Tampa again shows why it's always one step ahead

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team in hockey and, likely, the best team of the era.

At a time when parity only seems to be increasing league-wide, this organization has continually signed its galaxy of star players to sweetheart discount deals and also found continual success at the draft table.

This is well-documented by now, certainly, but one area that is less documented is the extent to which this team has also been dominant and prescient working the phones.

The most recent of these was a swap on Friday, which saw them deal former first-round pick Slater Koekkoek and a fifth-round pick to Chicago for Jan Rutta and a seventh. Rutta was buried in the minors on a Chicago team with a poor blue line, and given the Lightning’s defensive depth, will likely stay there barring injury. But he is an NHLer in the right situation, and Tampa is always in a position to make depth guys look good.

Not the best trade and, in the end, probably not even a meaningful one. Koekkoek strikes one as a reclamation project at best, and one that Tampa is wisely getting out from under while he still has some perceived value. And that’s a common trend; they’ve traded six of their last eight first-round picks, retaining just Andrei Vasilevskiy (for obvious reasons) and 2017 first-rounder Cal Foote, who’s doing fine as an AHL rookie defenseman.

Slater Koekkoek’s time in Tampa is up. Credit: Scott Audette/Getty
Slater Koekkoek’s time in Tampa is up. Credit: Scott Audette/Getty

The other six, they flipped to make the NHL team better, which is what teams with high-quality rosters and a lot of drafted assets do. Previous to the Koekkoek trade, 2016 first rounder Brett Howden went to New York with a few other assets, including the team’s 2018 first-round pick for JT Miller and Ryan McDonagh.

(The Koekkoek trade, by the way, seems to have been made to make roster room for when Miller comes off the IR soon. Which, man, they’re winning like this without a perennial 55-point guy? Come on.)

Before that, Tony DeAngelo went to Arizona for the second-round pick that became Libor Hajek, later traded in the Miller/McDonagh acquisition. They also traded former first-round pick Vlad Namestnikov in that deal. Jonathan Drouin became Mikhail Sergachev (a high-end defender). They traded Brett Connolly for two second-round picks, neither of which panned out, but it was a good gamble.

The point, ultimately, is that this team is a little more willing to pull the chute on players who, while they provide quality on some level, may be more highly valued by other organizations. You can say what you want about Namestnikov, Hajek, Howden, Drouin (who, by the way, demanded a trade), and all the rest. The Lightning didn’t miss on those picks because they’re all NHLers. But they aren’t as valuable as the collective quality of the players they used them to acquire. Moreover, it’s easier to give up on just-okay first-rounders from 2014 if you also got Brayden Point in the third round, Nikita Kucherov in the second, or Ondrej Palat in the seventh.

You don’t need to continually onboard draftees if you’re hitting as many home runs as the Lightning have in the last seven or eight drafts. Of Tampa’s current points leaders, literally almost everyone on the current roster fall into one of three categories: Drafted (Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, Hedman, Killorn, Joseph, Cirelli, Palat, Erne, Paquette, Cernak, Vasilevskiy), traded for (Miller, McDonagh, Sergachev, Callahan, Coburn), or signed as a free agent out of junior (Johnson, Gourde).

Put another way, this is an organization so good at player evaluation that the only current contributors on the team signed via free agency are Anton Stralman (on a bargain deal after the Rangers let him walk) and Dan Girardi (bad move but only short-term and relatively low-cost).

Which is why they can sign everyone so cheaply with such great frequency: Guys only really get overpaid consistently on the free agent market or if teams don’t have a lot of internal talent. The Lightning largely don’t make bad bets on UFAs, because they don’t have to, and can say, “If Stamkos/Kucherov/Hedman took a discount, why shouldn’t you?” Doesn’t hurt that there’s no state income tax to pay in Florida, either. We’ve seen that as a selling point in Nashville too.

So when you’re aggressive on the trade market and a great talent developer, you can afford to give up on six of your last eight first-round picks. Because at some point you develop that reputation for just guessing right on many of your picks, and teams will think they’re getting players who probably aren’t as valuable as they’re perceived to be.

You can’t win every trade, and you can’t make every signing a bargain, and you’re certainly not getting a star with every draft pick. But there can’t be anyone in the league that’s as good at any of them as the Lightning. That puts them at a unique advantage in just about every other aspect of roster building.

And, hey, check the standings. They probably won’t stop any time soon.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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