Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Lightning Card of the The Week (That Never Existed) - Matt Gilroy 2011-12 OPC Update

When you get old your memory gets a bit hazy.  And when you have a couple of thousand Tampa Bay Lightning cards in your collection, you sometimes start writing a post about a card you think you have.  Then when you’re done and looking for an image you find out that not only do you not have the card, it doesn’t even exist.  Which leads us to today’s post.

As I was doing research (watching YouTube videos) for the Steven Stamkos endorsement post, I kept stumbling across a video showing all 60 of his goals from the 2011-12 season.  Being a disciplined writer I waited until I was almost done the post to watch it.  It was glorious.  He scored all of the goals. One of the things that stood out (other than the fact that he only had two empty net goals during the campaign) was the number of times Matt Gilroy showed up in the highlights.

For those of you who might not remember him, Gilroy was signed in the summer of 2011 as a free agent for a reasonable 1-year, $1 million deal.  General Manager Steve Yzerman was looking for a defenseman with speed who could move the puck and contribute on the power play.  You know, someone to fill that Dan Boyle-sized hole that hadn’t been filled since the Cowboys era.  Gilroy was cheap and had potential so it seemed like an ok idea.

Besides, who doesn’t like an underdog?  According to the St. Pete Times article about the signing, Gilroy walked onto the team at Boston University and suited up on the blue line, not because that’s what he played growing up, but because that was the only spot open on the team.  He seemed to take to it pretty well as he earned the Hobey Baker award for best collegiate player in 2009.

Here’s how to end a college career.  Walk-on from Long Island switches to defense to make the team, becomes captain of that team, wins award for best player in college, assists on dramatic game-tying goal in the national championship (which they end up winning) and then signs a 2-year $3.5 million contract with the legendary New York Rangers.  Not a bad little story.

Things didn’t quite pan out in New York and when his contract was up they didn’t re-sign him.  Paired up mostly with Marc-Andre Bergeron, Gilroy played pretty well for a Lightning team that struggled to capture the magic that had propelled them to the Eastern Conference finals the year before.  While the team might have had troubles, a young Steven Stamkos was an unholy terror on the ice.

Having refined his game from a kid with a big slapshot from the circle, Stamkos was scoring from every way from everywhere.  Slapshots from the circle still went in, but he was also in front of the net deflecting goals or tapping in crazy passes from Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier.  He was dekeing goalies and snapping wristers past them.  And there, on the blue line, was Gilroy setting him up.

Matt Gilroy had 2 goals and 17 assists in his too-short Lightning career.  His first point was a primary assist on a Vincent Lecavalier goal on October 17th.  He would assist on a Stamkos goal that night as well.  His next four points were also primary assists on Stamkos goals. In all he would assist on 6 of Stamkos’ 60 goals. His production and ice time would pick up when Victor Hedman was sidelined with a concussion. With the Big Swede on the sidelines, Gilroy would see upwards of 20 minutes a game.  When Hedman came back, the former Boston Terrier would see his ice time dwindle and eventually he was traded to the Ottawa Senators for Brian Lee (who would also assist on 6 of Stamkos’ goals).

Gilroy would help the Senators make it to the playoffs but would find himself a free agent again after the season.  The Rangers signed him to an AHL deal during the lockout and he did play his way onto the roster once the season resumed. However, he only appeared in 15 games and failed to register a point.  His last season in the NHL came in 2013-14 with the Florida Panthers where he recorded a goal and an assist in sixteen games.  He is currently playing for Spartak Moscow in the KHL where he has 15 points in 49 games.

To this day he is the only player to wear the number 97 for the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The reason for choosing that number is a bit heart-breaking (seriously how has Disney not done a movie on this guy yet? Are they waiting for him to return from Russia to help the Islanders win a Stanley Cup or something?)

In my mind Gilroy was with the team much longer than 53 games.  Maybe it was because the Lightning churned through so many defensemen that year.  Along with Gilroy and Lee there was Brandan Mikkelson, Keith Aulie, Bruno Gervais and Evan Oberg, all youngish players who were brought in to fill gaps in an aging blue line. Other than the 21-year-old Victor Hedman the other regulars on defense were 31 or older.

In fact, I thought he was around long enough to have a card produced with him wearing a Lightning uniform.  Unfortunately he wasn’t. So let that be a lesson to you kids.  If you have an idea for a post that you want to shoehorn into a reoccurring gimmick, make sure it actually fits before you spend an hour writing it.

