Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning Off-Season Wish List

With the Stanley Cup Finals well underway and the NHL Entry Draft less than two weeks from now, that beautiful time for all non-playoff teams is almost upon us: the off-season. Bryan Burke, the ill-fated former G.M. of the Toronto Maple Leafs famously said (and still says) that the NHL Trade Deadline is where teams make their biggest mistakes. The off-season, on the other hand, gives G.M.s to consider their options long and hard. It’s where the tinkering is done, where G.M.s prep their rosters for the upcoming season like a mechanic might get a prized vehicle race-ready. The big decisions are made during the off-season, decisions that not only impact the upcoming season, but the identity of the franchise itself.

Nov 30, 2011; Detroit, MI, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman before the game against the Detroit Red Wings at the Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, not all teams have the same goals. The Philadelphia Flyers, for instance, likely have a much different vision of a “perfect team” than the Pittsburgh Penguins. G.M. Steve Yzerman is too early in his general managing career for us to know exactly what his idea of the ideal team is, but if we look at the man he apprenticed under, Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings, and look at the general shape of the Syracuse Crunch, we can make some assumptions about the team he’s trying to build. There are also hints in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s lineup, where it’s becoming increasingly easy to distinguish between short- and long-term pieces to Yzerman’s puzzle.

Here’s something you’ll notice about the Syracuse Crunch: everyone plays, or at least tries to play, a solid two-way game. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Yzerman himself, as a player, put up some staggering offensive numbers (155 points in 88/89, the most by any player not to wear 99 or 66), but later he set gaudy statistics aside to round out his game. He became responsible in all three zones and ultimately wound up winning three Stanley Cups and went down as arguably the greatest leader in the history of the game. As captain of the Red Wings, Yzerman demanded defensive reliability out of even the most reputed offensive stars. Brett Hull blocked shots in Detroit.

Which is why I think we can cross “Premiere Two-Way Forward” off our off-season wish list. Because the fact of the matter is, everyone in Tampa Bay will, at some point very soon, be expected to play a solid two-way game. Everyone. That means Steven Stamkos, who we saw playing increasing time on the penalty kill last season, that means Martin St. Louis, who’s never been a defensive liability but there’s something wrong when the league’s scoring leader can’t find the plus-column, and that means Vincent Lecavalier, who played a ferocious two-way game at the beginning of the 2013 season (when the team was winning).

So take a deeper look at the Syracuse Crunch. Tyler Johnson, the team’s leading scorer this year and by all accounts its best player, has a complete game. Alex Killorn, once yanked up to the Bolts, was immediately killing penalties under Guy Boucher. If you look at the Syracuse Crunch roster, you’ll find a long list of talented scorers that have learned, or are learning, to defend.

So assuming T.B. will ultimately expect defensive reliability out of everyone, exactly what types of players should Yzerman be targeting this off-season?

From where I’m standing, the Lightning have three very clear holes in their roster (assuming the goaltending woes have finally been put to rest by the acquisition of Ben Bishop). Or at least, the Lightning lack three things that they might, if we’re lucky, be able to address in a single off-season, with either trades, free agency, minor league call-ups, or simple improvement by players on the current roster.

For my money, the Lightning need: 1.) A Big-Time Power Forward 2.) A Skilled One-on-One Forward, and 3.) A Big-Minutes Defenseman.

In the articles that follow this one, I’ll explore T.B.’s options as to how they might find these three players in the coming off-season. It also brings up a big decision they’ll have to make on draft day, since items 1 and 2 are likely to be available to them in the respective forms of Valeri Nichushkin and Jonathan Drouin. Nichushkin is an 18 year old with a man’s frame, a man’s skills, and plays with men in the KHL. Drouin, meanwhile, looks like the lovechild of Pavel Datsyuk and Denny Savard.

So whichever way G.M. Yzerman decides to go on draft day, we can expect to check at least one of the big long-term franchise needs off the list. Emphasis on “long-term” – even if either Drouin or Nichushkin make the team immediately, it’s highly unlikely they’ll have significant roles for at least a year or two (realistically, probably closer to three or four).

But if the T.B. Lightning and their fans have been anything under G.M. Yzerman, they’ve been patient. We’re currently seeing the fruits of that patience in the AHL, where T.B.’s affiliate have made back-to-back Calder Cup finals, and still have some hope of winning back-to-back Calder Cups. So if it takes one or two or three or four years for either Nichushkin or Drouin to realize enough of their potential to be, at the very least, impact NHLers? That might be for the best. The focus in Tampa Bay remains on the long-term. It’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes, particularly when the Lightning underachieve on even the moderate expectations, like this season.

