By Jake Ricker
The Lightning have gone from the laughing stock of the NHL to the powerhouse of the NHL after winning back-to-back cups and making a third straight Stanley Cup final. But with the Lightning players getting older and many having been traded due to cap constraints, how much longer might the championship window be open?
The Lightning still have a lot of their core players signed long-term, so it is not out of the question they can still field a competitive team for years to come. Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point, Nick Paul, and Nikita Kucherov all have at least five years left on their deals.
Players like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, who have two and three years left on their deals, will more than likely resign with the team. The same can be said for Brandon Hagle, who has two years left but is then an RFA (restricted free agent). Even if Hagle does leave, the Lightning will more than likely get good compensation for his services
Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, and Point constantly make up the top 5 players in points on the team when healthy. Cirelli and Paul are also very good defensively and can score as well. Hagel also showed signs of huge offensive talent in Chicago, scoring 25 and 37 points in his last two years. While his production was much lower during his short time with the Lightning, he will now likely be playing in a top 6 role and could see some increased production.
All of these players mentioned above leave you with a lineup that looks something like this:
Stamkos - Point - Kucherov
Paul - Cirelli - Hagel
Hedman - Sergachev
Three good defencemen and a world-class goaltender. With a very solid top 6, especially if Hagel can continue to improve. Then with your remaining cap space, the rest of the roster is filled out, and you have yourself a contender.
As for age, all of the players listed above have an average age of 27 years old. This is higher due to players like Stamkos and Hedman being over 30 years old, but a lot of stars will still play into their late 30s in today's game
The main reason the Lightning have the ability to put together a contender is Vasilevskiy. He has constantly put up outstanding numbers year after year. He has never had under a .915 SV% and a GAA higher than 2.80. As long as he doesn't show signs of slowing down there’s no reason the Lightning should get more than enough goal scoring to be a threat game in and game out.
The other key to success for the Lightning is their prospects. As shown earlier, the Lightning can put together a solid core for years to come and find a few players from free agency and years prior (such as Alex Killorn) to round out the team. But if you then add young Lightning prospects who start to step up into bigger roles, it starts to make the Lightning look that much more dangerous.
Take Cale Foote, for example. For the past few years, he has been the 7th D-man for the Lightning but is not starting to take on a larger role. As he continues to progress, he can start to add to the Lightning core of players as others leave it, keeping that window open. The same can be said for ABB, who could be a great replacement for Ondrej Palat in a few years.
The Lightning won't have their window open forever, but with a little development and a few good re-signings and acquisitions, they should be just fine. Enjoy while it last, as once players such as Stamkos and Hedman retire, major changes will be around the corner.
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