As the calendar shifts over to February with the All-Star Break and bye weeks in the rear-view mirror, the focus across the league shifts to the trade deadline. With the February 25 deadline just under three weeks away, there are clear buyers, clear sellers, and a large group of teams somewhere in between who could still make moves or stand pat.
When it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning, they clearly fit into the buyers’ category. However, the kind of moves they could make are up for debate at this time. Could they bolster their defensive depth even though they possess a blue line group that’s their deepest in years? Perhaps they’ll seek to add some forward help to provide even more scoring? Or maybe they refrain from making any moves and ride with the horses that have propelled them to the best record in the league up to this point?
This week, the hockey staff at The Scrum Sports is debuting a new column entitled The Lightning Roundtable. I’ll present a few Lightning-related questions and one NHL-related question to our Lightning writers, including myself, Riley Gillespie-Wilson, Trevor Grout, Jake Wolfskeil, and Alex Walworth. This will be a weekly column providing our takes on what’s going on with both the Lightning and the rest of the league. This week, we’ll cover the trade deadline, what we think the Lightning could improve upon, the blue line rotation, and what we would do if running a certain Metropolitan Division team stuck in an unenviable position.
Question #1: Besides staying healthy, is there anything you think the Lightning really need to improve upon or focus on over the remainder of the season?
I think the Lightning need to focus on limiting turnovers. It seems to me, they have “off nights” with puck management in which they turn the puck over on numerous occasions. Most recently in a loss in Pittsburgh, a sloppy play by Dan Girardi and a rare gaffe by Brayden Point led to two Penguin goals. While I’ll admit fatigue may play a factor, this is still something the Bolts could shore up come playoff time or sooner.
Truthfully, it’s to stop letting Andrei Vasilevskiy have to make 40+ saves a game.
For me, it’s all about the Lightning getting back to the strong puck possession numbers they had from October to December. During that time at 5-on-5, they were no lower than seventh in the NHL in controlling all shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, shot on goal percentage, scoring chance percentage, and high-danger chances. From January 1 through Tuesday’s loss to Vegas, the Bolts currently rank anywhere from 16th to 26th in those same categories at 5-on-5. The Lightning’s shooting percentage at 5-on-5 sits at 19th in the league in that time at 8.16% (all advanced stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick). For a team that’s typically one of the best at controlling puck possession, Tampa Bay has been surprisingly poor in that regard since the calendar flipped to 2019.
It’s really hard to find an area of improvement for the Lightning, who currently have the second-best penalty kill, the top power play, and average almost four goals a game. Looking past the numbers, I would say an area of improvement that comes to mind is more consistent play in the defensive zone.
An alarming number of goals scored against the Lightning are scored by players who are wide open with all day to shoot the puck. These miscues in the defensive zone could be a product of the seven-man defensive rotation. Letting NHL level forwards take shots with only the goaltender to beat is not a recipe for success.
Their power play is the best in the league, but I would like to see them shoot more. As the postseason approaches, I believe they’ll need to stay disciplined and take the body more since playoff hockey is very tight-checking.
Question #2: With the trade deadline looming in just a few weeks, you’ve got a choice of what you’d like to see the Lightning do and why: trade for forward help, trade for defensive depth, or stand pat and do nothing? Who would you like to see them make a move for if you want to see them make a move?
I’m going to take the controversial stance and vouch for the Lightning making a trade for Wayne Simmonds. Many Tampa Bay faithful argue they already have plenty of depth up front and don’t have the cap space for Simmonds. The response is twofold. This is about acquiring a player who not only will log valuable minutes and play smart hockey in every situation, but also a player with some sandpaper.
While the Lightning’s defense was an issue down the stretch in the Washington series, they also lacked a physical response to Tom Wilson and just the general size of Washington. The mentality for Tampa Bay should also be to win now. It’s clear now with teams like Chicago struggling that windows close and Tampa Bay’s time to strike is now. This move could help facilitate the Stanley Cup win their fans dream of.
At this point, with moving Ryan Callahan to the 13th forward spot, I’d say nothing. They are showing they want to go with youth and speed. So at this point, no moves need to be made.
