April 8, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Sam Gagner (89) moves the puck against the defense of Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler (4) during the third period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning Off-Season Wish List: A One-on-One Dangler

The Tampa Bay Lightning are loaded like a 90s rockstar when it comes to skill and finesse. So why then, you might ask, in this second installment of my Tampa Bay Lightning wish list am I including another finesse forward? The answer is a two-parter.

First, it’s less about the one-on-one dangler (my own title – choose your own if you’d like) himself than it is about Steven Stamkos, or more specifically, finding Steven Stamkos a long-term partner in crime. Secondly, while it’s true T.B. indeed has plenty of finesse forwards, it doesn’t quite have that single guy that can dangle through traffic and single-handedly get the puck into dangerous areas.

The Lightning’s three most skilled forwards are obviously Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Teddy Purcell. Stamkos and St. Louis tend to beat players with pure speed, but they tend to skate wide when they get into danger zones. Stamkos, you might have noticed, tends to break wide down the right wing and if he doesn’t see an opportunity will usually just keep going until he circles the net. St. Louis, when breaking into the zone, tends to curl back and see how things are shaping up. Neither of them spend a lot of time handling the puck in traffic.

You might be surprised to read this, but Teddy Purcell probably has the best one-on-one skills in Tampa Bay. He’ll take the puck into high traffic areas more than any other Bolt. But good as he is, Purcell isn’t the kind of puck wizard I’m talking about. I’m talking about a player who can create something out of nothing. Purcell, as part of your ideal offense, is a second line winger.

The player with the most deadly one-on-one skills in today’s NHL, as far as I’m

May 27, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya (27) reaches for the puck as Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk (13) skates passed in the third period in game six of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

concerned, is Pavel Datsyuk. Datsyuk’s creativity makes him dangerous literally every time he touches the puck. If he weren’t so defensively responsible he would probably be a perennial hundred point scorer (his defensive ability is undoubtedly more valuable than the extra points though).

Other examples of puck control prowess are players like Chicago’s Patrick Kane, both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Washington’s Nick Backstrom, and Philly’s Claude Giroux.

I realize the type of player I’m talking about is usually elite and therefore not exactly easy to come by (this installment more than the other two is very much a wish list, not necessarily a “got to have” list). Some lesser examples are Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky (though he comes with a bag of problem areas), St. Louis’s David Perron, and soon-to-be free agent Mike Ribeiro.

Again, the key to all this is Stamkos. Stammer might be the best finisher in the NHL. If he gets the puck in a dangerous situation, more often than not the Bolts put a new number on the board. In order get the absolute best out of Stamkos, the Lightning could really a use a player to put him in those situations as often as possible – a player who draws attention to himself by attacking the net with the puck, thus leaving Stammer all by his lonesome pretending he’s not the most lethal sniper in the league.

OPTION #1: The Draft

This year’s NHL draft contains not one but two incredible options for a dangler, one of which could be a long-term linemate for Steven Stamkos, the other could be the 2 in a lethal 1-2 punch. Those players are Jonathan Drouin and Sasha Barkov.

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

I have my own personal hopes pinned to Drouin. Not only is he the best puckhandler in this year’s draft, but he appears to be the best puckhandler to come along in several years. He has tremendous vision and can thread multiple needles with a single pass. That doesn’t sound bad when you consider Steven Stamkos might be waiting on the opposite side of those needle-eyes.

In his draft year season, Drouin scored a staggering 105 points in just 49 games. If you’re looking for something to compare that to, consider Steven Stamkos’s draft year numbers in the OHL: 105 points in 58 games (keep in mind, the QMJHL tends to have a bit more scoring in general than the OHL). Drouin took home this year’s QMJHL’s player of the year award, the over-arching CHL’s MVP award, and won the Memorial Cup with the Halifax Mooseheads.

What makes this look like a match made in heaven is the chemistry Drouin had with his QMJHL B.F.F., Nate MacKinnon. And what current NHL star is MacKinnon most often compared to? Steven Stamkos.

