Because of the success of their farm system, the Lightning have quickly found themselves in a bit of a salary crunch. Young players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn have come up the past few seasons and established themselves as important pieces of the Lightning’s forward corps. Andrej Sustr has slowly developed into a stable presence on the blue line. Andrei Vasilevskiy has continued to take steps towards becoming the Lightning’s next franchise goaltender after Ben Bishop.
Beyond those main pieces, J.T. Brown and Cedric Paquette have become prominent parts of the bottom six. Nikita Nesterov has become a serviceable depth defenseman, even if he does scare some fans whenever he’s on the ice. Vladislav Namestnikov continues to progress as a two-way center. And of course Jonathan Drouin is turning into the player that was projected for him as the third overall pick.
All of that success has meant that the costs of the core group of players has continued to go up. As they excel, so does their price. Johnson and Palat have another year left of their first restricted free agent deals and will need new contracts next summer. Killorn just signed a seven year deal this summer. Kucherov is still in limbo, but surely in line for a big pay day. Drouin and Vasilevskiy have another year left on their entry level contracts before they get raises and Vasilevskiy has already signed his next contract guaranteeing a raise to $3.5 million per year.
While the Lightning have brought along a number of forwards from the farm along with Vasilevskiy and even Kristers Gudlevskis behind him, the team has lagged somewhat behind in finding and developing defensive talent.
Slater Koekkoek appears ready to step into the line up this season, though that could be delayed by the possibility of bringing James Wisniewski into the fold on the blue line with his professional try out. Sustr has slowly turned into a dependable defenseman that at worst is a bottom pair guy and at his best can fill in among the top two pairs. But that’s it.
This summer, General Manager Steve Yzerman moved on from highly touted offensive defenseman Anthony DeAngelo mostly because of his attitude and defensive liabilities. He was replaced with a 2nd round pick of Libor Hajek who will be at least a few years away from NHL readiness. Jake Dotchin and Dylan Blujus continue to develop in Syracuse but neither has come close to being an NHL recall and may not ever get there. Syracuse will also add Ben Thomas to their ranks this season, but he is a long way from being a finished product.
Looking further ahead at the Lightning’s roster though, there are four defensemen signed for 2017-18; Victor Hedman ($7.875m), Jason Garrison ($4.6m), Anton Stralman ($4.5m), and Braydon Coburn ($3.7m). Garrison will be a free agent after 2017-18 and Stralman and Coburn will be free agents after 2018-19. It’s possible Stralman could be retained, but at some point, the Lightning will need some young defensemen from the farm to come into the picture. Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr can certainly be part of the equation, but it still leaves the blue line short a couple bodies. That leaves either free agents or prospects.
So where does that bring me? Dominik Masin. Masin was a 2nd round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. He spent the past two seasons with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL and this season will be with the Syracuse Crunch. If Yzerman wanted to move a defenseman (such as Jason Garrison) to make some salary cap room, the quick development of Masin could help ease the pain of moving such a player. He is ultimately projected as a Top 4 defenseman, more a 4 than a 2 or 3, but still capable of playing a two-way game and bringing some physicality.
Keeping an eye of Syracuse and his development should be something a lot of Lightning fans do this season. The current recall options are pretty much limited to left hander Matt Taormina and right hander Luke Witkowski. While both are capable of filling in as depth defenders, neither has high upside at this point in their development. Masin’s quick development in the pro game could lead to him being a recall option later this season. That would be a good sign for the Lightning moving forward and fans should be hoping for it with little else coming along soon from the farm.