The Lightning already added defensive depth last month when they picked up Jan Rutta from Chicago for Slater Koekkoek, but they’ll only call up Rutta if there’s an injury. I think the Lightning could afford to make a move for a bottom six forward that can provide some additional offense and some added grit as well. Simmonds and Micheal Ferland get brought up often, but the price will be high to pry one of them away. If Brian Boyle, a fourth-line center, can command a second round pick in a trade return, you can imagine the price for a guy like Simmonds or Ferland will be significantly higher. I’m also curious to see if Julien BriseBois follows Steve Yzerman’s mantra of not going after pure rentals, which is what Simmonds and Ferland would qualify as.
While I’ve mentioned the name Chris Kreider before, he still has a year left on his contract and it would take an incredible offer to pry him away from the New York Rangers. If I’m in BriseBois’s position, I make a push for Ottawa forward Ryan Dzingel. Although he’s going to be a UFA this summer, his cap hit comes in at $1.8 million and he’s just 26 years old. He scored 23 goals last season and already has 20 through 51 games this season. While his underlying possession numbers aren’t great, that’s partially due to being on a struggling team. He’s a guy who can provide some offense and it would be worth it for the Lightning to kick the tires.
It’s hard to say the Lightning truly need anything. The Lightning now have 81 points on the season in 53 games played, putting them first in the league and eight points ahead of second-place Calgary. No one would be surprised if the Lightning chose to remain quiet at the trade deadline and make their next run at the Cup with the roster in its current iteration.
That being said, one thing that the Lightning could improve on is getting bigger up front. Tampa Bay’s blue line has gotten bigger and more physical over the last couple seasons. The addition of Ryan McDonagh at last years trade deadline and Erik Cernak getting called up from Syracuse has brought some real grit to the back end.
The Lightning forwards, on the other hand, remain for the most part smaller than average. The Lightning have added some more size to the mix over the years, but another true power forward would be a big addition, especially in the playoffs. Simmonds has already been connected to the Lightning. The Senators have also been rumored to be interested in moving on from Mark Stone. Personally I would like to see them make a move for a big forward. A little more size and brutality never hurts in the playoffs. As long as you’re not the one taking the hits.
If I was Tampa Bay, I would look to acquire a third or fourth-line player who can take the body, as well as step in and fight or rough someone up if they mess with a star player (such as Simmonds or Ferland).
Question #3: The Lightning have gone with a rotation on their blue line for the better part of the last couple of months. As the season drags on, it would be reasonable to expect them to settle into a defined top-six on their back end. Who would you have in your top six, what would your ideal pairings be, and why?
My top pairing would be Victor Hedman and Dan Girardi. I like Girardi’s responsible positioning with Hedman because of Hedman’s tendency to jump into the rush. Girardi can block shots and is a horse that can comfortably log first pairing minutes. I adore the Ryan McDonagh-Erik Cernak second pairing. Cernak has the wheels to skate with McDonagh and the former Ranger captain’s guidance is ideal for the blossoming 21-year-old blue liner in this mentor-mentee pairing. I would close out with Braydon Coburn and Anton Stralman. Two guys who are familiar playing with one another and will flourish in reduced roles.
I’d go with Hedman, McDonough, Stralman, Sergachev, Cernak and Coburn. Perfect mix of veterans, youth, speed and experience.
This is pretty simple. You go back to having Hedman and Stralman on your top pair due to the familiarity and the fact their styles play off each other so well. McDonagh and Cernak would make up the second pairing, as the rookie and the experienced veteran have worked well together so far this season. As for my third pairing, Coburn and Sergachev have found some chemistry over the last year-and-a-half when put together. As for Girardi, he can be the seventh defenseman that can step in if there’s an injury. While Girardi can still kill penalties, block shots, and isn’t having a bad season, he hasn’t been at quite the same level as the other defensemen.
My top six would be: Hedman-Stralman, McDonagh-Cernak, and Sergachev-Coburn with Girardi as the odd man out. Hedman and Stralman have always worked well together and their chemistry is sure to come in handy down the stretch. McDonagh and Cernak have been playing some big time minutes over the last handful of games and I imagine it’s to put Cernak under as much pressure as possible in preparation for playoff hockey. Looking back to his first game in the NHL, Cernak has grown leaps and bounds and McDonagh has been their to clean up the rare mistakes he does make. This pair will most likely continue to draw big minutes in crucial moments of games going forward to ensure Cernak is truly ready for the postseason.
