limited depth the team already has on the back end. And there is a parameter that must be addressed as each team just expose at least one defenseman who is under contract in 2021-22 and played in at least 40 NHL games the prior season or played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons

The easy protection candidates are Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. Those three are guaranteed to be on the list.

That leaves the idea of leaving Ryan McDonagh, who might have been the team’s most consistent player during the playoffs this season, exposed to Seattle.

That idea seems like a massive risk for a defenseman who garnered Conn Smythe votes despite not scoring a goal during the playoffs. McDonagh was that good in the postseason and made some huge plays.

But McDonagh is the second highest paid defenseman on the team and he has the longest amount of remaining years on his deal with five more years at $6.75 million. He will be 37 when the contract expires.

So it is a risk that Tampa Bay could lose a valuable member of their defense if Seattle looks for a veteran defenseman to anchor their back end. But would Seattle look to bring in a 32-year-old defenseman with five years left on a deal that carries a $6.75 million salary cap hit? Seems unlikely.

Which is why it makes much more sense for Tampa Bay to take the risk and leave McDonagh exposed with the belief that Ron Francis would not look to select him off the Lightning roster. Doing this allows Tampa Bay to maintain their forward depth up front without the idea of losing the depth on defense.

Of course, this means exposing Jan Rutta and Cal Foote to the Kraken, as well, which is a risk in and of itself.

But Tampa Bay figures to lose a player of some quality to Seattle, it’s a question of how much quality it will end up being when the team is announced on Wednesday.

Oh, and the easiest decision in the history of decisions, Andrei Vasilevskiy will be protected as the lone goaltender. And, with the provision that one goalie be exposed who is under contract in 2021-22 or will be a restricted free agent at the end of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22, the signing of Spencer Martin meets that criteria.

The list is due Saturday and will be made available on Sunday.

Then we’ll go through this all over again.

The offseason is here. Next season will be here before you know it.


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