So here is a photo of his rookie card which I do not own (but it could be yours for $3.99 on eBay!)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

An Endorsement Offer to Steven Stamkos

Dear Steven,

Hi.  How is your summer going?  Probably a lot better after cashing that big check, am I right?  Let me start by saying, thank you.  On behalf of myself and all the fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning, thank you for choosing to staying with the only NHL team you’ve ever played for.  Choosing to stay in Tampa instead of chasing fortune in Buffalo or glory in Toronto means a lot to the fans.  Not to go all Sally Field on you, but it’s nice to know you like us.

Personally I think you made the right choice.  Your legacy in Tampa is secured and you have an excellent chance of winning at least one Stanley Cup during your contact.  Heck, after 8 more years in Tampa, setting franchise records and winning a Cup or two, then maybe it will be time to head home to Toronto.  You’ll still have a chance to be a hero because I’m sure they’ll still be chasing their first championship since 1967.

That’s all in the future though.  Let’s talk about right now.  One of the big “drawbacks” to re-signing in Tampa that was bandied about over the last year was that you would be losing out on endorsement money by playing in a non-traditional hockey market.  If you were to sign in Toronto everyone from Tim Horton’s to Maurice’s Maple Sugar Shack would be handing you scandalous amounts of money to hock their various wares.

Who can forget this text from beloved Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons:

Obviously you weren’t swayed by unlimited amounts of Canadian Tire money and signed the deal to stay with Tampa shortly after this Tweet was posted.  I’m sure it was hard to turn down free tires for Bugsy’s old Mercedes, but you did it.

Even with the perceived handicap of playing in Tampa I see you still do alright with the endorsement money.  Forbes had you pegged at about $1.5 million a year with your deals with Nike/Bauer, Tissot watches, EA Sports and Coca-Cola).  While it doesn’t seem like much it does make you one of the top earners in the NHL.  Unfortunately, being a hockey pitchman isn’t quite as lucrative as a tennis pitchman (Roger Federer $58 million) or a golf pitchman (Tiger Woods $50 million and Phil Mickelson $44 million), but it does pay for a couple rounds of golf a year.

It speaks a lot to the niche market that your sport belongs to when the top endorser, Sidney Crosby, is only pulling in about $4 million a year in endorsement revenue.  Not that that is money to sneer at. Personally I’d sell my soul for an extra $25,000 a year (any advertisers out there reading, please feel free to contact me. You too could reach dozens of readers a week by advertising on The Hopeful Chase!).  However, it is a small enough amount to make me wonder if it was a factor in your decision making this off-season.

You said all the right things about what factored in to you staying in Tampa.  The chance to win, to finish what you started and to stay with a core of young exciting players.  I’m sure the extra year and mostly state-tax free $6.5 million  didn’t hurt, however.  As much as we want to think money isn’t a factor, this isn’t the 1950s any more.  Players aren’t working second jobs in the off-season to make ends meet.  Also, unlike the majority of the working force in world, your earning years are limited.  I can stand at a bell desk in a hotel for the next 20 years, you may only have another 10 years or so to make as much as you can.  Leaving money on the table to re-sign in Tampa is a pretty strong sign that you do really appreciate the life and career you’ve built with the Bolts.

As a thank you for signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, I’d like to help you catch up to the Woods, Federers and Crosbys of the world by offering you an endorsement opportunity. I, Justin G., will pay you, Steven Stamkos, $5.00 a year for the rest of your life (or my life) to endorse the Hopeful Chase. That’s not all.  If you agree to the deal, you will also receive a signing bonus of a $15 gift card to Argo Tea payable every year you play your first game in Chicago while you‘re in a Lightning uniform.

All you have to do is like one Hopeful Chase related Tweet a year (we all know that you know how to like Tweets) and conduct one post-game interview wearing a Hopeful Chase t-shirt (t-shirt to be designed if/when Stamkos signs on the line that is dotted). That’s it.  Such minimal work for such a lucrative deal! I won’t even make it exclusive, feel free to endorse any other poorly edited blog you want.

You don’t have to make a commercial where you have to shoot a lot of pucks at stuff (Gumball!). Or have your “dad” trade you.  Now if you want to make a tear-jerker expanding on the heartbreak in Quebec City, we can talk about it.

