The winner or loser of a trade is near impossible to determine in the days or weeks after it first happens, let alone the minutes and hours after a swap is confirmed. And such is the case in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s acquisition of Blake Coleman from the Devils in a deal that sent 2019 first-round pick Nolan Foote and a 2020 first-round selection to New Jersey.
What we don’t know yet is how Coleman will fare in Tampa Bay. We don't know if he’ll be that ever-elusive final piece of the playoff puzzle that takes the Lightning from perennial contenders to Stanley Cup champions. And what we also don’t know is how Foote will pan out, what kind of NHL player he will become and what impact he’ll make with the Devils, nor do we know how New Jersey will use their shiny new first-round selection. There are so many variables that determining who won and who lost and what the lasting impacts of this deal will be at this very moment borders on impossible.
So, let’s instead focus on what we do know, beginning with the indisputable fact that the Lightning paid an unquestionably steep price for Coleman.
Foote, the younger brother of fellow Tampa Bay prospect Cal Foote, was one of the few Lightning prospects in that can’t-miss territory. He’s been a standout with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, posted three goals and five points in seven games on Canada’s gold medal-winning World Junior Championship squad in January and is regarded as an almost sure-thing NHLer. And the first-round choice packaged with Foote, a selection originally owned by the Vancouver Canucks which became Tampa Bay’s property by way of the summer swap involving J.T. Miller, is arguably the more valuable of the two first-round picks the Lightning owned.
As noted, it’s a 2020 first-round pick, but that comes with a catch. The condition on the pick, which holds even after the trade, will see it become a 2021 first-round selection if the Canucks miss the post-season. At the moment, Vancouver is in a playoff position and one point off the Pacific Division lead. The Canucks appear post-season bound. They even appear to be a team that could piece together something of a playoff run. But chances are that when the post-season dust settles, the pick once belonging to Vancouver will wind up in the low-to-mid-20s. Given the way Tampa Bay has been playing, their own pick seems destined for the 28-to-31 range. Minimal as the difference might seem, one looks certain to be worth more than the other, and it’s not the pick still in the Lightning’s possession.
Of course, we’ve come to expect escalated price tags at this time of year. Such is the nature of the trade deadline. But even taking into consideration the timing of the trade, Coleman’s team-friendly $1.8-million price tag and that he has the remainder of this season and all of next remaining on his deal, it still seems like a hefty price to pay for a 28-year-old whose career-best outputs – though totals he’s certain to break this season – are 22 goals and 36 points. No question, he’s a valuable commodity and a player who stood to make an impact as a middle-six piece no matter where he landed at the deadline. But a top prospect and a first-round pick? That’s the best-case scenario return for New Jersey.
This is not to mention that the price paid by the Lightning seems all the more exorbitant when viewed through the lens of the Devils’ Taylor Hall trade earlier this season. The overall trade package was larger – New Jersey nabbed three prospects and first- and third-round picks from the Arizona Coyotes – but for all the upside possessed the key prospect in that swap, defenseman Kevin Bahl, Foote is believed to have more promise. Suggesting even moderately similar trade returns for Coleman and Hall would have been enough to get you laughed out of a room prior to the campaign. Yet, here we are.
But the clear-cut, no-bones-about-it overpayment by the Lightning is what tells us the only other thing we know for sure about this trade: Tampa Bay will not accept anything that even remotely resembles failure this post-season.
Still lingering in Tampa Bay is the stench of arguably the worst post-season defeat in NHL history. That the Presidents’ Trophy-winning, wins-record-tying Lightning fell in four straight to a wild-card Columbus Blue Jackets outfit that went all-in at the deadline and only eked into the post-season has followed Tampa Bay throughout this season. It's a scent that has been impossible for the Lightning to wash off. But after early season ups and downs, the Lightning are rounding into form at exactly the right time. Recent performances have given them the appearance of the Eastern Conference juggernaut they were perceived to be last season. Tampa Bay has won 10 in a row, this not long after a 10-game streak. All told, the Lightning are winners of 22 of their past 25 games, and while there is still ground to be made up, the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins can feel the heat of Tampa Bay’s breath on the back of their collective necks.
But in order for the Lightning to entirely rid themselves of the reek of that playoff defeat, regular season success won't be enough. Tampa Bay needs to minimize memories of the playoff defeats by climbing the same mountain they have repeatedly fallen painfully short of summiting. Three times in the past five campaigns, Tampa Bay has made it to the conference final. One of those trips resulted in a Stanley Cup final berth. The other two ended in crushing Game 7 defeats after the Lightning had not one, but two chances to get the win needed to punch a ticket to the last series of the season. Tampa Bay seems dead set on ensuring they don't suffer a similar fate once again.
And it's the price that was paid for Coleman that makes as much clear. The Lightning will continue to pay the prices they deem necessary to add the pieces they believe they need to add. They will do whatever it takes to exorcise past playoff demons. Nothing less will be accepted.
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