April 30, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks right wing Bobby Ryan (9) shoots wide against Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) during the second period in game one of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at the Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning Off-Season Wish List: A Big-Time Power Forward

Apr 25, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Milan Lucic (17) fights with Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Keith Aulie (3) during the second period at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The power forward is a much coveted player in today’s NHL. Some say the term “power forward” was created for Cam Neely, a player who basically bulled his way forward and crashed through you until he could put the puck in the net. Not that he was the first power forward, of course. There was Clark Gillies of New York Islanders fame, and I don’t think anyone would argue too much with Mark Messier being classified a power forward, or even the great Gordie Howe.

In more recent years, the power forwards on the tips of most of our tongues are guys like Brendan Shanahan, Jarome Iginla, and to some extent even Jaromir Jagr. The 90s, if you’re old enough to remember them, were years dominated by power forwards, leading to draft day frenzies for big, strong wingers, which is part of the reason why smaller, more skilled players were often overlooked (Martin St. Louis anyone?).

The newer generation of power forwards is represented well by guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash, and Milan Lucic. Lucic, I would argue, is the most prototypical power forward in today’s NHL – a good scorer who’s equally, if not more, valued for his physical play.

Some of you may be shocked by what I’m about to say: the most dominant power forward that I have ever seen, and I do mean ever, and I’ve seen a lot of them, was Todd Bertuzzi. I can see your cocked eyebrows from here. And yes, I am talking about the same Todd Bertuzzi that almost killed Steve Moore with women and children present during an NHL game, the same Bertuzzi that you can currently find scoring about half a point per game, when he’s healthy, for the Detroit Red Wings. But there are a few among you who remember a brief window in time between about 2001 and 2003 when Todd Bertuzzi (yes, Todd Ber-tuz-zi) might have been the single best player in the NHL.

Bertuzzi went into beast-mode for about two or three years like I’ve never seen

February 1, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Red Wings right wing Todd Bertuzzi (44) during the game against the St. Louis Blues at Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

before or since. He was never the most skilled player on the ice (because he lined up with super-skilled Markus Naslund), but he was always the biggest physical force. His work in the corners often looked like the work of an irritable giant amongst ragdolls. What Bertuzzi did best, what all power forwards do best, beyond even scoring, is create space.

Bertuzzi was never quite the same after the Moore incident. But those of us who watched more than a few Vancouver Canucks games during his heyday… we remember. It’s impossible to forget.

Tampa Bay is not going to acquire a power forward of that ilk. A power forward of that ilk likely doesn’t exist in today’s NHL to be had (Milan Lucic, I would argue, is the closest we have). But the Bolts are clearly missing a big physical presence in their top six.

The closest thing the Lightning have to a big-time power forward is Ryan Malone. And for a few years, Malone indeed was a big-time power forward. He scored goals, he hit people, and when he needed to, he dropped the gloves and defended his teammates. Unfortunately for T.B., Malone’s best days appear to be behind him. The shortened 2013 season was forgettable at best for Malone (catastrophic at worst), prompting, at one point, Coach Jon Cooper to say Malone sometimes looked asleep on the ice.

So barring a return to form from Malone, what options does G.M. Steve Yzerman have to acquire a big bruising scoring forward? Well, G.M.s always have two options: trade and free agency. But this summer Yzerman is working with a luxury option as well: a very high draft pick. Let’s start there.

OPTION #1: The Draft

The player that jumps off the page and metaphorically slaps your mother for your attention is Valeri Nichushkin. Nichushkin is big, strong, skates well, and has a scoring touch. He draws comparisons to both Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Case closed, you’re thinking. T.B. drafts Nuch-what’s-his-name and no one has to worry about a power forward until at least his contract is up. Problem solved. And in 95% of drafts, you’d be right to think that, because for T.B., drafting Nichushkin would kill a whole flock of birds with one stone. But in my view, T.B. should pass on Nichushkin anyway, particularly if Nate MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin are available, and also probably if Seth Jones is still out there.

Let me break it down like this: if the Lightning draft either Nate MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin, they could probably then trade MacKinnon or Drouin for Nichushkin. If the Lightning draft Nichushkin, the vice versa trade is likely not doable. So, if you’re sobbing about giving up on all the size and power that Nichushkin would obviously bring, just think about drafting Drouin/MacKinnon as a way for T.B. to keep their options open.

