TAMPA — The Lightning are limited in what they can do leading up to Monday afternoon’s NHL trade deadline, but general manager Julien BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper have said the team will do everything it can to improve
Tampa Bay is hamstrung by the salary cap and needed to place big contracts on long-term injured reserve before the season just to become cap-compliant. That situation hasn’t changed much — the Lightning traded depth forward Alexander Volkov two weeks ago to create a little more flexibility — but Tampa Bay remains one of many teams handcuffed by its cap space.
“We have a group that’s chasing a championship,” BriseBois said last month during his midseason availability. “And every decision that we have made up to this point and every decision that we’re going to make in the coming weeks is geared towards providing us the best odds possible to go on another magical run right here in the postseason this year.”
In spite of their recent struggles, the Lightning have a group that’s one of the best-positioned for the postseason. And this year’s trade deadline — with several teams with little-to-no cap space, protocol restrictions that would delay players reporting to their new teams and the cap remaining at a flat $81.5 million next year — complicates issues for all teams.
“I know a lot of teams are in the same situation we’re in where they literally have no cap space or very, very little — not enough to add a player without detracting,” BriseBois said. “At the same time, with the schedule matrix and divisional formats, there’s a lot more four-point games going forward, so the teams that are kind of on the bubble, I don’t know what’s ultimately going to guide their decisions. Are they going to try to add, or are they going to sell?”
In the Central Division alone, three teams (Nashville, Chicago and Columbus) entered Thursday’s games within five points of the fourth and final playoff spot, not including Dallas, which was seven points back but had played three fewer games than fourth-place Nashville.
When the Lightning traded for forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow before last year’s deadline, they did so with an eye to this season, as well. Because both had contracts through the 2021 season, they weren’t merely rentals. Acquiring them came at a heavy price — two first-round picks and top prospect Nolan Foote.
But the addition of Coleman and Goodrow, who joinedYanni Gourde on a new-look third line with grit was a big reason the Lightning won the Stanley Cup last season and had success leading into this month.
Recently, the Lightning have been hamstring by injuries to their blue line, with defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak and Jan Rutta each missing significant time. Their absence has forced the team to rely on less-experienced players, and the offseason departures of veterans Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian left the Lightning defense corps less seasoned.
Rookie defenseman Cal Foote has grown into a larger role out of necessity. Andres Borgman, who spent most of the season on the taxi squad, is playing more, and rookie Ben Thomas has received his first NHL shot after six years in the minors.
The opportunity to gauge those players, along with prospects like Ross Colton, who has become the team’s fourth-line center, and Alex Barre-Boulet, is valuable given that reinforcements are more likely to be internal. Combine that with the return of center Mitchell Stephens from injury after his conditioning assignment in the minors, and the Lightning will have depth options internally.
If there’s one place the team could upgrade, it’s by adding a veteran defenseman to the mix. But inside the Lightning locker room, players aren’t paying attention to the deadline.
“We haven’t paid a tremendous amount of attention to it,” forward Alex Killorn said. “We’re just here to play hockey. That’s our job. We’re not worried about how we can change the team to make it better. All we can do is concentrate on ourselves, especially in the position we’re in, (where) you don’t expect a lot to happen.”
And as BriseBois has mentioned since day one, there’s no postseason “acquisition” that would trump the return of star forward Nikita Kucherov, who is on long-term injured reserve for the entirety of the regular season — and the main reason the Lightning were able to remain cap-complaint without dealing away major pieces. Kucherov is skating and on pace to return for the playoffs.
“He’s one of the best players in the league,” Cooper said. “He’s an extremely talented player that is offensively gifted, and he makes players around him better. You’d rather have those guys in the lineup than not, but they’re not always going to be in the lineup.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected]. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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