At this point, it feels like so many Lightning fans have their hearts set on Drouin that we’ll be satisfied by no one else. But it’s important to remember that there are five, count ‘em, five, franchise-level talents available in this draft. And if Colorado pulls their second shocker of the month and takes Drouin over MacKinnon, or if Florida goes against expectations and takes Drouin over Jones, our Bolts will still be left with a handful of players that might well develop into better players than Drouin. In other words, we really shouldn’t be putting all of our emotional eggs in Drouin’s basket.

One such Drouin-alternative is Sasha Barkov. Barkov might not have hands that could potentially be the best of his generation, but his hands are considered elite. As is his vision, and hockey sense, and playmaking ability. Where he surpasses Drouin are two areas that should make you very comfortable if Steve Yzerman calls Barkov’s name on June 30: size and defensive awareness. Barkov is being projected as an elite two-way center somewhere down the line. While that precludes him from being Steven Stamkos’s long-term running mate, it makes him the perfect option for a 1-2 punch down the middle.

Barkov is still just 17 years old, and will be until September, making him a full year younger than many of his fellow draftees. What makes that all the more impressive is Barkov (again: 17 years old!) scored 48 points in 53 games last season in the Finnish Elite League, where, unlike North American draftees, he was already playing against men.

Barkov’s size would be a big (pun not intended but noticed and then somewhat intended) bonus for the Lightning. Tampa is getting a reputation for its undersized prospects, which might make them a little bit gun-shy on Drouin and make Barkov seem like a safer bet. (Although, I must confess I think it’s kind of ridiculous that we draw a line at six feet and every player a hair over it is considered to have good size and every player a hair under is considered undersized.)

But drafting Barkov would shine yet another spotlight on Vincent Lecavalier’s bulbous contract. If Barkov comes to Tampa Bay, it’s reasonable to think that within three or four years (probably earlier), he’ll have usurped Lecavalier in the depth chart, at which point T.B. will find themselves using $7.7 million in cap space on a third line center. Regardless of what angle you look at it, Lecavalier’s contract causes problems for this organization (it’s important to distinguish between Lecavalier, who remains a very good player, and his contract, which is an ever-tightening set of handcuffs). If somehow Nate MacKinnon lands in T.B.’s lap, it’s the same problem of usurping, but it could happen as early as next season.

OPTION #2: Free Agency

With compliance buyouts in place and already underway (Danny Briere), some intriguing options will/might present themselves to the Lightning in the coming off-season. Unfortunately, most of said options are north of 30, and in some cases aren’t exactly coming off their best hockey.

May 4, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; New York Rangers center Brad Richards (19) skates with the puck as Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom (19) defends in the third period in game two of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at Verizon Center. The Capitals won 1-0 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

One strong buyout candidate has many long-time Lightning fans’ hearts all a-flutter. That being Brad Richards. Bringing Richards back to the fold would essentially be putting the band back together (Richards-Lecavalier-St. Louis). The problem with that logic? It’s almost ten years later, Richards is coming off a treacherous season where he was barely able to make the Rangers lineup (not to mention Vinny isn’t exactly in 2004 form anymore. Marty St. Louis, weirdly, might be even better than he was in 2004.), and, oh yeah, the Lightning already have a second line center: Vincent Lecavalier.

I’m not necessarily opposed to bringing Brad Richards back to Tampa. I just don’t think the current conditions are right for it, which, again, brings us right back to Vincent Lecavalier’s contract. T.B. would likely need to free up some cap-space to consider bringing a 33 year-old center into the fold, and they’d also need to free up some room in the top-six. Richards, like Lecavalier, would be wasted and likely too expensive as a third-liner. He could of course be moved to a wing, or Stamkos could be moved to a wing, but that’s not exactly ideal. Stamkos is being groomed as the Lightning’s franchise center, after all, and Richards is a natural center. I think the big question is: Does a Stamkos-Richards 1-2 punch look better than a Stamkos-Lecavalier 1-2 punch?

And the jury’s still out on whether Richards will be available at all. The New York Rangers recently floated the idea that they might give Richards another year before exercising their compliance buyout on him. Whatever happens, for me, Richards shouldn’t be considered a slam dunk to return to Tampa. Things have changed a lot since 2004, Richards included, and a couple more changes would need to be made in order to make him a good fit in 2013.

