March 29, 2013; Tampa FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper talks with left wing Cory Conacher (89) during the third period against the New Jersey Devils at Tampa Times Forum. Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the New Jersey Devils 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Oh The Controversy! Analyzing The Recent Tampa Bay Lightning Moves And The Absurdity Surrounding Them

It’s amazing the difference a game makes.  We went from Tampa Bay fans crying out in anger over the Conacher-Bishop deal (and Ottawa fans believing they’d pulled off the steal of the century), to Tampa Bay fans anointing Ben Bishop the reincarnation of Dominik Hasek (while Ottawa fans, subsequently, now believe the Sens could have gotten more for Bishop… I follow a lot of Canadian message boards.).  All in the space it took to play one game.


As we all know by now, the Tampa Bay Lightning thumped the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday night, and for the first time all year it seemed like all cylinders were firing, including the elusive goaltender cylinder.  More than anything else, what Ben Bishop did was finally inspire confidence in Lightning fans, something no goaltender has done since Dwayne Roloson caught lightning in a bottle (pun very much intended) in 2011.


I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the moves the Lightning have made over the last month or so, some of it on this very site, and it ranges from the valid to the ridiculous (and I feel like I would be forfeiting a bit of my soul to stay quiet and not point out that the vast majority of it has been ridiculous).  Of course, the ridiculousness of some of the criticism is self-evident – all you have to do is take a look at the about-face many Lightning fans have made on the Conacher-Bishop deal to see it, an about-face that took exactly one game to happen (I hate to think what will happen to many of these fans’ psyches if Conacher scores a hat-trick in his Ottawa debut, or if Bishop has an average outing in his next game).


Here’s the thing about trades: it’s not always about getting one over on another team.  It’s not always about trying to “win the trade.”  In this case, Ottawa had three netminders when there’s only room for two.  Tampa Bay had an abundance of undersized skilled forwards and there simply aren’t enough minutes in the game to give everyone playing time.  Both teams dealt a replaceable part for a much-needed one.


It’s no secret that I was, and am, a Conacher fan.  I wish him all the best in Ottawa, and, being a Canadian myself, I’m already seeing the Canadian media fall in love with him.  It was easy to predict.  What essentially happened in this deal was the Lightning were forced to deal one of their young forwards, and the Lightning chose Conacher.  And of all the young Lightning forwards, Conacher is the player Lightning fans have emotionally attached themselves to.  That’s what led to the post-trade venom.   My guess is the Lightning had a choice to make between Conacher, Johnson, Killorn, and possibly Connolly, and made their decision to trade Conacher based on a combination of his stock value and the team’s own internal evaluation of him in comparison with his peers.


Many Lightning fans seem to have deluded themselves into believing Cory Conacher is the next Martin St. Louis.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Apart from being small and quick, Conacher’s game is almost a polar opposite of St. Louis’.  Conacher plays a crash and bang, dare I say reckless, kind of style, which is rare in such an undersized forward.  He darts around the ice and knocks pucks loose and creates havoc.  St. Louis, on the other hand, is the definition of a finesse forward, handling the puck in traffic, often circling back to slow the play down and check his options.  Conacher’s game is straight ahead, and it’s always in high gear.  A better comparison might be Theo Fleury, or even a young Ryan Smyth.


Conacher’s going to be a good scoring forward in the league, but he’ll always depend on his teammates to put up numbers.  When he’s playing with elite linemates, he’ll produce, because he’ll win pucks in the offensive zone that his skilled teammates can put away, and he’ll go to the front of the net and eat up rebounds.  But with mediocre linemates, Conacher’s numbers will drop drastically, as they did this year with the Lightning.  My best guess is he will be a solid 20-30 goal scorer for Ottawa (50-70 points) so long as they keep him on the top two lines.  He’s going to have a very good career.


The key to remember in this trade is that the Lightning are hoping the goaltender of the future is actually Andrei Vasilevski, currently of the KHL.  TSN’s Ray Ferraro recently said there are many scouts who believe Vasilevski, just 18 years old, is already the best goaltender outside the NHL.  But the Lightning are going to bring him along slowly.  Bishop and Anders Lindback will compete for playing time until Vasilevski is ready to become an NHL backup (which probably won’t happen until he moves to the AHL and proves he can be a starter there), and then the Lightning will be left with, hopefully, a valuable commodity to move.


The controversy before that was over Guy Boucher’s firing, though I think that one has settled because of the success the team has had since his departure.  I’ve seen many fans asking why the team didn’t play this well for Boucher.  If you’re one of these people, the answer, I’m afraid, is staring you right in the face – it wasn’t that the team didn’t play this well for Boucher, it was that the team didn’t play this well because of Boucher.  That’s a hard truth to swallow, but its evidence is everywhere.


