The Tampa Bay Lightning are going to have to make some moves to fit under the cap over the next few years, but a stacked pipeline gives the club the option to replace veterans with skilled youngsters over the next few seasons.
Andrei Vasilevskiy|Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire
Welcome to the Five-Year Plan. In this summer exercise, we forecast the rosters for all 31 current NHL teams for the 2023-24 season. Are we bound for folly? Sure, but the point of the exercise is to give some sense of where an organization is heading based on current long-term contracts and the prospects they have in the system.
Some ground rules: No trades will be made and no future draft picks will be included – so you won’t see the likes of Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield on any roster, even though they will certainly be NHL stars in 2023-24. All current contracts are honored and most restricted free agents are projected to stay with their teams, unless it is determined the player will lose his spot or move on in the future. Some future unrestricted free agents will be kept on if the players are deemed integral and likely to re-sign. The Seattle expansion draft is not considered. With all that established, let’s take a look at Tampa Bay.
No reason to mess with a good thing. The only reason you’ll see the Lightning make changes to their top six is if the cap becomes an even greater concern, which is why Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn don’t make the cut. Of course, both players would bring back a solid return, but we can’t accurately predict what it would be. Kucherov, Stamkos and Gourde are signed through 2023-24, and Point’s next deal should take him past there, too. The top line remains unchanged, with Point and Kucherov hoping to replicate their success from 2018-19 well into the future.
With trades come new opportunities for young players, and that’s where Joseph will get a chance to strut his stuff. He had a solid rookie season and looks destined to be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL someday. With more opportunities and less sheltered minutes, Joseph could emerge as yet another solid winger in the Lightning organization, one who can produce 40-45 points during any given campaign. Fellow 22-year-old Barre-Boulet also shouldn’t be overlooked. After scoring 53 goals and 116 points in his final year in the QMJHL, he registered 34 goals and 68 points in 74 games as an AHL rookie and is quickly becoming one of Tampa’s prospects to watch. His diminutive, 5-foot-10 frame leaves much to be desired, but if anyone is going to give a small forward a chance, it’ll be the team that currently employs Gourde (5-foot-9) and Johnson (5-foot-8), two fantastic scoring forwards.
Tampa does have good depth down the middle, which is why Boulet, a natural center, moves to the wing in this scenario. Cirelli has the third-line center spot locked up for a long time, and if he can hit 40 points consistently, Tampa will have one of the highest-scoring pivot groups we’ve seen in some time. Stephens, an all-around workhorse, can fill the bottom spot. He’s not going to light the NHL on fire, but he’s not going to hurt you in tight games, either.
Don’t expect much change. Hedman and McDonagh are locked up past 2023-24 and will continue to be pillars on defense. Sergachev and Cernak will both be RFAs next summer, and while the former should command close to $5 million a season, Cernak shouldn’t break the bank. Lock them up and you have a great top four. Foote, the team’s first pick in 2017 (14th overall), will contend for a spot this season and brings size and mobility to the backend. Masin has spent a few years in the system already and is a good depth option, but his focus will be on becoming a reliable shutdown defender.
The Vasilevsky era has been in full swing for a few years now and it will continue well on through the next five seasons. The Lightning signed him to an eight-year extension this summer, keeping ‘Vasy’ around for his prime years and he won’t become a UFA until 2028. Vasilevskiy is coming off a Vezina Trophy campaign and will fight for at least a handful more over the next five seasons. Truthfully, who backs him up isn’t all that important. Right now, the team has five goalies inked, but none will be in Tampa in five years. Alnefelt has the leg up at this point after proving himself early in his career in Sweden.
It’ll be hard for Tampa to shake off the failure that was the 2019 post-season, but, come on. We know the Lightning are better than that. The Lightning will need to do a bit of salary gymnastics to make everything work, but unlike some other top teams, the Lightning have a great prospect base to choose from when needed. Heck, Alexander Volkov and Maxim Cajkovic, two talented young prospects, were left off this roster. Even so, this iteration has four high-scoring forward lines, a stacked defensive unit and one of the best goaltenders in the world, and that’s even after they’ve moved on a from a couple of 40-50-point forwards. You can’t help but be impressed with the group the Lightning have put together over the past few seasons – but it will all be for anught matter if they don’t hoist the Stanley Cup.
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