Lightning Roster Speculation 2.0

Prior to the draft I took a stab at what the Lightning roster would have to look like to be a conference contender. In the write up, the generic “acquisition” player was slotted in both the second and third pairs of the defensive six, and Paquette and Callahan were in the top-11 forwards (Jon Cooper frequently dresses 11/7 rather than the traditional 12/6), adding grit, character, and physicality. The latter two were part of Cooper’s wish to balance out the size of the forward group while becoming a harder team to play against. I had a third acquisition on defense in the 7/8 spot, as well as the obvious No. 2 goalie slot.

Now a week after the free agent frenzy, Yzerman has done – in my opinion – exactly what was needed to become a conference contender. While he added two defensemen and not three, he added two to the top-4 instead of one to the top-4 and two to the bottom-3 on the blueline. Big ups to Stevie-Y for that. I also had Sustr slotting down to Syracuse – barely – in order for him to get more developmental minutes. That’s exactly what’s happened, too. Purcell also moved as expected, though that one was fairly obvious due to contract status and player type.

Before I bruise myself with pats on the back, I had Brett Connolly going to Syracuse due to the glut of forwards blocking him. This was a stroke of derpius since Connolly is waiver eligible and therefore a demotion to the AHL has a near zero chance of happening. Nice going, genius.

At any rate, here’s how I see the roster playing out come October. Lines are speculative, of course, as they’ll change five minutes into the first game. This is more of a who-ends-up-where list:

Forwards

Killorn – Stamkos – Drouin
Palat – Filppula – Callahan
Kucherov - Boyle – Johnson
Brown - Morrow

Extra: Connolly, Panik

Defensemen

Hedman – Stralman
Carle - Garrison
Brewer – Gudas
Barberio (and Sustr?)

Goalies

Bishop
Nabokov

Commentary: The top two forward lines are good bets, especially the second line, which was excellent for the Bolts late last year. Killorn is a nice complement to Stamkos, and while Drouin may start further down in the lineup, he’ll end up next to Stamkos eventually. Boyle as 3C is probable even though Johnson is a natural center. Boyle signed with Tampa Bay in part because of an increased role compared to the one he had with the Rangers, so I would guess he gets third line minutes at the least. Johnson spent some time on the wing late last year, though he has good faceoff ability. Johnson may eventually replace Callahan in the top-6, but we’ll go with most-likely scenarios to start.

I like that there’s a spot for Connolly on the big roster, but I don’t know that he’ll be around to get it. Yzerman has said he’d like a veteran forward to add to the bunch (only Filppula is over 30, and Yzerman went hard after Iginla), but it would have to come via trade. The Lightning organizational roster is at 48 of 50 contracts assuming all three remaining qualified restricted free agents sign and Costello inks an NHL deal, though he could sign an AHL pact like Drew Olson last year. Salary would have to be moved to take on salary, so that means one of the forwards or D have to go.

In my opinion, Connolly and Barberio are the most likely to be dealt. Both have decent, but not great value, and both are blocked by player type above them – if not now, then soon. It also helps balance out the age ratio with the club.

Connolly has developed into a nice 2-way forward prospect who is a point producer, equally adept at scoring and playmaking. Many of the Lightning’s forwards fit this type, including Richard Panik. Connolly bows out to Panik in the size/physicality category, which is – as was mentioned – on the Jon Cooper wish list. Both are borderline starts as it is.

Barberio is the other option. He has excellent offensive instincts and suspect defensive abilities compared to others above him. If he was a righty he’d be more likely to stay to help on the power play, but it’s hard to see how he fits into things now and in the near future. Hedman, Garrison, and Carle are all lefties who will see power play time ahead of him, and Slater Koekkoek is about a season away from taking Brewer’s top-6 spot (Brewer is a UFA at year’s end). Koekkoek can put up big points while playing strong defense. He’s one of the organization’s most prized (and actually underrated) prospects. This hurts Barberio’s longterm worth with Hedman not going anywhere and Carle under contract for another four seasons. Eventually Koekkoek passes Carle. Can Barberio?