Of course, pesky Joe Sakic threw a wrench into everything when he announced on Wednesday that the Colorado Avalanche would not be drafting Seth Jones first overall on June 30. (TSN’s Craig Button’s jaw is being reattached as we speak) In all likelihood, that means the Avalanche are planning to take Nate MacKinnon, who remains ahead of Jonathan Drouin on most lists. MacKinnon is projected to be a franchise center, and center is the position teams are built around.

The Florida Panthers are now expected to take Seth Jones in the 2-spot. If the Panthers do another number on Craig Button’s jaw and take Drouin, suddenly the Lightning will be in a situation where perhaps “team need” will win out over “best player available” in their draft strategy. In such a case, the choice they’ll have to make will be between Nichushkin(power forward), Jones (dominant defenseman), and Finnish Elite League wonder-boy Sasha Barkov (premiere two-way forward). All three of those players would address a major concern with the Lightning moving forward. My guess is the Lightning would probably take a look at the prospects they’ve got cooking throughout the system, and take Jones.

A caveat: We should not be distressed in the least if the Lightning wind up picking Nichushkin. While it’s my feeling that Drouin’s puck skills are too good to pass up for a team that boasts Steven Stamkos, Nichushkin might well turn into the best of the group. Lightning scouts are on record with high praise for him: “Huge, with all kinds of talent,” head scout Al Murray said. “He’s big. He’s a tremendous skater. He’s got individual one-on-one skills with the puck.”

With Nichushkin likely to be available in the 3-spot, it’s probably not worth talking about the other available power forwards (Sean Monahan, for instance). If Yzerman has his heart set on acquiring size come draft day, Nichushkin is his guy.

Which brings us to…

OPTION #2: Free Agency

Barring some last minute signings, 2013’s crop of unrestricted free agents will contain at least a couple of players that will have you salivating. It also contains a couple of riskier options (like Anthony Stewart, the long-underachieving behemoth currently mucking it out in Los Angeles’s farm system).

How aggressively T.B. approaches the 2013 free agent market will depend largely, almost entirely, on who gets bought out. While that might seem like tedious office-dirt that a lot of Bolts fans might want swept up and removed, it’s actually a huge and looming decision that’s hanging not only over G.M. Steve Yzerman’s head, but also over Owner Jeff Vinik’s. Vinik, we must remember, is the man who’s going to have to cut a bulky cheque and send it to the city his former player is now scoring goals in. Only those of you currently making oversized alimony payments to spouses covertly shacked up with someone new can understand how this might make a big vein bulge out in the side of Mr. Vinik’s head.

The big prize in this year’s group of power forwards is undoubtedly Nathan Horton, currently of the Boston Bruins. You can catch him three days per week playing his heart out in the Stanley Cup Finals with a shoulder that will require surgery in the off-season.

Whether or not the Lightning can afford to go after Horton, again, depends on who gets bought out. By that I mean, it depends on if Vincent Lecavalier gets bought out. And on that front, it appears the option is at least being discussed. Full disclosure: I was skeptical that the Bolts would be able to buyout Lecavalier because of the sheer size of the buyout (30+ million) and thus the size of the pill Jeff Vinik would have to swallow every month when he wrote Lecavalier his cheque. But G.M. Yzerman has been asked point blank recently about whether or not the Lightning will buy Lecavalier out, and Yzerman’s responses have been intriguingly vague. He says the Lightning are considering all options. But I ask you this: If T.B. wasn’t seriously considering buying out Vinny’s contract, wouldn’t Yzerman have simply shot the notion down?

Allow me to illustrate: Imagine what Yzerman’s response would have been had someone asked if he was considering buying out Steve Stamkos’s contract (I picture it being some sort of Yzermanly polite way of telling you, “No,” but then he’d be calling mental health professionals for your sake as soon as you were out of earshot).

What goes on in T.B.’s boardroom is anyone’s guess, but let me say this: Passing on an opportunity to shoot Vinny a vote of confidence is probably not something Yzerman did lightly. It’s something that could have an effect on Lecavalier’s play should he remain a Bolt, and one would have to think Yzerman understands that.

