By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Tampa Bay Lightning have thrown the first punch in the Atlantic Division arms race.
Downright barreling down on the Bruins with wins in 22 of their last 25 games and sitting just three points behind Boston (and with a game in hand), the Lightning bolstered their squad on Sunday with the addition of forward Blake Coleman from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for prospect Nolan Foote and a 2020 first-round pick.
Coleman had been one of the lone bright spots on a straight-up horrendous New Jersey squad in 2019-20, with 21 goals and 31 points through 57 games this season, putting him just one goal and five points away from matching career-highs set last season. Coleman was also one of just four NHLers to score at least 20 goals and total 200 hits last season, joining a list featuring Blue Jackets winger Josh Anderson and the unmatched Washington one-two of Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. Pretty, pretty good company there.
A 5-foot-11 left shot capable of playing all three forward positions, the bonus for Tampa Bay comes with the fact that the 28-year-old Coleman is also under contract for next season. And at a highly, highly affordable $1.8 million no less.
The Lightning were not alone in their pursuit of Coleman, either, as it’s believed that the Colorado Avalanche and Boston Bruins were also in talks with the Devils regarding the versatile winger before the Bolts made their offer.
And it was an offer that would’ve been awfully tough to match.
Foote, who was drafted by the Lightning with the 27th overall pick last year, is a 6-foot-4 forward who heads to the Devils with 51 goals and 99 points in his last 92 games for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. The first-round pick sent to New Jersey, meanwhile, is the conditional first-round pick the Canucks sent to the Bolts in exchange for forward J.T. Miller last summer. The condition on that pick is that the 2020 first-round pick will become a 2021 first-round selection should the Canucks fail to qualify for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs (the Canucks enter Monday in second place in the Pacific Division and are three points clear of the Coyotes for the second wild card in the Western Conference).
That Vancouver pick was truly an unmatched asset in trade talks (at least when you stack the Bolts up against the Avs and the Bruins), really, as the Lightning still possess their natural first-round pick, giving them room to gamble on a higher asking price.
But when looking at the price paid, there’s no doubt that this was also the Lightning realizing the reality of their Cup window.
One of the league’s most talented squads for over half a decade, the Lightning remain in (an increasingly desperate) search for their first Stanley Cup since 2004. They looked primed for a historic demolition of the competition last year with their record-tying regular season, too, but found themselves instead swept out of the first round by the eight-seed Blue Jackets.
And this year really feels like their last kick at a Cup with this core, as the Lightning have just three defensemen signed for 2020-21, breakout star Anthony Cirelli in need of a new deal, and with Andrei Vasilevskiy’s cap hit jumping from $3.5 million to $9.5 million next season. Money’s going to be tight (Tampa’s currently projected to have just over $6 million in cap space this summr), and with the stripping away set to continue in summer 2020, this honestly might be it for this group.
So they’re acting like it.
How Bruins general manager Don Sweeney responds to this move, however, remains to be seen and will be one hell of a talking point over the next week. It’s been said that the Bruins are in on everybody from Chris Kreider to Josh Anderson to Tyler Toffoli, and nothing’s changed with those players as of right now. But even if the prices are a little steep for Sweeney, the Bolts’ decision to push their chips to the middle of the table may force Sweeney to come to terms with the reality of the window in front of his own team and go for an equalizing home run play.
The NHL trade deadline is on Feb. 24.