The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins won’t have fond memories of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. Both were swept from the opening round Tuesday night.
Winners of the Presidents’ Trophy and tying the league record for most wins in a season (62), the Lightning was expected to make short work of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Penguins, meanwhile, finished in third place in the Metropolitan Division behind the second-place New York Islanders but were still favored to win that series.
Following their stunning early playoff exits, media speculation quickly emerged over their off-season plans.
The Athletic’s Joe Smith anticipates Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois will closely evaluate his roster this summer. While a major shakeup isn’t expected, changes will be coming to the blueline. Defensemen Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, Anton Stralman and Jan Rutta are slated to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. All but Rutta are well into their thirties and their best seasons are behind them.
Center Brayden Point is due for a hefty raise. The 23-year-old is coming off an entry-level contract having tallied 41 goals and 92 points this season. He could seek up to $8-million annually on a long-term deal, though the Lightning have a history of persuading their best players to accept less than market value to stay in sunny, tax-free Tampa Bay. Should Point accept an affordable deal, the Lightning still have limited cap room to address their blueline needs. With over $73.1 million invested in 16 players, they’ll have roughly $10 million to work with should the cap reach $83 million as projected.
Smith suggests Ryan Callahan could become a cost-cutting candidate via trade or buyout. The 34-year-old right wing has a year remaining on his contract with an annual average value of $5.8 million and a 16-team trade list.
J.T. Miller, 26, could be a more attractive trade chip. A versatile player who can skate at all three forward position, he’s signed through 2022-23 with a $5.25-million annual cap hit. BriseBois would have to move quickly if he decides to trade Miller as his modified no-trade clause kicks on on July 1.
Bigger changes could be in store for the Penguins. They have more than $79.7-million tied up in 18 players for 2019-20. All their core players under contract through next season.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey believes they could rebuild on the fly by shipping out a couple of expensive forwards while bringing in affordable youth. If so, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist could become trade options. Mackey notes Penguins GM Jim Rutherford entertained offers for Kessel last summer but felt no urgency to move him at the time. He expects Rutherford will be more receptive.
Kessel’s goal output declined over the second half of the season but the 31-year-old right wing still finished with 82 points. His annual cap hit is $8 million through 2021-22 but $1.2 million of it belongs to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He also carries an eight-team trade list. Despite his age and contract, there will be a market for Kessel. His steady production and playoff experience will be enticing to postseason contenders seeking scoring depth at right wing.
ESPN.com’s Emily Kaplan and Chris Peters suggest the Penguins attempt to move the 32-year-old Hornqvist. They acknowledge that won’t be easy, given his age, concussion injury, and $5.3-million cap hit through 2022-23. His full no-trade clause would also be a sticking point.
Olli Maatta’s future in Pittsburgh could also be in doubt. Kaplan and Peters feel this could be the 24-year-old blueliner’s final season with the Penguins. Maatta struggled through injuries and lost the confidence of coach Mike Sullivan. Nevertheless, his youth and affordable contract ($4.083 million cap hit through 2021-22) could make him an attractive trade target.