Trading Jonathan Drouin Is Lightning’s Best Option For Stanley Cup Run

BOSTON — Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman figures to be a busy man Monday as teams express interest in his top prospect, Jonathan Drouin, before the 3 p.m. ET NHL trade deadline.

Drouin, the 2013 No. 3 overall draft pick, requested a trade earlier in the season, and while Yzerman is under no contractual pressure to deal him by the deadline — the 20-year-old left winger’s entry-level deal doesn’t expire until after next season — it makes more sense to trade him now and acquire a player(s) capable of helping this season’s team make another run at a Stanley Cup championship.

The Eastern Conference is wide open. Sure, the Washington Capitals are running away with the Presidents’ Trophy, but they are far from unbeatable.

The Lightning struggled early in the season, but they’ve been red-hot since the calendar turned to 2016. Tampa Bay is 18-6-0 since Jan. 1 and extended its winning streak to six games after Sunday night’s victory over the Bruins in Boston.

The Lightning’s goal output, which was surprisingly low over the first three months, has increased as well. They’ve scored 70 goals since Jan. 1, and their plus-14 goal differential is the fifth-best in the league over that span.

Tampa Bay’s weakness is the blue line, and trading Drouin is the best way to bolster that area before the playoffs. Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman are legit first-pairing defensemen — both have puck possession above 55 percent at 5-on-5 using the Corsi percentage metric — but after them, the talent level isn’t nearly as good.

None of the other five Tampa Bay D-men with 35 or more games played are driving possession above 51 percent at 5-on-5, and only one player, Andrej Sustr, has tallied more than eight points at even strength. This isn’t a horrible situation, but it’s certainly not ideal, either.

Stralman-Hedman also is the only shutdown pairing for head coach Jon Cooper to use against opponents’ top lines in the playoffs. Most Stanley Cup winners have two pairings to deploy against top competition, as is the case with the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings.

Two logical defensemen targets for the Lightning to pursue are Sami Vatanen of the Anaheim Ducks and Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild. Anaheim and Minnesota both need scoring depth, and Drouin would help address that concern.

If Drouin isn’t going to factor into Tampa Bay’s long-term plans, dealing him now makes sense. One more top-four defenseman could be the difference between an early round exit and back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final for the Lightning.

Thumbnail photo via Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Nov 7, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin (27) in the third period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. The Minnesota Wild beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

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