January 18, 2008

Defense wins Championships. It's as sure of a bet as picking the New England Patriots over the Miami Dolphins. Everyone knows it's the truth and it is reaffirmed year in and year out in every sport. Would the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings have combined for six Stanley Cup's over the past twelve years if it weren't for the services of goaltender Martin Brodeur and defensemen Nikolas Lidstrom? Would the Tampa Bay Lightning have won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Calgary Flames banging on the door in the closing minutes of Game 7 without the sensational goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin? Of course not. So what is wrong with the Lightning? Let’s take a look.

Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster has the luxury of having an excellent trio of superstars in Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis. Lecavalier leads the NHL in scoring this season with 63 points through Thursday and was voted by the fans to start for the Eastern Conference in the All Star game in Atlanta later this month. He was also chosen as team captain for the Eastern squad. St. Louis will join him in Atlanta as an All Star. Richards, a former Conn Smythe winner as Playoff MVP, is second on the team among forwards in ice time and leads the team with twenty one points on the powerplay.

The Lightning also have a handful of young core players in whom it is possible to rebuild a championship team around. Paul Ranger, Shane O'Brien, and rookie Mike Lundin lead a young Lightning defense which lacks leadership and experience. Nick Tarnasky has risen from the minor league ranks and has found a home as Tampa’s fourth line center. Rookie goaltender Karri Ramo has played admirably since he replaced Johan Holmqvist as the starter in December, but he is still a few years away from being ready to handle a full time starting role.

To build a successful NHL franchise a team needs a combination of several factors. First and foremost, the team needs a reliable starting goaltender that can make the saves he is expected to make and occasionally make the saves that steal hockey games. Goaltending has been the Lightning's biggest issue since the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin in 2004. The Lightning have started seven different goaltenders since the start of the 2005-2006 season. There are three potential free agent goaltenders available who have the ability to turn a franchise around and provide stability for many years. The Lightning must make an attempt to sign either Henrik Lundqvist, a restricted free agent of the New York Rangers, Atlanta Thrashers restricted free agent Karri Lehtonen, or the Montreal Canadians unrestricted free agent Cristobal Huet.

Let's take a deeper look at each of these goaltenders.

The twenty-six year old Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the elite goaltenders in the league over the past three seasons. He has posted 86 wins and 51 losses in his three year career, with an average Goals Against Average of 2.32, an average save percentage of .916 and a total of 13 shutouts. Henrik Lundqvist will become a restricted free agent this summer and the Rangers surely hope to have him resigned before July 1st to keep teams desperately in need of a goaltender, such as the Lightning, from signing him to an offer sheet. I'd offer Lundqvist an 11 year deal worth about 67 - 71 million. He's proven to be durable throughout the regular season, having played in 163 of a possible 210 games, not including playoffs. He's definitely the #1 option as far as available goaltenders go, but whoever wants him will have to be willing to overpay. I don't see any way for the Lightning to win in a bidding war with the Rangers given ownership’s unwillingness to spend money.

Karri Lehtonen is the youngest of the three profiled goaltenders and also the most highly acclaimed coming out of the draft. Drafted second overall by the Thrashers in 2002, Lehtonen finally gave the Thrashers a franchise goalie who could steal games for the young squad. Lehtonen, along with Kovalchuk and Hossa, propelled the Thrashers to their first playoff appearance in 2007 after posting a career high with 34 wins, a 2.79 GAA, a .912 Save Percentage and 4 shutouts. Aside from that career season, Lehtonen has had difficulty staying healthy in his three years as the Thrashers starting goalie, and this would be a concern for the Lightning if they were to offer the restricted free agent a lengthy offer sheet. Like Lundqvist, the Lightning would have to offer a significant deal to sign Lehtonen, probably somewhere in the 12 year, $70 million range.

Cristobal Huet is a 32 year old native of St. Martin D'Heres, France. Drafted in the 7th round by the Los Angeles Kings in 2001, Huet finally found a home with the Montreal Canadians in 2005. In three seasons with the Canadians, Huet has earned 50 wins and 34 losses while posting an average Goals Against Average of 2.48 and an average save percentage of .922. Huet has also posted 10 shutouts during that span. The oldest of the three target goalies, Huet is earning $2.75 million this season and will become an unrestricted free agent. The winning bidder for Huet's services will probably have to invest close to $4 million per season over the duration of the contract.

