We all knew it was coming. If you follow the Tampa Bay Lightning even somewhat closely, you knew that goalie Ben Bishop’s tenure with the team probably wasn’t going to last beyond this season. Between only being able to protect one goalie in the upcoming expansion draft, Bishop’s impending status as an unrestricted free agent, the Lightning signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to long-term contracts, and the status of Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat as restricted free agents, there were multiple reasons not to expect Bishop back in a Bolts uniform in 2017-18. He was traded on Sunday night to the Los Angeles Kings along with a fifth round pick in 2017 in exchange for Kings backup goalie Peter Budaj, 19-year-old defensive prospect Erik Cernak, and a 2017 seventh round choice.
Meanwhile, the trade involving Brian Boyle came as a much bigger surprise to a lot of people. Boyle had tallied 13 goals and 9 assists in 54 games, and had been an extremely valuable player in his Lightning tenure due to his versatility and his leadership. Boyle was just two goals away from tying the most he’s had in a Bolts uniform and he’s been one of the team’s most consistent players this season. Boyle was sent to Toronto for forward prospect Byron Froese and a second round selection in the 2017 NHL Draft.
There has been plenty of sentiment from the fanbase that Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman didn’t get enough for Bishop. There has been even more from both fans and some of my colleagues at The Scrum Sports that Yzerman was waving the white flag by trading Boyle. I totally understand that feeling and I can understand where they’re coming from.
But let’s face it: even though the Lightning went into Tuesday night’s games five points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last wild card spot and six behind the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division, this team isn’t guaranteed a spot in the postseason. They dug themselves quite a hole earlier this season, and even though they’ve played much better in February, they still have only a 14.6% chance of making the postseason according to sportsclubstats.com heading into Tuesday night. And that’s after the Bolts trounced Ottawa 5-1 on home ice on Monday.
Now I’m not waving the white flag. I’m not saying that the season is over. There’s still a chance that this team gets into the postseason if they keep winning games and a couple of teams in front of them falter. If the Lightning and Maple Leafs were flipflopped in the standings, neither of these trades get made. But seeing as the Bolts have put themselves behind the eight ball throughout the season, here we are. And I’m here to tell you that the Bishop trade isn’t as bad as you think and the Boyle trade shouldn’t be a surprise.
For starters, with the exception of the last few days heading into the trade deadline, the trade market has been almost non-existent for much of the year. For goalies, it has been a virtual black hole. If Yzerman can be blamed for anything, it’s not being able to get a deal done for Bishop last summer or in the preseason when his value was much higher. There was nearly a deal in place that would’ve sent Bishop to the Calgary Flames, but terms on a new contract couldn’t be agreed on. As a result, Yzerman took a risk that Bishop could be the player he was and lead this team on another playoff run.
However, that wasn’t the case, as Bishop struggled until getting hot in February, putting put up a goals-against average of 2.55 and a save percentage of .911, his worst numbers in a Lightning uniform over the course of a full season. He also missed a month of action because of a groin injury, which also hurt his value. Teams that are or were considered in need of a goaltender, such as Dallas, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Calgary, or Carolina, have not sought out help for various reasons. St. Louis and Calgary have seen their goaltending situations stabilize as they have both make strong pushes for the playoffs. Dallas and Carolina have fallen out of the playoff hunt and are sellers going into the trade deadline, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to sell off assets for a goalie that is going to hit the open market in the summer. Philadelphia is only one point behind the Lightning going into Tuesday evening, and either one of their goalies, Steven Mason and Michal Neuvirth, could get hot down the stretch (don’t be surprised to see them make a push for Bishop in the offseason since Mason and Neuvirth are also UFA’s). Yzerman even told Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times that the deal with the Kings was his only option in dealing Bishop without losing him for nothing in return.
As a result, the return for Bishop wasn’t going to be spectacular. But they did get a solid backup goalie in Peter Budaj, who was having a very good season filling in for an injured Jonathan Quick. Cernak isn’t going to make the jump to the NHL right away, but he’s 6’3, weighs 220 pounds, and is a right-handed shot, something the Lightning covet. He also has size, and can skate and defend. He’s not considered an elite prospect, but he helps fill an organizational need. Budaj will provide a solid veteran presence for Andrei Vasilevskiy, who now assumes the number-one spot in the Lightning’s crease.
Looking at the Boyle deal, he’s the kind of player that teams in the playoff hunt covet. A player of his size and skill that can play at both ends, be a net-front presence on the power play, kill penalties, and win faceoffs is always going to be highly-coveted by teams looking to give them an edge going into the postseason. Boyle had been linked in rumors to Columbus and Edmonton, but in the end, it was the Maple Leafs who got him. Wherever he ended up, Boyle was going to provide depth down the middle on a team’s bottom two lines. As it turns out, it’ll be a young Maple Leafs team who gets a proven playoff-tested veteran to help for their playoff push and the Lightning get assets back for a player who was going to hit the open market after this season. And besides, there’s always a chance that Boyle could end up back in town since he becomes a UFA and he has been quoted before saying how much he and his family love it in Tampa. While his return isn’t guaranteed, it could easily happen.
The Lightning aren’t dealing from a position of strength right now. They’ve been struggling for much of the season. They’re facing a salary cap crunch that was going to cost them Bishop and facing a tenuous position in the standings that has pushed them towards making moves with the future in mind. You can’t risk losing pending unrestricted free agents for nothing, and with the playoffs a slight possibility but not a guarantee, I see nothing wrong with the moves that Yzerman has made. They might not have fetched the return that was expected, but it’s still better than nothing. Don’t be surprised if the Bolts make another move before the trade deadline on Wednesday.
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