Seemingly even the slightest bit of dollars-and-cents logic would have indicated that as the Tampa Bay Lightning entered this summer – an off-season that followed the most disappointing post-season exit not only in franchise history, but arguably in the history of the entire league – GM Julien BriseBois was going to have his hands tied by the salary cap. The thought was that the Lightning would re-sign those whose contracts had expired, make a minor tweak or two, reset their minds and bodies and again chase the Stanley Cup that has eluded Tampa Bay despite their two trips to the conference final and one final appearance in the past five seasons.
And sure enough, that’s what it seemed the Bolts were primed to do. In May, late-season acquisition Jan Rutta was re-upped on a one-year pact. In June, veteran defender Braydon Coburn took a pay cut to return on a two-year deal. And once free agency began, the Lightning made only a smattering of signings, none of which were major. Tampa Bay added depth defenseman Luke Schenn, backup keeper Curtis McElhinney and brought back Danick Martel at league minimum. The biggest July spend was on Cedric Paquette, who got a two-year pact at $1.65-million per season, but that was an RFA retention, not a major UFA addition.
Through all of this, the feeling surrounding the Lightning remained much the same. Fresh off of a 62-win campaign in which they were the most dominant regular season team in post-lockout history, Tampa Bay was the top pick to win the Stanley Cup. But over the past three weeks, if it wasn’t the case already, the feeling around the Lightning has transformed from championship favorite to Stanley Cup-or-bust as an already-stacked roster has managed to land two notable free agents on the cheap.
On Aug. 5, the Bolts made their first signing of the pair, inking Kevin Shattenkirk, who is only two seasons removed from being one of the hottest free agent defensemen on the market. Bought out by the New York Rangers earlier this summer for cost-cutting purposes, Shattenkirk joins a blueline that boasts perennial Norris Trophy contender Victor Hedman, former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and rising star Mikhail Sergachev. Shattenkirk will asked to be nothing more than a second-pairing guy in Tampa Bay, a role perfect for the offensive-minded rearguard and one that will come with considerably less pressure than he faced in New York.
As if stunningly adding Shattenkirk this summer wasn’t enough, though, the Bolts cemented themselves as clear-cut favorites when they somehow managed to bolster the depth of what is already the deepest offense in the NHL. An attack already including defending Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point, a restricted free agent who will be back once he puts pen to paper, went out and added Patrick Maroon over the weekend. The crash-and-bang winger scored 10 goals and 28 points last season, but he did some of his best work in the post-season, scoring three goals and seven points in 28 playoff outings en route to hoisting the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues. And that’s exactly why he was brought in: to produce when it matters most.
It’s not just that the Lightning have added Shattenkirk and Maroon, however. It’s that Tampa Bay, who seemed as cap-strapped as any organization with Point still unsigned, managed to bring in two high-caliber, sought-after free agents without breaking the bank. The combined cap hit of the Shattenkirk and Maroon deals? $2.65 million. And despite what some may be thinking, no, this doesn’t put the Lightning in all that great a bind.
With their two newest signings, Tampa Bay still has in the neighborhood of $8.5 million in cap space. That’s more than enough money to lock Point in on a bridge deal, and if it’s a long-term pact in $9-million range that he’s after, that’s not impossible, either. Shuffle just one league-minimum contract to the minors, say blueliner Luke Witkowski, and the Lightning have another $700,000 with which to work, or a grand total of $9.2 million in cap space. It doesn’t leave the Bolts with much in the way of breathing room, but this is all to say that not only did Tampa Bay manage to add Shattenkirk and Maroon for pennies on the dollar, they likely did so without truly having to sacrifice so much as a single player who would have been a roster regular next season. Fourth-liners such as Martel and Paquette are safe, as are top-six talents such as Johnson, Gourde or Ondrej Palat.
The goal for the Lightning heading into next season had always been clear, of course. Even before the signings of Shattenkirk and Maroon, Tampa Bay was projected to stand atop the league. They were, are and will almost undoubtedly remain the ubiquitous sportsbook favorite. And how couldn't they be given last season's regular season performance and the presence of a surefire Hart contender, Norris contender and the defending Vezina Trophy-winning keeper, Andrei Vasilevskiy?
But by adding two more legitimate, name-value talents, there’s now more expectation than ever. Expectation that the Lightning will win the Atlantic Division. Expectation that they will finish atop the Eastern Conference. And expectation that this season won’t be a replication of last, that Tampa Bay has learned from its first-round error and will keep its foot on the pedal through the second round, into the Eastern Conference final and eventually the Stanley Cup final.
Already, the Lightning were the favorites. At this point, however, with Shattenkirk and Maroon added to a roster that was already considered league-best, anything less than a Stanley Cup victory will be considered failure. And once Point is signed, all that will be left is to see how Tampa Bay embraces that pressure.
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