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BriseBois emphasizes depth on first day of free agency

Tampa Bay added three goaltenders and picked up some additional help on the blueline

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning didn't make waves across the National Hockey League with their haul on the first day of free agency.

But when you're bringing back the bulk of a team that won a NHL record-tying 62 games during the regular season last season, is a splashy signing really necessary?

The Lightning made a number of depth moves on Monday, most notably signing right shot defenseman Luke Schenn to a one-year, $700,000 contract, backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney to a two-year deal with an average annual value of $1.3 million and bringing back a familiar face in defenseman Luke Witkowski, who played 54 games for the Lightning from 2014-17 and spent the last two seasons as a winger in the Detroit Red Wings organization.

In Schenn, the Lightning are getting a League veteran with over 700 games to his credit yet one that's also under the age of 30 (he's 29 and doesn't turn 30 until November 2). Last season, Schenn split 26 games between Anaheim and Vancouver - he was traded to the Canucks on January 17 - but it was in Vancouver where the 6-foot-2, 221-pound rearguard really picked up his play toward the end of the regular season and caught the eye of Bolts management according to Lightning general manager BriseBois.

"When I got to interview him during the interview period last week, we were talking about why that was and the work he's been doing to continue to improve as a player and we just thought he'd be a really good fit and a really good addition to our D corps," BriseBois said. "Obviously, the contract works for us and he can bring some physicality and size to our back end. Really happy to be able to come to terms on a contract with him."

With Schenn and Witkowski in the fold - it's unclear whether the Lightning will target Witkowski as a defenseman as he played in his first stint with the Lightning or will move to the right wing like he did for Detroit - BriseBois said the blue line as presently constructed is likely the one fans can expect when the puck drops on opening night October 3.

"I'm very comfortable going into the season with those players," BriseBois said about his defensive corps, which includes veterans Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Braydon Coburn; youngsters Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak; and depth players Jan Rutta, Schenn and Witkowski. "At the same time as I've repeated in the past, we're always looking for opportunities to improve our team. We're always analyzing any proposals that are made. We're looking at other teams' depth charts. We're looking at our own and trying to find any area where we can move our team forward. But I would expect that this is the D corps we're going to go into the season with. And our attention now is probably turning to signing our group twos (restricted free agents) in the coming days and weeks."

The addition of McElhinney gives the Lightning a veteran backup netminder for the next two seasons at a cost that benefits the organization. The 36-year-old McElhinney set career highs in Carolina during the 2018-19 regular season for games (33), wins (20) and saves (1,978) and helped backstop the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final by winning three of his five playoff appearances.

McElhinney also brings a calming presence to a Lightning locker room that will be without Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi this season. Callahan has been forced to retire due to back issues, Stralman signed a new contract with the Florida Panthers on Monday and BriseBois said Girardi wouldn't be back with the Lightning in 2019-20.

"We got to sign Curtis McElhinney, who's a goaltender that we've always liked, who's a veteran backup who knows the role, has a strong track record in that role and can bring a veteran presence to our locker room," BriseBois said. "So, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense if we could agree on a two-year deal at a cap number that was I feel advantageous for us, it made sense for us to do that."

So where does that leave current backup goalie Louis Domingue? That remains to be seen, but BriseBois said with the resurgence Domingue had this season with the Lightning and his desire to be a starter at the NHL level in the very near future, the likelihood of bringing him back beyond this season - Domingue is an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 - was unlikely.

"Louis had a fabulous season for us," BriseBois said. "He's still young. I think he was able to reset his career once he joined our organization and is on the upswing. He wants an opportunity a year from now to be able to play more games and play a bigger role on a different team probably because we have Andrei Vasilevskiy here and he's not going anywhere. And I don't begrudge that. I understand that. So, looking into the future, I see that we're going to need a backup a year from now."

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