This season’s first known buyout victim (“victim” being a strong word – bought out players essentially wind up playing with two contracts and don’t necessarily lose all that much money in the ordeal) is Danny Briere, formerly of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In his heyday, Briere was an electric forward with great vision. Vision, or the ability to see the play develop ahead of time, is something I think the Tampa Bay Lightning sorely lack. They score most of their goals through pure athletic skill. Steven Stamkos has shown some glimpses of elite-level vision, usually when he’s using himself as a decoy to open up a couple of acres of ice for his teammates, but Stamkos is so regularly the trigger man on set plays that we haven’t really seen what he’s capable of as a playmaker. Martin St. Louis, I would say, has very good vision, but he’s still not in that elite group of players. St. Louis tends to set up plays with speed and precision (pretty much the standard Lightning way). Briere might not be at that elite level either, but he’s very close.

Even so, if I’m G.M. Steve Yzerman, I’m not seriously considering bringing Danny Briere to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Briere is 35, his best years are likely behind him, and he’s been a little bit on the fragile side for most of his career. And despite all that, he’s still going to land a decent contract somewhere. Briere will make a great complementary piece for a team that already has an established core, or a centerpiece for a struggling team that’s just plain desperate for offense. But not the Lightning.

One very interesting name that’s being floated around as a potential buyout candidate is Martin Havlat of the San Jose Sharks. Havlat is coming off his worst season to date, managing just 18 points in 40 games. But for whatever reason, Havlat never quite fit in with the Sharks, and that could be more the culprit for his drop in production than wear and tear on his body. In 2010/2011, as a member of the Minnesota Wild, Havlat scored 62 points in 78 games.

The big question about Havlat will be the price tag. He’s currently costing the Sharks $5 million in cap space, but if the Sharks buy him out, that fact alone will keep other teams from offering a number close to that.

Havlat is 32 now, which puts him a little outside the pond the Lightning usually fish in, but for me the big red flag he comes with is not age, but durability. Havlat operates so often in high traffic areas that he often finds himself on the I.R. With the Bolts usually struggling to stay healthy as it is, Havlat would be a risky pick up. All the same, if he indeed gets bought out, and if the Bolts fail to draft Jonathan Drouin, Havlat could be an intriguing Plan B (or C or D).

Ville Leino, he whose contract is so bad it would probably make a top 10 list, is probably going to be bought out in Buffalo. Leino came out of the Detroit Red Wings’ farm system, and the Red Wings are perhaps the best team in the league at assessing young talent – the fact that they dealt Leino to Philadelphia back in 2010 should raise some red flags for you. And Philly didn’t exactly sink their hooks into him. Even though Leino’s only 29 and his best years could yet be ahead of him, to me, he’s too risky to touch, even if he comes cheap.

Beyond the buyout candidates, this year’s pool of unrestricted free agents isn’t exactly a great one if you’re looking for a dangler. It does look like Mike Ribeiro will be available, and Ribeiro is unarguably a wizard with the puck. But Ribeiro is coming off an excellent season in Washington and will probably be looking for a raise on the $5 million he made last year. Perhaps if he were younger, and significantly cheaper, he’d be an option for the Lightning.

Some other options so risky they’re barely worth considering: Pierre-marc Bouchard (looks like he’s lost the magic), Tim Connolly (never really found the magic), Valterri Filppula (apparently seeking superstar treatment despite not really being a superstar and asking for $5+ million from the Red Wings), Scott Gomez (was decent in San Jose, would probably come cheap, but the Bolts probably have better options within their own system).

OPTION #3: Trade

As ever, it’s hard to speculate about trading, particularly if you’re talking about bringing another team’s puckhandling ace into the fold. Teams aren’t exactly in a hurry to get rid of these guys, which is evidence of how important they are.

It doesn’t help that this is the one type of player for which the Bolts don’t have a lot of enticing trade bait to send the other way. They have plenty of players they could deal for a bulky winger or a seasoned defenseman, but it’s not so easy to deal a scoring winger (which the Bolts have) for a playmaking winger. On top of all this, keep in mind, no trade is really worth doing unless the acquisition is an upgrade on Teddy Purcell, which is easier said than done.