If the Lightning are able to sign one of these goaltenders, the next key issue to address is signing a number one defensemen. Dan Boyle has statistically been the Lightning’s top defensemen over the past few years, but he is not the ideal player to build a defensive unit around. Boyle has scored 228 points over 361 games with the Lightning but the offensive-minded defensemen commits many turnovers in his own end. Many of Boyle's mistakes, however, were made due to the fact that he was poorly utilized and given far too much ice time. During the 2006-2007 campaign, Boyle led all Lightning skaters in ice time, averaging 27:03 minutes per game, nearly three minutes more per game than any other Lightning player. Despite his career high 63 points, Boyle had a +/- rating of -5 on the season. If the Lightning are able to sign a true defensive minded number one defensemen, Boyle would immediately become more effective and more dangerous.

There are several big names that will potentially be available once the free agent period begins. Nikolas Lidstrom, Wade Redden, and Rob Blake headline the pack. Lidstrom will not leave Detroit at this stage of his career, and Blake has been far too inconsistent this season to be worth the type of contract he demands. Redden, however, is still in the prime of his career and would be a perfect fit in Tampa and a fine complement to Dan Boyle. Redden has registered 27 points through 45 games for the Ottawa Senators, but more importantly protects the puck in his own end, having compiled a +/- rating of +162 throughout his career.

O'Brien, Ranger, and Lundin will continue to develop and play big minutes for the team, but it would benefit them greatly to have the veteran leadership of Redden on the blue line to alleviate the pressure and demand placed on the youngsters. The only concern with Redden is his yearly salary. This season he is earning $6.5 million. It would probably take a raise to the $7.5 - $8 million per year range to ever see him in Tampa.

Let's stop and play a game of "What if…?" and evaluate what the roster would look like at this point, keeping in mind the salary cap, if the Lightning were to sign Redden and one of the aforementioned goaltenders. Currently there is a league imposed salary cap of $50.3 million. In 2008-2009 the salary cap figures for Richards, Lecavalier, and St. Louis will be $7.8, $6.875, and $5.25 million respectively, for a total of $19.928 million. Let's pretend the Lightning sign goaltender Cristobal Huet, the most likely candidate as he is unrestricted, to a 4 year deal worth $16 million and defensemen Wade Redden to a six year deal worth $45 million. The cap hit for Huet's contract would be $4 million and Reddens' would be $7.5 million. This would bring the total cap hit for the Lightning to $31.428 million and they would have three of the most offensively gifted forwards in the NHL, one of the best stay at home defensemen in the NHL, and a bonafide NHL starting goaltender. With Huet and Redden leading a defensive corps that consists of Boyle, Ranger, O'Brien, and Lundin, the Lightning would have as good of a defensive unit as any team in the league. From here, there is nearly $20 million available to assemble a supporting cast, and the salary cap is expected to increase next season.

Next we add the salary cap figures of the young core defensive group of O'Brien, Ranger, and Lundin, and backup goaltender Ramo, and the total becomes $34.707 million.

As previously mentioned, Boyle's value to the defensive unit rises exponentially if Redden is signed and the defensive pressures are taken off of his back. Resigning Boyle will not be an easy task but the fact that he has missed all season due to wrist surgery does make it easier. Boyle was due a big raise when he becomes a free agent this summer based on his numbers the previous seasons, but he'd likely resign for a one year deal worth about $3.6 million. This would bring the total team salary to $38.307 million.

After assembling the major pieces of the franchise, the next important step is to round out the team with a combination of cheap veterans and prospects.

Obviously Vaclav Prospal has tremendous chemistry with Lecavalier and St. Louis and has been well worth his $1.9 million contract this season. However, he would be an excellent goal scoring threat on the second line. Prospal has scored 45 points through 46 games this season, and is on pace for a new career high in goals, but he often defers to Lecavalier and St. Louis. If he centered the second line, he would immediately be the recipient of more passes, resulting in more opportunities to shoot the puck. Prospal will become an unrestricted free agent after this season. If he's willing to return for around the same amount of money that he earned this season then the Lightning must resign him. Let's say he resigns for a slight raise of $4.5 million over 2 years. His contract would bring the total team cap hit for the 2008-2009 season to $40.557 million.

Michel Ouellet has had a rough first year in Tampa having dealt with injuries and the expectations of being a complement to Richards on the second line. Despite his troubles, he still has tremendous upside and has second line scoring potential written all over him. Ouellet has scored 98 points in his young 155 game career and is a reasonable $1.25 million cap hit. He is still under contract for another season and must remain with the team in order to continue to develop his game, learn the offense, and be given another chance of playing on the second scoring line next season alongside Prospal. Ouellet’s salary brings the total team cap hit to $41.807 million.

Jason Ward is another player who will remain under contract with the Lightning for the 2008-2009 season. He is a tough, hardworking forward who is a perfect fit as a third line winger. He has, however, also been given assignments that are above his pay grade, as he has been played occasionally on the first or second scoring lines. Ward fits the mold of a player that is often labeled as a "grinder". He does all of the little things that coaches love, but he is simply not a scorer. He'll contribute a goal or assist occasionally, but it should not be expected. Instead the team can count on him to forecheck hard, back check, and cycle the puck in the offensive zone to wear down the opponents. It's time to see the intense forechecking that led us to the Stanley Cup Finals once again. Ward is a $675,000 cap hit, bringing the total to $42.482 million; he offers the team veteran experience, energy, and heart.

The twenty-two year old Nick Tarnasky has developed into a regular on the Lightning roster, but plays far too few minutes to make any significant impact or to develop his game. Through 44 games, the fourth line center averages just 6:45 minutes of ice time per game. Tarnasky plays the game well, he's aggressive, skates hard and is hard to stop when given the opportunity to play. There's a reason he is often referred to as "Tarnasty". Tarnasky is signed through 2011 and provides the youthful exuberance that a team needs from its prospects. His $525,000 cap hit makes him a perfect fit to remain with the team, but it is essential that he be given more ice time and an opportunity to grow and perhaps center a third line with Ward. Tarnasky’s salary brings the total to $43.007 million.

Twenty year old center Blaire Jones is another fringe player who has seen brief stints with the Lightning at times over the past two seasons. Jones, a 4 th round draft pick (102 nd overall) by the Lightning in 2005, is a well sized 6’3’’, 211 lbs for his age. He too is under contract for the 2008-2009 season, for a very cap friendly hit of $502,000. Whenever he has been given a chance to play in Tampa he brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He’s a skilled offensive player who would benefit with more ice time at the NHL level. Jones should be given every opportunity to earn a spot on the roster as the fourth line center.

Twenty-two year old defensemen Matt Smaby remains under contract with the Lightning and should be given every opportunity to win a position on the Lightning’s third defensive unit. The 6’5’’, 211 pound native of Minnesota appeared in four games this year with the Lightning before being sent down to the minors. He simply was not earning enough ice time with the Lightning, so his demotion was more of a blessing for him. It has allowed him to develop his game rather than ride the bench. Smaby’s cap hit would be $792,000 if he remained on the active roster with the Lightning throughout the season.

The addition of Blaire Jones and Matt Smaby’s cap hits would raise the total team cap hit for the 2008-2009 season to $44.301 million.

There are still some holes to fill in the roster, most importantly being a second line left winger. Cory Stillman of the Carolina Hurricanes should be brought back to Tampa for a second stint. His one year in Tampa was incredibly successful and it was disappointing that Feaster chose not to resign him. He has made $1.75 million each of the past three seasons, an excellent figure for a player of his caliber. Stillman has 42 points through 46 games this season and the Lightning could afford to offer him $2 million per year for his services. With a $2 million cap hit, the biggest remaining void on the team would be filled and the total team cap hit would rise to $46.301 million.

There are several other players currently on the Lightning roster that also become free agents upon the completion of this season. They include Chris Gratton, Jan Hlavac, Ryan Craig, Andre Roy, Tim Taylor, Andreas Karlsson, Craig Macdonald, Mathieu Darche, Kyle Wanvig, Doug Janik, and Johan Holmqvist. These players should either be traded for prospects or draft picks or in the case of Craig, Darche, Janik, and Wanvig, resigned as injury insurance to a cheap two-way contract and sent to the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk.

