The Tampa Bay Lightning endured 2015-16 holding onto the year’s most coveted unrestricted free agent to be. General manager Steve Yzerman weathered a storm of rumors and clutched Steven Stamkos tightly. The Bolts had a real shot to win the Stanley Cup after reaching the final the previous year, so treating Steven Stamkos like a UFA trade deadline rental made sense. Tampa Bay ended up re-signing its captain, of course, but even if that hadn’t happened this past summer, retaining Stammer was the right move.
A year later, the Lightning once again hold an elite UFA to be. This time it’s goaltender Ben Bishop and, once again, they’re faced with the decision of whether to trade or retain their star. Only this time, dealing that star may be the smarter move.
It goes without saying that to keep Bishop all year is to risk losing him for nothing. Unlike with Stamkos last year, it’s more of a guarantee than a risk with Bishop. The Lightning signed “backup” goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year, $10.5-million extension in July. Bishop should command something like Tuukka Rask or Pekka Rinne money, a seven-year deal at $7 million per. That’s out of the cash-strapped Bolts’ price range with restricted free agents such as Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin needing new contracts next summer. On top of that, Tampa can only protect one goaltender in the expansion draft. Bishop is as good as gone.
The fact there’s pretty much no chance of bringing Bishop back is one obvious reason to consider dealing him now, but we knew that as recently as the summer. Yzerman even admitted at the draft he would have to deal a goalie. It might’ve still been worth retaining Bishop all season for the sake of a Stanley Cup push, but things are so much more complicated than expected for this Bolts team through early December. Additional reasons to push for a Bishop trade have piled up.
1. Injuries, obviously
The Lightning have lost center Stamkos for four to six months after he tore his meniscus in mid-November. Right winger Ryan Callahan is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury. Right winger Jonathan Drouin and defenseman Jason Garrison have been nicked up of late, too. This team isn’t quite a walking infirmary, but the Stamkos injury is monumental, and the Bolts need all the healthy bodies they can get. That’s because…
2. The Lightning are mired in an (unexpected) playoff dogfight
We at THN picked the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. Through Monday’s games they sit ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the last wild-card spot. Every team behind Tampa has games in hand. The Bolts have played as many games as any team in the East. We can blame the Stamkos injury, but that doesn’t make it any less true that this team is suddenly no lock to reach the Big Dance, and scoring goals, Stamkos’ specialty, isn’t this team’s weakness. The Lightning rank 16th in the NHL in goals against per game at 2.63. That’s down from 2.41 (fifth) last season. They sit 13th in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 at 54.44, down from 51.92 (sixth) last year. Tampa has regressed defensively, allowing more shot attempts. This team has needs to address on defense. And guess where the Bolts’ surplus of talent lies?
3. Andrei Vasilevskiy is ready for No. 1 duty
Tampa has two high-end, starting-caliber goaltenders. And we know Vasilevskiy, 22, is the future. He’s been one of the game’s top netminding prospects since even before Yzerman and Co. drafted him in 2012. Vasilevskiy has a sparking 6-2-1 record with a 2.24 goals-against average, a .930 save percentage and two shutouts, and that stat line is no fluke. He’s merely doing what he was always projected to do. So why not hand him the reins and use Bishop on the trade market to plug another hole?
4. The Lightning can still win this thing
I never would’ve supported the idea of dealing Bishop mid-season even a month ago, but so much has changed. This team needs help. It’s also very much worth saving. The Lightning remain as talent-rich as any team in hockey, so they should continue to treat themselves as contenders, especially if Stamkos can return in time for the post-season. We’ve learned in this peak-parity era any team can win the Cup as long as that team gets in. That’s where Yzerman has a bit of work to do. Having an elite goaltending tandem is great, but it’s a luxury for a team in need of a top-four defenseman and perhaps another power forward who can play in the top six. This season isn’t worth giving up on. The Bolts should chase a championship. At first, keeping Bishop looked like the best way to do so. Now the opposite is true.
5. Ben Bishop still has peak value
Bishop hasn’t been his Vezina Trophy finalist self early in 2016-17, with a pedestrian .910 SP in 18 appearances, but that small sample size won’t torpedo his trade value. Any suitors out there know who he is: an upper-echelon starting goalie. Bishop, however, seems to break down physically at some point almost every season. The big fella has become a yearly injury risk at 30. There’s always a chance he gets hurt before Yzerman strikes a deal, so the time to act is now. Is there a market yet? It’s tough to say. We won’t see true contending teams looking for a big-splash rental just yet, but we may have a few also-rans needing immediate help to climb back into the race. The team repeatedly linked to Bishop is the Dallas Stars, and they still make sense, maybe now more than ever. The Stars have struggled so far and continue to get lackluster goaltending from Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Bishop would rectify their problem in a hurry. It’s risky to take on a pending UFA, of course, but what if Dallas sent one back in the form of, say, Johnny Oduya? Tampa get its veteran D-man, Dallas gets its star goalie. Tampa would need to take back one of Niemi or Lehtonen and may have to include a second body for the money to work, but such a deal could still make sense, especially for two teams in different conferences.
Keeping Bishop all year would’ve been a best-case scenario for Yzerman, but he no longer has that luxury. The Bolts’ bad luck has created a need for reinforcements right now. Dealing Bishop is the best way to save this team.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin