Is it possible to go from being a Stanley Cup contender to rebuilding in less than one year? I didn't think so, but the Tampa Bay Lightning are trying their darnedest to make it happen.
After coming one game short of making the Stanley Cup Finals last season, the Bolts have already run themselves out of playoff contention. Forty games into the season, the Bolts are a miserable 17-20-3 (37 points), putting them closer to last place in the Eastern Conference (34 pts.) than to tenth place (44 pts.). While a midseason turnaround is possible -- this is largely the same roster that the Bolts had last season, after all -- their odds of jumping over at least five teams in the standings are slim to none.
So with this season all but a lost cause, general manager Steve Yzerman should already have his focus turned toward the future. How close are the Bolts to contention? Do they only need one or two parts to fix their team and turn them into contenders next year? Or do they need a larger overhaul of the team?
There's some good and bad news on this front. The Lightning don't necessarily need a large overhaul. Like mentioned above, the core of their roster is the same as when they came within one win of the Cup Finals. To get back in the hunt, they need to add some defensive depth and an effective goaltender, but those are their only major roster holes at the moment. Victor Hedman and Eric Brewer give the Bolts an effective top defensive line, and their offense is more than set with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, and a number of cheap, effective role players (Tom Pyatt, Dada Tyrell, Nate Thompson).
But....(you knew this was coming)...
There are some large reasons for concern with the Bolts. Not immediate concerns, but long term ones. The Lightning currently have the second-oldest roster in the NHL, which is generally not something you want to see on a team that's trying to rebuild. Also, due to their salary cap situation, they may not actually be able to add a top goalie and enough defensive depth to make them competitors next season. They only have $19 million in cap space for next season, and they will have a whopping 14 roster holes to fill with that money. Maybe they can splurge on a goalie or one defender, but after that, they'll have to go bargain shopping.
And looking beyond next season, things get even grimmer. As of right now, the Bolts already have $39 million in cap space committed to nine players for the 2013-2014 season. The year after that, they have $37 million committed to seven players. This leaves them around $25 million in cap space to flesh out all their offensive and defensive depth, not to mention somehow procuring a goalie. It would be one thing if the Lightning had a farm system that was brimming with NHL-ready talent, but their system A) isn't very deep, B) doesn't have many prospects that are almost ready to make the jump to the NHL, and C) is very offense heavy.
In other words, the Lightning are a team stuck in the middle. They have enough talent to be decent for the next couple season, trusting that Yzerman can find good bargains, but they are unlikely to be more than a fringe playoff team, at best.
So what should the Lightning do? They have a solid core in place, but they need to get younger and they need to free up cap space. And when you state the problem in those terms, the obvious solution all but smacks you in the face: they need to trade Vincent Lecavalier.
Don't get me wrong, I love Vinny. He's one of my favorite players on the Lightning, and there's no denying that he is still one of the key linchpins of their offense. Vinny is also an outstanding human being, and he's donated tons of money to local charities and been more involved in the Tampa Bay area than 99% of star athletes. There's a reason he's the team Captain, and not all of it has to do with his on-the-ice play.
But...(here we go again)...
Vinny's contract is almost single-handedly handicapping Yzerman's ability to build a competitive team in the coming years. At 31 years old, Lecavalier has left his peak years behind him; he hasn't scored more than 30 goals in a season since the 2007-2008 season, and he's averaged 53 points per season over the past three years. Don't get me wrong, that's valuable; he's currently tied for 66th in the NHL in total points, and the Lightning would surely have a weaker offense without him. It's just that his performance isn't exactly worth his contract: he's going to be a $7.7 million cap hit each year until 2020, at which point he will be 40 years old.
That $7.7 million cap hit is the sixth largest cap hit in the NHL, and it's by far the largest (and longest) deal held by a player on the wrong side of 30. It may not have reached "albatross" level yet, but there are still plenty of years left for that. It'll get there; the only question is how soon.
At this point, if the Lightning could trade Vinny, it would be a huge coup for the franchise. Even if they didn't get much back in a trade, the Lightning would have freed themselves of Vinny's contract and they would be able to re-allocate that money to positions of need. Heck, just this past offseason the Florida Panthers signed Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann for a combined total of $7.6 million. Those two guys have scored 32 goals for the Panthers and racked up 73 points.
Trading Vinny would make the Lightning worse this season, but it would undoubtedly give them a better shot of winning in the future. The only question is, can it actually be done?
There are a couple obstacles to a trade. Lecavalier has a no-trade clause in his contract, so he can veto any deal he wants. And even if the Bolts talked him into a trade, his contract is going to make him a difficult target to move. There are a number of teams in contention that could afford to add him -- the Blackhawks, Wild, Jets, Senators, Stars, Predators, and a few more -- but the question is still, would they want to? As for that, I don't know.
If there's hope for the Lightning, it's that Lecavalier is having a strong season thus far. He's scored 15 goals already and his shot percentage is as high as always (12.1%), and the Lightning get off more shots with him on the ice than off it. All this is with Lecavalier facing tougher on-ice competition than any of the Lightning's other offensive-minded forwards. He's showing other teams that he still has plenty left in the tank, which may ease concerns and make him easier to deal.
Steve Yzerman is at a crossroads. He's publicly stated that he intends to rebuild the franchise and that it will be an ongoing process, but now we get to see if he's willing to put actions behind his words. Even attempting to trade Vinny would be a huge process that would quickly develop into a media firestorm, but it's something that needs to happen for the long-term (and short-term) success of the franchise. Dealing Vinny may not seem like an attractive option, but then again, neither is the prospect of multiple years of mediocre hockey in Tampa.