If the Lightning buy out Lecavalier, it will be open season for free agent signings. Every big name that enters the market, every big trade you or I can imagine, becomes a realistic possibility. Lecavalier comes with a cap hit of $7.7 million.

A lot of fans would be sour at the organization for letting go of its beloved captain, but nabbing a player like Horton would go a long way to soothe the sting. Let me be clear: Nathan Horton is not Todd Bertuzzi, nor is he Cam Neely. He’s a little bit on the fragile side, and it’s not like he’s out there bulldozing people like his teammate Milan Lucic is.

Jun 19, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Bruins right wing Nathan Horton (18) bats the puck out of the air during the first period in game four of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

But Horton is 28, scores 20-30 goals per healthy season, has a big chaos-creating body, and, most importantly, is a proven winner. Horton is rated a +23 for Boston’s 20 playoff games this season. That’s not a typo. In 41 career playoff games with the Bruins, Horton is a +34 to go along with 15 goals and 36 points. He was an integral part of the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup Championship team and is currently playing with a bad shoulder in hopes of winning another cup. These guys don’t grow on trees.

What would it cost to bring Horton to Tampa? Good question. Horton made $5.5 million this past season, but that was on the tail end of a back-loaded contract that came with a cap hit of $4 million. He’s on record saying he would like to stay in Boston, but with the cap going down, the Bruins are unlikely to be able to afford him, particularly if he wants a raise. Meanwhile, the Lightning probably won’t overspend on Horton, particularly when there are cheaper options available in this year’s market. Other teams might have that same approach, which could effectively drive Horton’s price down to what might be a manageable range. The Lightning definitely don’t want to take all their Vinny money (should he be bought out, thus making this scenario plausible) and hand it to Horton.

And what are those cheaper options I mentioned? Well, one is this year’s Cinderella story, Bryan Bickell. Bickell is bigger, nastier, and most importantly cheaper than Horton, but he’s also riskier. Bickell was a relative unknown to all but the most fanatic hockey fans until this year’s playoffs. These past couple of months have seen Bickell become one of the Chicago Blackhawks’ most valuable players, and likewise have seen his stock shoot through the roof. Bickell’s making $600,000 this season, but his playoff performance has assured him a significant raise. Even so, he should be in T.B.’s price range even if they wind up buying out Ryan Malone or Eric Brewer.

Jun 15, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Bryan Bickell (29) carries the puck past Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference (21) during the first period in game two of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Bickell, who turned 27 earlier this year (a good age for Tampa’s purposes – if they can contend in 3-4 years, Bickell would be a veteran player still with some prime years left), has a little bit of Bertuzzi in him. That can lead to some bad penalties, but it also means his intimidation factor is off the charts, which is something T.B. would love to inject among a group of by and large soft forwards. Whether or not he’s in the midst of a true coming out party right now, or simply running hot, is anyone’s guess.

Should T.B. land Bickell this off-season, here’s what I think we could hope for out of him: improved, but not stellar offense, and a dynamite physical presence. Bickell scored about 0.5 points per game with the Hawks in the regular season, but he would likely see a solid 4-6 more minutes of icetime per game in Tampa. That would translate into more points. But Bickell’s real asset is his physicality.

And it’s because of his physicality that I think Bickell is Yzerman’s best bet to improve the Lightning at an affordable cost. Bickell is probably going to demand a massive raise, but he’s not going to get Nathan Horton money. Not just yet anyway. If the Lightning can land him for significantly less than Malone’s cap hit ($4.5 million), we can all rejoice and consider the team improved.

A few other free agent options: David Clarkson, Ryane Clowe, Dustin Penner. Penner is obviously the least attractive of this choices. First, he’s in his thirties now. And secondly, he’s been a pretty constant disappointment for the Los Angeles Kings. If the price is right, however, he might be worth taking a flier on, because sometimes a simple change of scenery is all that’s needed to spark a player’s career. And Penner has Eric Lindros-type size (which perhaps makes him all the more frustrating).

Need proof that a change of scenery can help a player? Check out the aforementioned Ryane Clowe. Clowe was wallowing in San Jose this season, completely blanked in the goal department through 28 games, when he was traded to the New York Rangers a day before the Trade Deadline. In 12 games with the Rangers, Clowe picked up 3 goals and 8 points. Clowe is also a big-time physical presence and a proven playoff performer with the Sharks. On the downside? He’s north of 30, and it’s hard to read much into New York performance.

