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Free Agency Targets for the 2021-22 Lightning

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By Michael Wax

With the NHL having a different calendar this year, the normal ‘July 1st’ is now July 28th. All 32 teams, including the new Seattle Kraken, will have their shot at improving their teams through the new free agency day. It’s no secret that the Lightning are going to be losing pieces this off-season, as Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and David Savard have priced themselves out of long-term deals with the Bolts, + the expansion draft and the cap overages for next season will mean more players will be out the door. In order to find replacements, the Lightning will have to do some bargain bin shopping this time around. With the help of JFreshHockey’s player cards, we’re going to do some bargain hunting to try to find the best possible free agent targets for the Lightning. (NOTE: They do not need to sign all of these players, these are just suggestions).

Option 1: Mark Jankowski, LW/RW

Defense wins championships, as we've seen the past 2 seasons. Not only do the defenders have to be at their best, but the forwards have to be defensively responsible. To continue that type of playstyle into next season, Mark Jankowski seems like the perfect guy to go after.

Right away, his offensive numbers and plummeting WAR may jump out as concerning stats. Jankowski's never been that guy though. His highest points in a season were 32, and he's scored 14+ goals twice in four full seasons. However, take a look at those defensive and penalty-killing numbers: those are very solid. Jankowski could be a really solid bottom 6 option, becoming the successor to Barclay Goodrow: little scoring, great defense, great penalty killing. It's not a bad thing to be a low-event player, and Jankowski is the perfect fit.

Option 2: Michael Grabner, LW/RW

No chart? Well, Michael Grabner did not play last season after being bought out by the Coyotes. However, the Lightning need penalty killers after the departure of Goodrow, Gourde, and Coleman all in the span of a few days. Enter Michael Grabner.

On a team full of aging vets, Grabner would be the old man on the team at 34 years old when the next season rolls around. Even so, Grabner is one of the NHL's fastest players and most elite penalty killers. The Coyotes were one of the best teams in the NHL in penalty killing when Grabner was with them, as they were tied for first in penalty kill percentage in 2019-20 (85.5%), and top five in PK % in 2019-20 (82.7%). Not only that, but Grabner was 2nd in the entire NHL among qualified candidates in short-handed points per 60 minutes, only trailing Roope Hintz. Not only can Grabner kill off penalties, but he can also put your team at an advantage by generating scoring chances and scoring goals, similar to Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

At 5-on-5, Grabner shouldn't be expected to do too much. His hands aren't nearly as good as they were late in the 2010s when he posted back-to-back 25 goal campaigns. However, I see him being a really solid mentor to a player like Mathieu Joseph. Joseph, like Grabner, is extremely fast but tried to use his speed too often during his early years. Last year, he seemed to put all of the pieces together, becoming a vital member of the regular-season squad. Seeing as he's following Grabner's career almost to a tee, I'd like to see Grabner teach Joseph about utilizing his speed on the penalty kill, making him a more dangerous option in the future.

Option 3: Zach Bogosian, RHD

Hey, it’s an old friend! 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Zach Bogosian is set to hit the open market once again after his one-year deal with the Leafs expired. Brought in by the Lightning in February of the 2019-20 season, Bogosian struggled until the pause, but made an effort to get better for whenever the season would resume. He finally allowed for his hip to heal from surgery (something Buffalo never let him do) and was a rejuvenated player heading into the bubble, where he proceeded to play some of his best hockey.

Bogosian’s charts do not look that great at first glance, but I have explanations for all 3 years of the chart.

2018-19: It’s Buffalo

2019-20: It’s Buffalo + Bogosian was much better in the bubble

2020-21: Playing sheltered, 3rd pair minutes (least TOI in his entire career), Bogosian made strides in both offensive and defensive efficiency with the Leafs.

With David Savard on his way out of town, the Lightning are going to need a strong 3rd-pair, right-handed defenseman. Bogosian fits that role perfectly.

Option 4: Jon Merrill, LHD

Ok, so this spot was originally reserved for Nicklas Hjalmarsson, but he retired a few days ago. Hjalmarsson or not, the Lightning are going to need another member of the defense. Cooper doesn't seem to trust Cal Foote yet, and Luke Schenn has been linked to the Vancouver Canucks, trying to cash in on his solid playoffs à la Zach Bogosian in 2021. The Lightning have a very rough pipeline of defenders, so they need free agents.

Analytics really, really like Merrill's defensive game, and the eye test backs it up. His offense just vanished over the past two seasons, but his defense is fantastic, and his penalty killing has gotten a lot better over the past few seasons. He's got a problem with taking penalties, which is very similar to Sergachev. This could be a really good get for the Bolts if it happens.

Option 5: Antti Raanta, G

This may be a pipe dream but bear with me here.

To be very honest, the goaltending market is very bad this year. 15 of the 26 UFA goalies have a save percentage over .900, but there's a reason that most teams are looking into the trade market to find their potential starter. Luckily, the Lightning have their dude in net in the Big Cat, Andrei Vasilevskiy. However, Curtis McElhinney is 37 and even though he's rumored to be coming back, many in Bolts Nation would like to see a change at the backup goalie position. Antti Raanta is a monster, and the only question mark about his game is health. He might sign a big contract, but the Lightning's pitch to Raanta should be simple: No State Tax, Beaches, and Stanley Cups.

Get it done JBB.

A huge thank you to JFreshHockey, go check out his Patreon and his Substack. He's been doing some fantastic work, and advancing the game of hockey through his analytics.

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