Defensemen Filip Kuba should be placed on the trade block. Kuba's $3 million cap hit makes him too expensive to maintain for next season, especially with so much money tied up between Redden and Boyle. Kuba is prone to making a lot of mistakes, but he'd be a great fit on any playoff team looking for a #3 or #4 defensemen. He is certainly not a #1 or #2 defensemen as he is being utilized in Tampa. Kuba could help the Lightning acquire solid prospects and draft picks from any team in the playoff hunt trying to solidify their defense. Trade Kuba for a pair of young forward prospects that could potentially fill a position on the 3 rd or 4 th line.

Brad Lukowich and his $1.567 million cap hit does not equate as a good fit for the Lightning. Neither does his -16 plus/minus rating. He must be traded for a draft pick or prospect to a team looking for a 5 th or 6 th defensemen.

The unfortunate trade of Fredrik Modin and Fredrik Norrena to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for goaltender Marc Denis, in hindsight has turned into an absolute disaster. Denis signed an extension with Tampa before the 2006-2007 season and was hailed as the savior of the franchise. In 55 appearances for the Lightning, Denis has earned 18 wins and 25 losses while posting a 3.62 GAA and .871 save percentage. A far cry from a savior. The good news for the Lightning is that his $2.867 million cap hit no longer affects the overall team salary cap now that he is in the minors. The bad news is he is still due $3 million next season.

With a retooled roster, the Lightning are vastly improved and ready for another Stanley Cup run. However, an adjustment of the game plan is essential for any of this to even matter. Our defensemen can’t and shouldn’t be expected to pitch in with the offensive play every time. Too often they are out of position, leading to odd man rushes for the opposition. What ever happened to hard nosed hockey, either? The Lightning have some big, bruising blue liners and it’s time for them to be taken off of their leash and allowed to use their bodies to hit someone. A simple poke check is not going to get the job done in this league. Coach Tortorella must adapt to the players he has on his roster and put them in the best possible situations for them to succeed. He has failed in this aspect.

It’s no secret that Coach Tortorella loves to ride his best players. It’s time for him to start utilizing all four lines. During full strength five-on-five hockey the ice time should be spread out evenly. Give the opposition a different look, let the third and fourth lines play aggressive and throw hits. It’s a team sport, let the team earn a victory together rather than make two or three players carry the load on their back night in and night out. Let the team suffer a defeat together, and consequently grow together. Let the team take accountability for its actions and decide its fate. After all, in the long run it’s the team that will bring you to the Stanley Cup.

The talents and skills of Brad Richards have been wasted long enough and it appears he loses more confidence with the passing of each game. Richards is dead last in the entire NHL in +/- with an awe striking -25 rating. He began the season paired with Hlavac and Ouellet, and since then has been paired with just about everyone not named Lecavalier or St. Louis. Richard's line mates have been unable to score despite brilliant pin point passes from him. Coach Tortorella has declared in the past that he would never place Richards on the wing, but the time has come for him to stop being stubborn and move him to the wing on the top line with Lecavalier and St. Louis. Imagine the offensive firepower of that line. In Richards, the Lightning have one of the NHL's premier passers and in Lecavalier and St. Louis, a former Maurice Rocket Richard trophy winner and Art Ross trophy winner respectively. There would be absolutely no stopping that line.

The Lightning have had little stability and success with their minor league teams, having switched AHL affiliations from Springfield to Norfolk this season. The Norfolk Admirals have been far from successful this season having posted 11 wins and 27 losses. The Admirals, as of Thursday, are 13 points behind the 6th place Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the seven team East division.

The Lightning's minor league affiliates have produced little in terms of potential NHL caliber players. Call it what you want, but what this means is that we have either scouted and drafted poorly or our players are not being developed adequately. This must be corrected.

Fortunately, the Tampa Bay Lightning are not ruined. Any general manager would love to be in the position of Jay Feaster, who owns three of the most exciting forwards in the game today. It’s time to build onto those three pieces of foundation. Complete the sale of the team and start spending money. The St. Pete Times Forum is the ninth most successful arena in the world, with gross ticket sales of $28,846,499 for the period from October 2006 to October 2007. With that type of revenue, the owners can afford to take a step back in order to take several leaps forward.

In order to be successful, a team needs a healthy combination of superstars, core role players, veterans, and prospects. This rebuilt version of the Tampa Bay Lightning has it all.

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