To top it off, Anthony DeAngelo (righty) will be a power play mainstay when he hits the NHL in 1-2 years. DeAngelo is AHL eligible in 2015 and is about to start his fourth full OHL season. Being an offensive defenseman with elite level power play skills, he can start as the No. 7 and get time on the power play with the big club while getting safe spot time 5-on-5. This is another potential strike against Barberio’s longterm worth, which is a bit of a shame since Barberio has paid his dues with the organization. There are just too many players in front of him now and next year (projected).

If Barberio is dealt, Matt Corrente takes over the No. 7 spot as a safe and serviceable veteran not affected by lack of developmental minutes. Sustr is also a possibility if the club thinks he needs brief NHL tutoring over AHL minutes. He is waiver exempt (for 15 more NHL games), so he can be sent down though he is on a one-way contract. That just means he gets paid NHL money for playing in the AHL.

Continuing on defense, I thought Radko Gudas hit a bit of a wall late last year, perhaps because of the minutes he was playing, or perhaps because of a nagging shoulder issue. At any rate, by the Montreal series, Gudas and Carle were better at being turnstiles than capable defensemen. Playing on the third pair will limit Gudas’ minutes and allow him to grow into his role as a shut-down defenseman rather than rush him into a two-way role. This is an underrated bonus from the free agency signings.

Back to the forwards, I originally had Paquette making the roster with Nate Thompson as the fourth “line.” Thompson is now a Duck and with Boyle on the roster, Paquette could be retained for limited minutes to play the “pest” role, or he could get solid minutes again in Syracuse while Boyle helps fill the size need and Mike Blunden and Panik can add many of the same ingredients as Paquette in Tampa. Blunden’s a player whom Cooper can safely sit as the 12th or 13th forward and not worry about stunting development. Paquette is not; advantage Syracuse.

Speaking of…

SYRACUSE:

Marchessault - Namestnikov - Kunyk
Gourde - Paquette - Samson
Ikonen - Richard - Blunden
Smin - Angelidis - Vermin

Extra: Neilson (AHL), Paradis, Gauthier

Koekkoek - Corrente
Cote - Sustr
Nesterov – Witkowski

Extra: Mormina (AHL), Sergeev, Blujus, Dotchin, or Milan

Gudlevskis/Vasilevskiy

Commentary: Corrente could be in Tampa Bay to start, but Syracuse has the depth to survive with Cote and Sustr both being righties and Sergeev slots in the bottom pair. It’s possible Mormina plays as a No. 7 with Nesterov as the third pair lefty.

The forward lines are well balanced with skill (Marchessault, Gourde, Vermin, Darcy) and scoring grit (Vladdy, Paquette, Ikonen, Costello [if signed to NHL/AHL deal], Richard). Angelidis, Neilson and Marchessault provide veteran leadership up front; Corrente and Cote at the back end, with Witkowski underrated in this category due to his age and playing experience. Goaltending shouldn’t be a question.

Get your playoff tickets now, Crunch fans.

Florida

F Darcy (if he doesn't return to QMJHL), Gauthier
D Three of Nesterov, Sergeev, Blujus, Dotchin, Milan
G Allen York (AHL)

Commentary: Gauthier was an excellent signing out of Saint John, but aside from social media, he hasn’t found his footing in the organization. He’s produced when in Syracuse, but there are 2-way ability questions that seem to hold him back. He’s equally as likely to break out in Syracuse as he is to start in Florida, the latter of which would be a disappointment for him to be sure. Rookie blueliners Blujus and Dotchin wouldn’t be hurt by starting in Florida as at least they’d be getting playing time. With Milan playing part of last year with CHL Brampton, it’s hard to see how he fits into the plans. This is the last year of his entry-level contract and he has a lot of rungs to climb.

In conclusion, everything looks good on paper for the Lightning and Crunch to both make multi-series playoff runs, but it's the unpredictable that will determine if the teams are golfing or working on their beards next spring. Injuries, unforeseen slumps, developmental stalls, and the occasional unexplainable trade demand could blow up the plan. They've happened before. That's what makes depth and preparation so integral, and why Steve Yzerman has his team in position to withstand some body shots on its way to what could be a Conference Finals knockout.

Is it October yet?