Just a Tweet and a T-shirt and there is a free sawbuck in your pocket for the rest of your life. Talk about it with Don Meehan and the rest of the team at  Newport Sports Management and get back to me when you get a chance (DM @TorchRamrod or email me).  There is no need to hurry, this is an open-ended deal.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Lightning Card of the Week - 1997-98 Pacific Omega Alexander Selivanov

Throughout the first decade of the Lightning's existence Alexander Selivanov was the closest thing the Lightning had to a sniper. From his debut in 1994 to his trade to Edmonton in 1999 the Russian-born winger scored 78 goals in 304 games. For me, however, he will always be remembered for three things:

  1. Having his Mercedes repossessed during a practice.
  2. Marrying the General Manager's daughter
  3. Scoring the playoff overtime goal in the team's first playoff home game in history.

And yes, that is the order I remember them in.

The Car:

In 1998-99 the Lightning were not a very good team. Their record peaked at 6-6-2 on November 8th. . On November 10th they would lose 10-2 to the New York Rangers (I was there!) which plummeted them into a nine game losing streak. A 2-1 win against Edmonton on December 4th would break the streak but they would go ahead and lose 15 of their next 19 games to...umm...fall out of contention.

They won only 19 games. Their “best” goalie was Corey Schwab and he had 8 wins and 3.52 GAA. Darcy Tucker of all people led them in scoring with 43 points. The highest plus/minus was +1 by a Andrei “Skippy” Skopintsev who somehow managed that while playing in 19 games for a team that gave up a league-leading 292 goals.

Their head coach/general manager was literally illiterate and helping his wife deal with cancer. Their captain, John Cullen and pro scout, Peter Mahovlich, were also battling cancer. Forward Benoit Hogue had to leave the team for a bit because his sister had been murdered in Montreal.

It was not a good year.

On a quiet Thursday in October, Selivanov had his $80,000 Mercedes repossessed from the parking lot of the Ice Palace. Despite making a reported $1.5 million that year he had somehow missed a couple of payments on the car. He blamed it on moving to a new address and not notifying the bank. Man, life sucked before online payments.

The Wife:

Flashback to a few years prior and Selivanov was having a great year. Despite being a Russian in a small market hockey town with no other Russians on the team he was playing well on the ice. In his first full season in the NHL, Selivanov's team leading 31 goals propelled the Lightning into the playoffs for the first time in their history. He looked like the dynamic, if sometimes inconsistent, scoring forward that could be a breakout star for the team.

Off the ice his life improved quite dramatically as well. In October of 1996 he married a girl named Carrie. Her last name happened to be Esposito. Which was the same name of the Lightning's General Manager Phil. Which wasn't really a coincidence since she was his daughter. She was also the Director of Team Services for the Lightning. Which kind of conflicted with a “no fraternizing with the players” rule he had set up with his employees.

Esposito didn't punish his daughter for marrying a Russian by trading him away (although I wouldn't have put it past him if he had a decent deal on the table). However, a couple of inconsistent seasons in a row (he would score a total of 31 goals in the next two seasons) and a large contract extension would lead to acrimony from his critics and the nickname Alex Son-in-law-ov was born. See, people could be assholes even before Twitter.

Esposito would soon be removed as General Manager and in January of 1999 Selivanov would be shipped out to Edmonton in a trade that netted the Lightning the legendary Alexandre Daigle. Carrie Esposito would follow Alex around for the next decade plus as his hockey career took him to Columbus, Germany and Russia. Unfortunately in 2012, at the age of 43, Carrie passed away from an abdominal aneurysm.

The Goal:

The early Tampa Bay Lightning teams were not great, but they weren't horrible. During the first three seasons of their existence they finished 6th in their division twice and 7th once. As an expansion team in the 90s they were built through other teams castoffs and high draft picks so some struggle was expected, but they were improving as a franchise.

In the 1995-96 they finally made the playoffs. They finished with a franchise best 38 wins (a number that wouldn't be bested until the Stanley Cup year of 2003-04). They won three out of their last four games in the season to snatch the 8th see in the Eastern Conference away from the defending Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devil.

Their reward for the best season in franchise history? A match-up with the powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers. Not many gave Tampa a chance against the Flyers when the series started. After all, what chance should an upstart, sunbelt hockey team have against a team with Eric Lindros, John LeClair, Ron Hextall and Rod “The Bod” Brind'Amour? Plus the Lightning had an injured goalie in Daren Puppa who was playing with a bad back, an injured Brian Bradley who missed all of Game 2, oh and young defenseman Roman Hamrlik announced that he hated playing for coach Terry Crisp after the Lightning got shellacked 7-3 in Game 1.

Game 2 was a different story as the Lightning took advantage of some injuries to the Flyers to win 2-1 in overtime and send the series to Tampa tied at a game a piece. Selivanov had tied the game in the second period and Brian Bellows won it in overtime.

