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Wednesday, Jul 18, 2018
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Without a first-rounder, Lightning still could have busy draft weekend

The Lightning doesn't have a first-round pick in this weekend's draft, but that's not to say the weekend couldn't be busy for general manager Steve Yzerman and his front office.

The Lightning sent its top draft pick to the Rangers in February as part of a package to acquire defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller, who helped Tampa Bay reach the Eastern Conference final.

Given the high expectations for the Lightning, there will be the temptation to make a trade, perhaps to upgrade the defense or a penalty kill that struggled and ranked among the bottom five in the league.

The talented nucleus that led Tampa Bay to the Atlantic Division crown last season will return largely intact, but Yzerman must act with an awareness that key players are in line for major contracts down the road. Forwards Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point can become restricted free agents next summer, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy after the 2019-20 season.

Would Yzerman be willing to break up part of the core group that has reached three conference finals in four years in order to set up greater potential success? Forward Tyler Johnson is under contract for the next six seasons at $5 million per year, but his no-trade clause takes effect July 1. So the Lightning has a limited window in which to deal him without limitations and trade from a position of strength (scoring depth) to address needs in other areas.

"How much it changes depends on what options, what opportunities are out there," Yzerman said last month after the postseason ended with a Game 7 loss in the conference final to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Capitals. "It's difficult to change significantly for us at this stage. It's a challenge. We need to improve."

The Lightning still has all of its regular picks in the second through seventh rounds Saturday, plus an additional seventh-round pick. Yzerman has shown a penchant for turning midround picks into stars. Kucherov was a second-round pick in 2011, and Point was a third-round pick in 2014. Promising rookie forward Anthony Cirelli also was a third-round pick, in 2015. Forward Ondrej Palat was a seventh-round pick in Kucherov's class.

One of Yzerman's biggest moves last year came a week before the draft, when he traded promising forward Jonathan Drouin to Montreal and picked up defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who was plus-11 over a full season as a rookie last year and doesn't turn 20 until Monday.

The defense may be the most obvious need, should Yzerman make a major move in advance of free agency's start July 1. Adding a large salary may require short-term adjusting, but the Lightning has four defensemen (McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn) who can become free agents after next season, creating flexibility.

Coach Jon Cooper has already revamped his coaching staff, parting with associate head coach Rick Bowness and assistant Brad Lauer. Both posts are open. The right hire there could help the Lightning on special teams. The penalty kill was a vulnerability, and even the power play, a strength throughout the regular season, went 1-for-6 over the final four games against Washington.

Cooper said the difference between the NHL's best teams is "razor thin," so Tampa Bay might be hesitant to make any dramatic changes to a group that has grown together in the past four seasons and is poised for another deep playoff push in 2019.

Just how far that push goes could be decided with a move or two, starting this weekend.

Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] Follow @GregAuman.

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