Without a doubt the big talk around Tampa Bay during this offseason, other than the upcoming Consolidated Bargaining Agreement negotiations, will be the search for a true #1 Goaltender to man the crease for the Bolts. As important as it is for the organization to find that key piece to fit between the pipes, it must also ensure it has the key pieces in front of said pipes, manning the blueline. Solid defense leads to even better goaltending and. With a solid blueline and netminder in hand, it will create more opportunities for our already robust offensive corps of skaters.
Currently the only defensemen that will be on contract for 2012 are Eric Brewer, Victor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund, and Marc-Andre Bergeron. At first glance, one might say “Alright, we’ve got four signed, should be easy to fill out the rest,” unfortunately that is not the case. Brewer has been off and on throughout the past campaign and Ohlund has had surgeries on both knees and it is not really known whether or not they have as much chance as lasting as ice has outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Hedman has had a pretty good season admist battaling injuries and Bergeron is still suffering from the injury bug, recently having surgery himself.
Move on to the upcoming Lightning Blueline RFAs; Brian Lee, Brendan Mikkelson, Keith Aulie, and everyone’s favorite frequent flyer, Evan Oberg. Since coming on board from Ottawa Lee has made quite the impression, especially on opposing teams, tallying 54 hits in 20 games played. I would like to see and forsee Steve Yzerman and crew offer Lee a new contract for the next few years. Mikkelson will most likely get the nod as well as he has roughly averaged a hit and blocked shot per game (41 games for the Bolts) and has pretty solid defensive skills. As for Aulie and Oberg, both have looked pretty good in their time with the big show, however I feel both need a little more seasoning in the American League, especially Aulie. Aulie could surely benefit from spending time with the Lightning Development system that has produced this year’s AHL Top Defenseman in Mark Barberio.
Lastly, the Lightning’s upcoming UFAs; Brett Clark, Mike Commmodore, and Bruno Gervais. In my opinion we need to bring back Clark, a solid defenseman and loves getting in the way of shots (199 blocked shots this season). I feel Commodore will not be returning to the Bay Area, as he spent the last few games as a healthy scratch, and it was over the last 20 games of this season that he needed to prove himself to the organization to keep him. As for Gervais, I see him having a strong possibility being back in Bolt Blue as well, having continually improved his play since joining the Lightning.
What about the rest of the free agent market? What if Mikkelson, Gervais, Clark and company are not brought back on board? Well of course the two stand-out names are Nashville’s Dynamic Defensive Duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber will be a UFA after going through arbitration last year and Suter will be an RFA. Both are long shots, Weber will cost too much, and we will need most of our cap space to go towards the netminder hunt and Suter, only an RFA, wont come cheaply either. However there are two names on the upcoming UFA list which caught my attention, Hal Gill of Nashville and Shane O’Brien of Colorado. Both have the potential to bring some much needed size to the Tampa Blueline and neither have any issues with throwing that size around or blocking shots. The other upside to these two, it wouldn’t cost an arm and leg to bring them to Tampa Bay.
There are other names out there for sure, both UFA and RFA, plus the possibility of Mark Barberio getting his chance with the big show, in other words, there are plenty of options for management to work with. I just hope management will not lose track of the other needs of this team while on the hunt for a tendy. However, with Steve Yzerman leading the charge, I feel comfortable knowing that he at least will not be wearing blinders.
– Jim Courteau
Follow me on Twitter @BlackSheepJim