Lastly, that leaves Sergachev and Coburn, a pair who should be familiar with each other. Coburn has been having his best year in recent memory and skating as well as he ever has. Coburn’s ability to break up the rush works well with Sergachev who will take chances in the offensive zone. Unfortunately, that leaves Girardi as the odd man out and while he has been playing very well this year, I give a slight edge to Coburn. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lightning adjust their top six based on match-ups in the playoffs on a series-by-series basis.
My ideal top six would be Hedman-McDonagh, Stralman-Cernak, Girardi-Coburn. I would have these as the pairings due to their particular stengths. Hedman-McDonagh as an offensive/defensive pairing. Stralman provides more defense and some leadership for Cernak as well as Cernak providing a large frame that can finish checks. Girardi blocks shots while Coburn provides a bigger body and a veteran presence.
Question #4: -With the Lightning on pace to easily top the franchise record for most points in a season, how many points do you see them finishing the season with?
I think 120. Although in prime position to finish first in the league, players will start to be more cautious with injuries and we’ll see more “day-to-day’s” as we approach the playoffs. The Bolts will also be playing some hockey teams whose desperation they simply won’t be able to match given their situation. I think they finish strongly but plateau just slightly.
As of right now, the Lightning are on pace for 125 points. I think they slow down a bit, but not too much. I’m gonna say they finish with 122.
I think 112-116. Its been an incredible season for them, and one can hope they aren’t exhausted for the start of the playoffs.
Non-Lightning Question: One of the biggest stories in the NHL going into the trade deadline is what Columbus will do with Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. With Panarin’s agent, Dan Milstein, recently announcing that Panarin won’t negotiate a contract until the offseason, the speculation has increased over whether or not the Blue Jackets will trade him or keep him. If you’re in GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s position, what would you do with both players?
I personally would negotiate with Panarin in the summer and let the chips fall where they may while doing everything in my power to keep Bobrovsky within the organization. I think Bobrovsky is one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL and has helped some rather average Columbus teams over the years look really, really good.
Now Columbus has a foundation of talent around Bobrovsky, and I think Kekalainen needs to realize that and get a deal done with him and work from there cap-wise. What happened with John Tortorella is nothing out of the ordinary and strictly business that got blown up in the media to create speculation and rumors. Bobrovsky stays. As for Panarin? Only time will tell.
I’d try to save at least one of them, probably Bobrovsky to be honest. A good goalie is harder to find than a good scorer.
I’ve gone back and forth on this so many times. It’s not a decision I envy. With Bobrovsky, he’s not having a good season and I can’t help but think his days there are numbered. As for Panarin, his agent’s recent statement spoke volumes. If Columbus were comfortably in first place in the Metropolitan Division, I would say you keep them both and make a Cup run. While the Blue Jackets could easily get hot and the Metro is more open than its been in a while, Columbus is no lock to make the playoffs. If they get in, do you really trust a team that’s never won a playoff series to get through a playoff gauntlet that could include some combination of the Islanders, Capitals, Penguins, and/or the Lightning? I don’t.
What I would do is attempt to deal both of them for some combination of roster players, picks, and/or prospects. Then you’d take some of those futures and flip them to someone else for immediate help. This is a team that still has some quality pieces in place. Once you’ve dealt Bobrovsky, package some of those picks and prospects for another starting goalie. I’d give the Kings a call and inquire about Jonathan Quick. He’s a few years older and has had some injury issues, but he could be that bridge between Bobrovsky and the next goalie, whether that be Joonas Korpisalo or someone else. And the rebuilding Kings would welcome the arrival of some draft pick ammo and new prospects.
If I’m in charge of the Blue Jackets, I’m trading Panarin and Bobrovsky. I’ve heard some say they should hang on to them and attempt to win the Cup this year, but I just cannot realistically see them beating Toronto, Boston, Pittsburgh, the Islanders, or Tampa Bay for that matter. I would trade them off to the highest bidder and retool my roster for future playoff runs.
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