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Backup goalie switch, blue line highlight Lightning’s first day of free agency

Photo Courtesy of Wayne Masut, Senior Staff Photographer

Heading into the opening day of free agency in the NHL, a few questions remained about the Tampa Bay Lightning. Would the Lightning make a trade for another defenseman? Would they scour the market for a bargain blue line deal? When will the Lightning and Brayden Point come to terms on a new contract? On the list of offseason needs, backup goalie seemed like the farthest thing down on the list.

Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois had other ideas. Despite a career season in which Louis Domingue won 26 games as Andrei Vasilevskiy’s backup, including an 11-2 stretch when Vasilevskiy missed a month with a foot fracture, BriseBois hit the open market and signed former Carolina Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney to a two-year contract worth $1.3 million a season. The 36-year-old McElhinney, who shared the Canes’ net with Petr Mrazek last season, comes off a year in which he went 20-11-2 with a 2.58 GAA and .912 save percentage. McElhinney has been a journeyman, but has proven to be a reliable backup. The reason for the swap? BriseBois was looking to the future:

The cost is basically a wash, as Domingue’s contract carries an AAV of $1.15 million and expires next summer. However, with Domingue having revived his career with Tampa Bay after arriving in a trade with Arizona in November 2017, there’s a strong chance he wasn’t coming back after his deal ends in 2020. BriseBois will be looking to sell high on Domingue in a trade this summer, as he’s clearly not going to be sent down to the AHL.

Adding goalie depth in AHL Syracuse was also a priority.

With Connor Ingram traded to Nashville and Eddie Pasquale off to the KHL, adding goatlending depth in the system became a priority. In addition to the McElhinney signing, the Lightning added a pair of minor league netminders in Scott Wedgewood and Spencer Martin. The 26-year-old Wedgewood has played parts of two NHL seasons with the New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes, but has spent most of the past seven seasons in the AHL. Last season, he posted 28 wins and five shutouts with AHL Rochester, finishing second in the AHL in both categories.

Martin, a 24-year-old originally drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013, spent last season with the Avs’ AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles. He went 9-10-2 in 2018-19 and has only seen action in three NHL games, all with the Avalanche in 2016-17.

With their blue line in need of some depth after the departures of Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi, the Lightning went bargain shopping.

Tampa Bay inked defenseman Luke Schenn to a one-year contract worth $700,000. The 29-year-old right-handed Schenn has over 700 games of NHL experience, but has morphed from the fifth overall pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008 into an NHL journeyman. He saw action with the Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, and Coyotes before splitting last season with the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks while also spending much of the year in the AHL. Schenn has the size at 6’2″ and 221 pounds, but he’s not known for being fleet of foot. He’ll battle with Jan Rutta to be the sixth defenseman.

The Bolts also brought back a familiar face in defenseman Luke Witkowski, signing the 29-year-old to a two-year contract worth $700,000 a year. Witkowski, known for being a tough customer, returns for his second stint in Tampa after a two-year run with the Detroit Red Wings. Witkowski will provide veteran depth in Syracuse, but can also serve as depth on the blue line in case of an injury.

Tampa Bay also added forward depth to Syracuse with the signing of former Toronto Marlies forward Chris Mueller, who scored 33 goals and 65 points with the Marlies in 2018-19.

So what happens now?

The Lightning’s moves on the opening day of free agency didn’t move the needle like others across the league, but served as depth. With just over $7.9 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, money is tight for the Lightning right now. The Bolts were in the running for former San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, who visited the Lightning and Dallas Stars before signing a three-year, $21 million contract with Dallas. If the Lightning owned more cap space and the cap been a bit higher, perhaps Pavelski would be wearing blue and white instead?

Entering the summer, there had been plenty of talk about adding to the blue line, especially with Girardi and Stralman out the door. For weeks, Bolts fans dreamt of an Erik Karlsson signing, a Jacob Trouba trade, or even a Tyson Barrie deal, but those didn’t materialize. Instead, Karlsson remained in San Jose, Trouba got moved to the New York Rangers, and Barrie was dealt to Toronto. Instead, Schenn is the only new face on the back end after the re-signing of both Rutta and Braydon Coburn. Judging by BriseBois’s comments today, the Lightning could be done with their blue line this summer.

While you can never say never when it comes to offseason moves, that big blue line makeover turned into a few depth moves. At this rate, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mikhail Sergachev finally make the jump into the team’s top four.

Point’s contract still lingers

Barring any other significant trades, the Point contract will be the biggest story of the Lightning’s offseason. The 23-year-old restricted free agent is one of several young, supremely talented RFA’s due new deals this summer. The hockey world has been wondering if this would be the summer where we’d finally see an offer sheet for a RFA. The Montreal Canadiens didn’t disappoint in that regard. They signed Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho to a five-year offer sheet worth $8.454 million a season heavily front-loaded with bonuses. Carolina will have a week to match the offer, or else they’d lose him to Montreal, but receive a first, second, and third round pick in return.

With Point seeking a new deal and the Lightning under a salary cap crunch, fans couldn’t help but wonder if Point would be an offer sheet target. The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun shared this eye-opening tidbit:

Keep in mind that a RFA must actually sign the offer sheet for the one-week deadline to match can take effect. The Canadiens could’ve offered Point a thousand offer sheets, but if he didn’t sign one, it wouldn’t have mattered. Aho’s offer sheet was the first one in the NHL since 2013 when Colorado matched Calgary’s offer to Ryan O’Reilly. Point has shown no indication that he wants to leave, so we should expect a deal some time before the season starts. However, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen any time in the immediate future.

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