All of this might leave one to believe that the third item on the aforementioned list, a big-minutes defenseman, will be the hardest to come by. My response to that: Maybe. What we need to remember is the Bolts have stockpiled a lot of talent in the AHL, the CHL, and in Russia, much of which talent is solid B-grade with a shot of developing into A-grade. Brett Connolly, for instance, looks like he’s going to be a 20-30 goal man at the NHL level, but no one’s going to be shocked if he turns into a 30-40 goal-scorer. There’s an outside chance he’ll be even better. Nikita Kucherov is an offensive dynamo currently playing the QMJHL and no one knows for sure yet exactly what his ceiling is. The list is long. And not only do these players have value, but some of them will become expendable.

To me, that appears to be T.B.’s best avenue for bringing in a game-changing defenseman. But it

Jun 17, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Jonathan Drouin is interviewed during a press conference for top prospects for the upcoming 2013 NHL Draft at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

could also be the key to bringing in a big-time power forward, if the Lightning select Drouin. If they don’t select Drouin, finding a puck-wizard anything close to him might be impossible (which is why I maintain the Bolts should draft him). While it’s true that power forwards of Nichushkin’s make don’t exactly grow on trees either, size and power are easier to acquire than A-grade skill. And I believe that a lesser version of Nichushkin, which the Lightning can acquire, would have more impact than a lesser version of Drouin. There is simply no replacement, no viable poor man’s version, of that kind of skill.

So it would appear Yzerman is dealing from a position of strength in this off-season. He has a mass of prospects to work with, some of which other teams are sure to covet, and enough of them that losing one or two won’t hurt too badly. We’re already kind of over Cory Conacher, and boy did that one sting.

Unfortunately, Yzerman is also dealing from a somewhat handcuffed position. Working around the dropping salary cap is going to take some creativity if Yzerman means to make any major moves this off-season. Vincent Lecavalier’s contract is about to become that much more a burden. It’s likely that the team will use one of its compliance buyouts, but my guess is the $30+ million it would cost to buy out Lecavalier is likely a bigger check than Owner Jeff Vinik is willing to write. A more likely candidate is Ryan Malone, whose contract comes with a $4.5 million cap hit that he hasn’t lived up to in some time.

So some moves we might like to see made are probably impossible. Without de-Lecavalizing, the Lightning are unlikely to land any star players this off-season. Shedding Malone’s contract might give them enough wiggle room to do some tinkering. Yzerman has, to this point, shrugged off suggestions that he’ll have a cap problem this off-season, but that’s just what G.M.s do.

I would expect an interesting off-season for Bolts fans. I doubt we’ll see any major moves, nor should we want to. T.B. will probably be in the running to land a couple of the mid-tier free agents, and I would expect one or two moves where Yzerman unloads a solid prospect for a solid roster player.

But the day you should mark on your calendars is June 30 – draft day. That’s the day when a major decision about the direction of the franchise will be made. After the Lightning select third, or trade the pick for players, or trade up for a higher pick, or do whatever it is they’re going to do, that we will have a clear view of what the Lightning need, what assets they have with which to acquire it, and what cap limitations they’ll need to squirm around. And the future will become a little bit easier to predict.

-DFC

@DFrederickCook

Topics: Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay Lightning

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  • burgi

    I agree with your wish-list and as our big-minute-top-4-long-term-defenseman on the wish list I’d like for the Bolts to make a trade with the Devils regarding Adam Larsson. They don’t need him with 6 more than solid D-men and a full stable of NHL-caliber D-prospects, but they NEED SCORING BADLY. Therefore, it seems to be a perfect match.

    How does Brett Connolly and J.T. Brown for Adam Larsson and a pick (is 2nd round too high; is 4th round too low?) sound? If the Devils like Malone, the Bolts could also save a buyout (and use it on Brewer this year and if need be Carle/Lecavalier next year) and include him. Then the Lightning should re-sign Pouliot (he looked good out there with Stamkos-St. Louis) and draft one of Drouin/Nichushkin/MacKinnon/Jones. After that they’ll see whether they need a Stalberg/Mac Arthur-type or a Boyd Gordon/Ruslan Fedotenko-type.

    • bluejays79

      I think it would be a great trade to see Adam Larsson picked up, buuuut I really think Connolly will be a stud! and a great presence in front of the net, just needs to stay healthy! I like the idea tho, but I would rather have a proven defensemen than a still-raw youngster. Perfect fit for a trade Zbynek Michalek. Perfect fit for a FA signing, David Clarkson. Perfect draft pick Drouin (if Nate and Seth are taken).

