Expansion Plan: Projecting the Tampa Bay Lightning’s protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

Like any contending team, Tampa Bay is going to surrender a good player to Seattle in 2021. But will that really matter?
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Welcome to the Expansion Plan, our summer series projecting the protected lists for the 30 NHL franchises who will participate in the June 2021 Expansion Draft.

Over the next two seasons, every team – save the Vegas Golden Knights, who will be exempt – will be planning for the arrival of the NHL’s 32nd franchise and Seattle GM Ron Francis will begin to consider the options for his inaugural roster. As such, over the course of the next 30 days, we will profile one team, in alphabetical order, and forecast their potential list of protections and exposures, as well as address each team’s expansion strategy, no-brainers, tough decisions and what lessons they learned from the 2017 expansion process.

This exercise requires some important ground rules. The 2021 Expansion Draft will follow the same rules as the 2017 Expansion Draft, but some assumptions are necessary. These are the guidelines followed:

  • No pre-draft trades
  • All no-movement clauses are honored
  • Players who will become restricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 remain with current teams
  • Players who will become unrestricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 either remain with current teams or are left off lists entirely (eg. Nicklas Backstrom protected by the Washington Capitals, Tyson Barrie not protected by Toronto Maple Leafs or any other team.)

• • • 

The Tampa Bay Lightning have put the disappointment of the 2019 playoffs behind them and the club is set for a string of long playoff runs over the next few seasons.

Few teams are as refined as the group former GM Steve Yzerman and current boss Julien BriseBois put together. The Lightning will contend for the Stanley Cup for at least the next five seasons and, with the core group locked up, they're in a good spot. Tampa Bay has 13 players signed until 2020-21 and only four become free agents that summer. That said, the Lightning must still sign Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev between now and June 2021. That means a few key pieces will need t0 be moved out to make salary room.

At the Vegas expansion draft, Tampa Bay paid up, shipping Nikita Gusev to the Golden Knights to ensure Jason Garrison was selected. Garrison, who was no big loss, played eight games for Vegas and the Lightning wouldn't have been able to afford Gusev anyway. With Tampa Bay's breadth of talent right now, it's unlikely the Lightning will bother swinging a deal to protect a player this time around – but who should the club risk?

PROTECTED (7F, 3D, 1G):
Forwards:

  • Steven Stamkos (NMC)
  • Nikita Kucherov (NMC)
  • Brayden Point
  • Anthony Cirelli
  • Mathieu Joseph
  • Alexander Volkov
  • Yanni Gourde

Defensemen:

  • Victor Hedman (NMC)
  • Mikhail Sergachev
  • Ryan McDonagh

Goaltender:

  • Andrei Vasilevskiy

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Erik Cernak, Cal Foote, Tyler Johnson

STRATEGY: The Lightning weren't built for a couple of uninspiring playoff runs. Tampa Bay is in it for the long haul, and it shouldn't be an issue retaining most of the core group. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman are on NMCs, meaning the Lightning will have to give them automatic protection, not that they wouldn't have decided to do so anyway. Once Point is signed long-term, the 90-point scorer will be quickly protected, as well.

After that, it's making sure the future of the franchise stays intact. Youngsters Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli have had strong starts to their careers and will be vital assets for the club moving forward. BriseBois will need to offer up at least two mid-range salary forwards, with Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn looking like the odd men out with Yanni Gourde protected. Gourde's output fell by 16 points this past season, but it's realistic to expect him to hit 20 goals and 50 points for the next few campaigns.

Tampa's salary situation is its greatest issue. The Lighting are in a cap crunch with Point still unsigned and $9.37 million in spending room. Once Point's deal is dealt with, the Lightning will have all 10 players making at least $4 million signed until 2021-22. But that's where Tyler Johnson comes into play.

Johnson's name has appeared in trade rumors for a few months now, and there's definitely a market for 50-point guys making $5-million per season. He'll be 31 when Seattle makes their selection with three years left on his contract, and depending on how their prospect pool shakes out, the Bolts may be willing to offer him up if it means keeping a younger player around. That's why, in this scenario, the Lightning keep AHLer Alexander Volkov, a young winger with two impressive seasons under his belt at just 19. He'll be cheaper and can fill the role, allowing Tampa some additional cap relief. If the Lightning can't figure out a way to move Johnson's deal before 2021, it wouldn't be surprising to see him chosen by Seattle.

THE NO BRAINER: There's several on the Lightning roster, but reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy still has his best years ahead of him. Just 25, Vasilevskiy is signed until 2028 – longer than anyone else – and he's not worth risking. His NMC doesn't kick in until after the expansion draft, but there's no way Tampa exposes arguably the best goaltender in franchise history.

THE TOUGH DECISION: Ryan McDonagh has proven himself to be a leader in Tampa Bay, but could this be the perfect opportunity to dump his $6.75-million cap hit in order to keep the rest of the gang together? Sergachev and Cernak will be expensive RFAs next summer, and then there's Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph's contracts to worry about, too. McDonagh is one of just two Lightning defensemen signed past 2021 – his contract runs until 2025-26 – and he would not be easy to replace. His contract would make him an attractive option for Seattle, but would the Lightning sign him to a seven-year deal if they planned on exposing him just two seasons into his tenure? If they do protect him, Cernak and Cal Foote become prime expansion draft candidates. Losing either might be something Tampa Bay wants to avoid.

LESSON LEARNED: Championship contenders need to be willing to make sacrifices. With how strong Tampa's roster looks to be over the next few years, they're bound to lose a good, young top-four defenseman or a quality middle-six forward. Tampa hasn't had an issue developing young talent and players such as Cal and Nolan Foote, Mitchell Stephens, Alex Barre-Boulet and Taylor Raddysh could have pivotal roles in the NHL by then. In an ideal world, Seattle would take Killorn and his $4.45-million cap hit, but someone such as Cernak, who will have three seasons under his belt, could be more attractive. Regardless, they'll lose a key player, but Tampa Bay has the resources to make up for it.

Up Next: Toronto Maple Leafs

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(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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