At 29, David Clarkson, is a bit more in T.B.’s wheelhouse age-wise. He’s smaller than the other options, but brings a physical presence all the same. And he’s a proven goal-scorer, having scored double-digits in goals in each of the last five seasons despite being on a New Jersey Devils’ team that struggles offensively.

OPTION #3: Trade

This, of course, is the hardest option to speculate about. It takes all of the same variables and conditions needed to speculate about free agency, but then widens the list to every player in the league while making you consider what T.B. might be willing to give up. And even that (considering what T.B. might give up) comes with its own host of conditions and variables, getting us right back into buyout talk again.

The most likely players to be dealt by the Lightning are the players currently moping around in Syracuse after coming two wins short of winning the AHL’s Calder Cup. Which of the group will be available depends largely on whom Tampa drafts, whom gets bought out, etc. If acquiring a power forward, however, the Bolts would most likely be dealing out skill, which would put guys like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Vladislav Namestnikov on the hotseat.

One trade option I will submit at risk of drawing all your collective ire is Teddy Purcell. I’m a Purcell fan, but there were several points this past season where he seemed to be the guy that tipped T.B. over the edge of being a team that relied too much on skill and finesse. Purcell is a big body, but he’s the softest player on a team that might be too soft as it is. Particularly if Jonathan Drouin winds up a Bolt, Purcell might find himself the odd man out in a game of finesse musical chairs.

Who the Bolts might target in a trade is even harder to discern. Most of the NHL’s top power forwards are untouchable (at least for a price T.B. would be willing to pay). So you can cross the Milan Lucics and David Backeses off your list.

The most attractive trade option might be Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan. And it’s not all that unrealistic. Trade rumors have swirled around Ryan for at least a couple of seasons now, leading him, at times, to voice his displeasure with the lack of confidence the team has shown in him. Ryan is pretty much the perfect age (26), he can score bucket loads of goals, and, while he’s not overly large (6’1, 205), he throws his weight around. He’s more than a tad expensive, however, coming with a $5.1 million cap hit, which means the Bolts would want to move significant salary Anaheim’s way to make a trade possible. But it’s hard not to imagine Ryan having instant chemistry with T.B.’s top talent, which could make such a trade worth the price. The latest rumors say Philly is more than a little bit interested in him.

Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader would look great in a Lightning uniform, and T.B. probably have the expendable assets it would take to acquire him. While Abdelkader might not be a true top six talent, he has speed to burn and hits pretty much anything that’s not a referee or a fan.

Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn would be a longshot, not only because of his youth but also because Philadelphia hoards power fowards (see: Bobby Ryan interest). Washington’s Troy Brouwer would likely be similarly tough to acquire because he appears to be on the verge of cashing in on big-time potential. He would probably make a great Bolt and fit in well next to Steven Stamkos, but the price is likely a little too much for Yzerman to stomach.

Some other tires Yzerman might want to kick if he’s in the mood, and has the cap space, for a blockbuster: Devin Setaguchi (MIN), Blake Wheeler (WPG), Brandon Prust (Okay, not quite a blockbuster – MTL), Jamie McGinn (COL).

Out of all these options (draft, free agent, trade) to me, the one that makes the most sense is Bryan Bickell. He’s likely to be somewhat affordable, and even if he doesn’t score, there’s no doubt he’ll provide the physicality T.B. needs up front. And it wouldn’t cost T.B. a prospect or a roster player to bring him into the fold.

If Bickell gets too pricey, I’d like to see Yzerman get in on the Bobby Ryan sweepstakes that are likely to go down over the summer. Ryan makes more than Bickell will make, and he’s not as physical, but he’s a proven scorer. The big obstacle with Ryan is his pricetag, but the Lightning should be using at least one compliance buyout this summer, and there would also be some salary going out the door to acquire him, which would make the trade doable.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the options the Lightning have for acquiring a puckhandling forward that can move through traffic. Obviously, the best option for that would appear to be Drouin (he’s young, he’s an elite-prospect, and best of all he’s free). But after Joe Sakic’s bombshell that Colorado won’t be selecting Jones, this year’s draft is now more uncertain than ever.

Thanks for sticking with me through all of these pages. See you next time.


Tags: Tampa Bay Lightning

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