First of all, Tampa Bay’s defensive core is not bad.  It’s not great, but it’s not bad, and it’s not nearly as bad as it looked under Coach Boucher .   It’s probably about an average NHL defense.  Boucher’s system made it very hard for the Bolts to transition out of their own end, which in turn led to about 70% of the play taking place inside the Lightning blue line – that’s not a great scenario when your team boasts two of the league’s top five scorers.  The only evidence you need to see that this was a Boucher-related problem is how well the Lightning have been transitioning out of their zone since his dismissal.  They still occasionally get pinned in their own end from time to time, but these days they’re pinning their opponents down just as often, and that wasn’t the case under Boucher.


The most visible beneficiaries of Jon Cooper’s new, simpler, system have been Matt Carle and Teddy Purcell.  Matt Carle is suddenly putting up points again, and we’re finally starting to see the outlet pass he was acquired for.  Teddy Purcell, meanwhile, has simplified his game and no longer appears out of sync at either end of the ice, as he did prior to Cooper’s arrival.


Again, most of the Boucher controversy had a lot more to do with fans’ emotional attachment to him as a person than anything regarding his coaching abilities.  He seemed like a great guy, and was a very smart hockey man.  But he was implementing systems that were either flawed right from the chalkboard or that his team was simply incapable of executing.  And he didn’t adapt.


There were smaller moves before that.  The Bolts resigned BJ Crombeen for a small amount of dollars.  Crombeen was brought in to be the team’s chief tough guy, but Crombeen’s simply not big or strong enough to go toe to toe with the league’s premiere heavyweights.  But Crombeen wasn’t resigned for his fists.  He was resigned because he’s proven himself an effective fourth line grinder.  More importantly, he’s cheap, and with the salary cap going down next year, and Vincent Lecavalier’s contract still hanging like an albatross around this team’s neck, cheap is good.


Adam Hall’s carousel ride that ultimately landed him in Philly is an interesting one.  To me, the move looks like a lost gamble with an acceptable worst case scenario.  Both Adam Hall and Marc Andre Bergeron had lost their roster spots on the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Bergeron had become a defensive liability when he played.  Hall was a good fourth liner, but it’s hard to justify his place on the team when rookie Tyler Johnson has proven more than capable of handling the same role, and with a better offensive upside.  In the end, Tampa lost both players, getting only a 7th rounder in return, though neither Hall nor Bergeron (who were strangely traded for each other at one point) are valuable enough to bring a roster player back in a trade.  Tampa, trying to sneak Hall through waivers a second time to get him to Syracuse, wound up losing him as well as Bergeron, which was the worst case scenario.  But realistically, worst case scenario clears up over $1.5 M of contract space for next season, which is an acceptable result.  And again, the salary cap is going down next year, and every dollar is going to count.


Whether you agree with these moves or not, it’s important that you try to understand them, and that the Bolts are a better team with Bishop than they were before Bishop.  And the Bolts are better with Cooper than they were before Cooper.


But it’s also important that you keep this in mind: the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t as good as they’ve looked over the past few games.  Just like Cory Conacher is not the next Martin St. Louis, neither is Ben Bishop the next Dominik Hasek.  The Bolts aren’t going to come back from every two goal deficit, and they’re not going to shut out teams on any sort of regular basis.  What they are is a team that’s still building itself, and finding itself, and there have been some growing pains.  There will be more.


But they’re on the right path.  They’re not as bad as they looked under Guy Boucher (nor was it entirely Boucher’s fault that they looked as bad as they did – it snowballed as the team mentally checked out on him).   This is going to be a long process.  There are going to be many more fan favorites that wind up in some other team’s colors, and Jon Cooper’s not going to be the Lightning’s lifelong coach.  That’s the nature of professional sports.


What’s important is that we don’t let our emotions, or our emotional attachments, distort our view.  Instead of being angry that Cory Conacher is gone, because we liked him personally, we should be happy for him – he’s going to a better fit in Ottawa, he’s going to play a lot of top-six minutes, and he’ll be a darling of the Canadian media.  I daresay he’ll be better off there financially as well, with endorsement opportunities.  I, for one, just became a little bit more of an Ottawa Senators fan.


And, believe it or not, when Guy Boucher gets another NHL coaching opportunity, I’ll be cheering for his success too (except in cases when his success will directly affect the Lightning’s success, obviously).  He’s going to use his experience in Tampa to his advantage, and at risk of sounding confrontational, I hope he learns from his mistakes.  I think the man is an incredible hockey mind, and I hope someday to see his talents applied effectively.


Meanwhile, our own team keeps chugging along, growing pains and all.  We, as fans, should take comfort in the knowledge that we’re better today than we were yesterday.  But the best news of all, with our young core coming up through Syracuse, with our new young goaltending tandem, and with Andrei Vasilevski having plenty of time to develop in Russia, tomorrow looks like it’ll be even better than today.

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