ORLANDO — While Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman basks in the praise that comes from leading Team Canada into back-to-back gold medal games, his attention quickly will turn back to the NHL club he runs.
Before he’s able to barely catch his breath after returning from Russia, the March 5 trade deadline will have come and pass. That allows for little time between now and then to determine how he wants to move forward to try to improve the Lightning’s roster heading into the playoff stretch drive.
Tampa Bay has 24 games remaining once the schedule resumes on Thursday night in Nashville.
Sitting in second place in the Atlantic Division, seven points behind the Boston Bruins, the Lightning are in prime position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011 when Tampa Bay made an improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals. The Lightning sit eight points ahead of Columbus, Ottawa and Washington, all of which entered the Olympic break tied for ninth in the conference standings.
As is typically the case, general managers in Yzerman’s position look to bolster their team to better the chances of making the postseason and perhaps making a playoff run.
But you have to wonder how Yzerman will approach this year’s deadline with Tampa Bay in an unexpected position.
Keep in mind that Tampa Bay will get the best possible trade deadline acquisition when two-time 50-goal scorer Steven Stamkos returns to the lineup, which is expected to happen at some point in the next three weeks. No team will be able to add such a quality player to their lineup. And considering how well the team has played without Stamkos for the past three months, this is an automatic upgrade and an immediate boost.
At the same time, goaltender Ben Bishop is having a Vezina-caliber season and those performances don’t come along every year, so it might be wise to ride that wave as long as you can.
But here is the dilemma Yzerman will have to deal with when determining what route to take while navigating the trade deadline: Do you sacrifice some of the future for the now?
While that is normally the decision a general manager wrestles with when weighing trade options, consider the fact Yzerman has spoke on many occasions about wanting to build a team that is a playoff contender every season, not just once every two or three years. With a roster this season that features a handful of rookies in prominent roles, and a strong wave of talent coming up in the farm system, the Lightning are well on the way to being that type of a franchise.
Any deal made between now and March 5 no doubt would involve dealing away some sort of future — whether that’s a prospect or a draft pick — for the now. How much is the question.
According to Cap Geek, the Lightning have around $4 million in available cap space to work with.
So if you are Yzerman, what route do you take?
Do you try to boost the depth on defense and make a run at potential top rental target Andrew MacDonald from the New York Islanders? Or what about adding a front-line rental forward, such as Thomas Vanek or Matt Moulson? With the uncertainty regarding the health of Bishop, as well as that of backup goaltender Anders Lindback, might goaltending depth — Martin Brodeur? — be on the shopping list?
Or do you keep everything close to the vest and let the youth plan continue to evolve?
There will be a little mire than a week once Yzerman returns from Russia to plot out the path.