Alex DeBrincat, Buffalo Sabres, Connor Clifton, Detroit Red Wings, Erik Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning’s Playoff Spot Will Be Threatened by 2 Teams

Everyone knew it was going to happen, and it did. With the Tampa Bay Lightning up against the salary cap for the 2023-24 season, they were once again forced to let important players go that were integral parts of their recent playoff success, including winning two Stanley Cups.

Related: 2023 NHL Free Agency Tracker

Make no mistake about it. General manager Julien Brisebois did everything possible to keep the Lightning’s core together. But in the end, the economics of the NHL’s flat salary cap led to the departure of two key members and forced them to let other veteran free agents sign with other teams. On paper, the 2023-24 version of the Lightning will not be as strong as they have been in previous seasons, which gives the opportunity for at least two Atlantic Division rivals to pass them in the standings, and will threaten the team’s long-run appearance in the playoffs.

Lightning Transactions

Before we look at the teams that will push the Lightning for a playoff spot, let’s take a look at the current transactions the Lightning have made during this free-agency period. As expected, Alex Killorn left via free agency and signed a four-year contract with the Anaheim Ducks. Ross Colton was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for a second-round pick this season, which was used to select a very talented Ethan Gauthier. Pat Maroon was traded to the Minnesota Wild for a seventh-round pick in 2024. Ian Cole also left via free agency, Corey Price signed with the Chicago Blackhawks after his rights were traded away, and backup goaltender Ben Bishop retired and accepted an executive position with the Dallas Stars.

Alex Killorn Tampa Bay Lightning
Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Brisebois turned to some bargains in the free agent market to fill out the roster. To date, the Lightning have signed veteran defenseman Calvin de Haan, forwards Luke Glendening, Josh Archibald, and Conor Sheary, and goaltender Jonas Johansson. The 32-year-old de Haan led the Carolina Hurricanes in hits last season, adding some physicality to the Lightning’s defensive core. Although projected as a fourth-line center, Glendening is still one of the better faceoff men in the NHL, an area where the Lightning can use some help. Sheary has won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Johansson was signed to be the backup for starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

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While the Lightning are still in a good position to make the playoffs in 2023-24, at least two teams will be serious contenders to bump them from a playoff spot.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres came within one point of claiming a playoff spot this season, and their team only got stronger in the offseason. Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, and Alex Tuch man the Sabres’ top line that scored 82, 94, and 79 points respectively last season and will look to improve on those numbers. They also saw the emergence of 21-year-old goaltender Devon Levi, who posted a 2.94 goals-against average last season in the seven games he started, hoping for similar numbers this season. Veteran Eric Comrie and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen are options if Levi does not perform as he did last season.

Alex Tuch Buffalo Sabres
Alex Tuch, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Sabres addressed their most significant weakness during free agency, depth on the blue line, by signing free agents Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson. Clifton played last season with the Boston Bruins and spent time on their second-unit penalty kill, which was the league’s top-ranked unit. He blocked 120 shots and dished out 208 hits while averaging 17:51 a night in time-on-ice. His physical style of play will be more than welcome in Buffalo. As for Johnson, he was the first-overall pick in the 2006 NHL Draft and won the Stanley Cup as a member of the Colorado Avalanche in 2022.

Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman was busy in free agency, adding some depth to the team by signing 11 free agents, such as veterans J.T. Compher and Shayne Gostisbehere. While having a deep prospect pool, the ever-competitive Yzerman is clearly making sure that his team will be competitive in 2023-24. While the current roster may not make them playoff contenders, acquiring Alex DeBrincat would make them a serious threat to make the playoffs next season.

The Red Wings remain one of two teams who are finalists for acquiring DeBrincat. The biggest obstacle is the contract, as the talented forward has a $9 million qualifying offer for 2023-24 from the Ottawa Senators, but his camp is looking for a long-term contract for the 25-year-old. The Red Wings and the other team involved in trade talks, the New York Islanders, will need to know if a contract can be worked out before sending assets to Ottawa. The Farmington Hills, Michigan-born right-winger is averaging 35 goals per campaign in his six-year NHL career and would provide the scoring punch that is lacking on the current Red Wings’ roster.

With a core of eight Stanley Cup veterans still remaining on the Lightning’s roster, the team is still in a very good position to qualify for the playoffs and even make a run at another Stanley Cup. However, this season will provide more questions than ever with the number of new players added to the roster. These players will need to come close to hitting the ceiling of their talent so that up-and-coming teams like the Sabres and the Red Wings do not pass them in the race for the 2024 Playoffs.

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