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.
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
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.