Of course, there are plenty of skilled one-on-one forwards around the league. But when we’re talking about the ones on the trade market, the list narrows significantly.

Sam Gagner’s scheduled to be a restricted free agent with the Edmonton Oilers this summer. At this time last year, it seemed like the Oilers couldn’t get him out of town fast enough. While things have cooled considerably on that front, every time the Oilers are rumored to be looking for defensive help, Gagner’s name still comes up. The Oilers are currently so loaded with front end talent that some players will inevitably be squeezed off their roster, and Gagner looks like the most likely victim.

In return, the Oilers would unquestionably be looking for defensive help. Which, believe it or not, is something Tampa Bay has a decent stockpile of. The question is, with Tampa’s own defense in need of an upgrade, can they afford to lose a couple of prospects, and perhaps a roster player, to acquire a skilled forward? The pieces of this deal are there to be put together, but it would probably hurt too much to pull the trigger on.

If such a deal were struck, there would then be the detail of getting Gagner signed. Which, again, would likely require a compliance buyout for either Vincent Lecavalier or Ryan Malone. Gagner’s new deal will probably fall in the $4 million range, which is not exactly outlandish for a 23 year-old who’s a proven NHLer and yet to reach his full potential. The fact that he’s a center could be overlooked given the amount of upside he brings to the table.

Montreal’s David Desharnais is scarily small, but he could be worth considering. There was a lot of talk over the last little while, mostly by fans, about the Habs dealing Desharnais to the Bolts for Vincent Lecavalier. If that deal were to come across G.M. Yzerman’s desk, he’d be crazy not to make it. But the truth is, the Habs would be equally crazy to want any part of Lecavalier’s contract.

In return, the Habs would likely be looking for quality depth forwards, which is something the Lightning could provide, but aren’t really overflowing with. And the Bolts would probably have to package a solid, but not outstanding, prospect into the deal as well. Desharnais is still just 26, and even though this past season didn’t drop any jaws, he did have a breakout year in 2012 that saw him put 60 points on the board. Desharnais is signed for a few years at an affordable $3.5 million.

OPTION #4: Wait

T.B. has plenty of prospects cooking right now, and there’s a chance one of them will develop into that sneaky-type of player that can dip into traffic and create chances out of nothing. Or run the power play from the outside of the circle and draw players to him (rather than the current state of affairs, which has Marty St. Louis drawing code-yellow attention at best because Steven Stamkos is on the other side of the ice).

Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat look like the two most likely candidates to develop into such a threat. After Palat’s AHL post-season, I would be surprised if he doesn’t find a home with the big club this year. Kucherov, meanwhile, is likely to make the jump to Syracuse from the QMJHL, where we’ll get a better idea of what he can do when tested against bigger, stronger bodies. Right now much of the hockey world is taking a moment to collectively gulp because Kucherov was passed over 57 times in the 2011 draft and then scored nearly one goal and two points per game when he arrived in the QMJHL (33GP – 29G – 34A – 63P).

But like most of you, my heart is probably more set than it should be on Jonathan Drouin. Imagine five years from now: a 23 year-old Drouin manning the same powerplay as a 28 year-old Steven Stamkos. It seems too good to be true. And perhaps it is. Perhaps I’m not thinking enough about defense, or size, or any of the number of other of things you might say I should perhaps be thinking about. Usually I do think about all of those things, but in this particular case I can’t, and the reason is simple – Drouin is a special player. And special players demand special attention. His grade of puck skills don’t come along very often, and after every breathtaking move he could potentially make in Tampa, there would be a waiting and willing Steven Stamkos with his stick cocked at about 120 degrees from ice level.

The Lightning have more skill running through their minor league system than they know what to do with. But using that for an excuse to pass on Drouin doesn’t really work for me. None of those players are equal to what Drouin figures to be. Drafting Drouin would turn a lot of those prospects into trade bait for the missing pieces of a winning puzzle.

Size and strength can be acquired. Elite skill will cost you a couple of firstborns. Or a third overall draft pick.

– DFC
@DFrederickCook

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