      • burgi

        While I agree with you that a more established top-4-d-man would definitely help more right now, I think that Icerman is looking for a player which is cap-friendly for a long time and can be in a top-4-role for the next decade. And Larsson has one year left at 900,000 and then he comes in his RFA-years (could see about 3 mio. per).

        In addition to that I think that Larsson was very much underutilized and has the potential to be a top-4 D-man right now. I certainly see him in the same ballpark as Michalek even for ’13/14, while Michalek would certainly add to our mix with his strong stay-at-home defense.

        David Clarkson looks fine to me, too. He’d bring a physical side while also contributing on offense. I think, though, that he is very high regarded in free agency, which seems to increase his price a lot.

  • DFC

    Thanks for reading, burgi. I strongly agree that TB will be targeting teams like NJ as trade partners in the upcoming season. Which players TB will make available to those teams, in my mind, depends a lot on what they do in the draft. If they draft Drouin, Tyler Johnson might get shopped. If they draft Nichushkin, Brett Connolly might wind up on the block. And I think the Lightning will be looking to trade quality to get quality.

    I doubt Ryan Malone has any real trade value right now. I think a lot of teams would like to have him, mind you, but he’s almost in Brad Richards territory. He seems like such a likely candidate for a buyout that I think any team that covets him will fight for his services through free agency, where he’ll be gotten for cheaper and without giving up a roster player (the risk, of course, being Malone might sign elsewhere).

    Larsson, I think, is the type of defenseman the Bolts should, and will, be targeting (although I think they’ll probably feel out a few mid-twenties D-men as well, established guys with proven consistency).

    It’s really tough to tell right now how much room there will be on the team for players like Pouliot. I think TB would like to have him back, but as of now, it’s tough to predict how many players in Syracuse are going to force their way into this lineup next season. It’s hard to imagine that Palat, Johnson, Panik, and Connolly haven’t already won roster spots. And there might be others, though my belief (and you seem to share it) is at least one of them will be moved.

    Thanks again for reading, and for commenting.

    • burgi

      You’re more than welcome. And thank you for putting up your thoughts online.

      One question: Since the Avalanche stated that they won’t pick Seth Jones at 1, what do you think it would take for the Lightning to move up? Since in a move up the Lightning would highest likely take Seth Jones, the Avalanche only have to feel that the consolation price they get is more worth than the difference between MacKinnon and Drouin.

      Thus, I really think the Lightning shouldn’t give up any of their top young forward prospects (namely Connolly, Panik, Johnson, Namestnikov, Kucherov, Palat and Killorn). The Avalanche have a glut of GK- and D-prospects (and I wouldn’t give up Vasilevskiy or Koekkoek/Gudas/Barberio in a deal either). A player I could see them giving up, though, is J.T. Brown. I see him a bit lost in the shuffle. It seems as if Palat has passed him and I can’t imagine his future role on the team right now.

      So, might it be enough?:
      1-3 + J.T. Brown (?)
      1-3 + J.T. Brown + Keith Aulie (?)
      1-3 + J.T. Brown + Nikita Nesterov (?)

      Or do you think a higher-priced prospect has to be included?

      • DFC

        I’m actually pretty surprised by the news. In that scenario, the Bolts could make a move with Florida and achieve the same result though (if they have their hearts set on Jones). Honestly, I’d rather see the Bolts wind up with either Drouin or MacKinnon than Jones, only because history shows forwards are much easier to scout at 18 than defensemen (see: Erik Johnson).

  • bluejays79

    Only thing I didn’t like about your article is the fact that each and every top 3 picks will be ready come october to play at the NHL level, pretty sure Drouin, MacKinnon, and Seth Jones don’t have anything to prove at the CHL level, and due to their age can’t play AHL, so most likely destination is NHL next year! ( I just don’t see a 2-3 even 4 years before they make it to the NHL!,

    All in all, you made some valid points, and I frankly can’t wait to see what Steve Yzerman has up his sleeve!

    • DFC

      I totally agree, actually, that they’ll be in the NHL. I was referring to reaching their “full potential,” or becoming big-time players, i.e., Drouin will play in the NHL next season, but it might take him a few years to become the 80+ point player (or 100 point player) we expect him to be someday. There might be a couple of 40-60 point seasons to start.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting. Greatly appreciated.