Game 3 was back in Tampa. In a converted baseball stadium then known as the ThunderDome, 25,945 fans watched the Lightning battle back from 3-1 and 4-3 deficits to send the game into overtime. Then, 2 minutes into overtime Selivanov scored the game winner.

There are several great things about this goal.

Selivanov throwing a check at the blue line to keep the puck in the zone

Brian Bradley's pass to Bill Houlder. And you thought cross-ice passes were a recent Lightning phenomenon.

Houlder's great fake and then horrible pass. Watch the slow-motion replay. He sold the slapshot and then fired that puck right into Selivanov's skates.

Selivanov getting mugged by Dale Hawerchuck as he skated in front of the net. Late 90s hockey at its obstructioniest best.

The sheer noise from the crowd after the goal. That would have been awesome to be a part of.

Sadly that would the high water point for the series and the organization for the next few years. Puppa's back broke down and he couldn't carry the team any more. The Flyers won Game 4 in front of a NHL record 28,183 fan to tie the series. They would win the next two games as well, ending the series in six games. Would things have been different if Puppa didn't have the back of an 85-year-old man? Possibly.

The organization would fall on hard times after that playoff season. Owners would change, coaches would change, Selivanov would be traded, games would be lost. Many, many games would be lost. And for Lightning fans sitting through three straight seasons of under 20-win seasons. There was one lonely banner that hung in the Ice Palace. It wasn't a Stanley Cup banner, or a conference title banner or even a division banner. It was a banner celebrating the record crowd.

And we had the memory of Selivanov's goal. For most organizations that would be barely a footnote in a team's history. Heck even more recent Lightning fans probably don't rate it in their top five memories,but for a generation of Lightning fans that will be one of the greatest moments in Lightning history.

Selivanov would have a good season in Edmonton before falling out of their graces. He would play one season in Columbus before moving on to the KHL and German leagues. He last played in the Netherlands in 2011-12 before retiring. He had been coaching in the KHL with HC Admiral Vladivostok but does not currently appear on their website.

The Card:

I don't have many of the 1997-98 Pacific Omega cards.  I picked this one up in a Zistle trade where the other guy was super generous and sent me a box of Lightning cards in exchange for a couple of extra Topps Heritage cards I had.

I like the horizontal design, but the borders are a little too wide on the side.  The next year's design was much better (see the Vinny card on my last post). I also like the Rob Zamuner cameo in the background. 

The back of the card has no stats but mentions Selivanov scoring two goals in 39 seconds against the Flyers in November of 1997.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Steve Stamkos Stays in Tampa

In the end it was just nice that he chose to stay. The reasons don't really matter, well they kind of matter, but just the fact that Steven Stamkos, the looming big prize of the NHL free agent market, took a look at what was out there and said, “Nope. I think I'll stick here for a little bit longer.”

I'm going to pile my money this high!

Stamkos will be seen in Tampa during the hockey season for the next 8 years. And it only cost the Tampa Bay Lightning $68 million (notice how easy it is to say “only cost” when it's not your money?) He turned down the chance to make more money and return home (Toronto), the chance to be the next great center for a storied franchise (Detroit) and the chance to make A LOT more money and be the final piece in propelling an up-and-coming franchise into competition (Buffalo).

What a relief it is for fans in the Tampa Bay Area to finally have someone choose to stay. We've become conditioned to the fact that as a smaller market, players grew into superstars and then leave for bigger markets. Either they sign big free agent deals with other teams (Carl Crawford, Nikolai Khabibulin) or they get traded before the big money is due (David Price, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle, Scott Kazmir). We're just used to athletes leaving town.

But for once, the superstar, despite better offers, despite the chance to play for his hometown team, picked to stay in Tampa Bay. When the news broke (conveniently when I was at work) and the texts and the alerts blew up my phone, I was legitimately happy. As in, find someone to high-five happy. And this is where being an out-of-town fan kind of sucks. There weren't any Lightning fans in the hotel lobby so it was kind of hard to explain why I was grinning like a doofus for my entire shift.

Stamkos talked about loyalty to the organization where he “grew up as a kid” and Mr. Yzerman talked about the respect Stamkos had for the organization and the process (we were one “hustle” comment away from a John Cena t-shirt). There was a feel that money wasn't the number one concern during Stamkos' short-lived journey as a possible free agent.

He even acknowledged it in the phone conference on Thursday when he mentioned that both sides (him and the team) have to make “sacrifices” to keep the core of a Stanley Cup contending team together. Granted sacrificing between $8.5 million a year or possibly $11 million isn't exactly Sophie's Choice, but not too many of us would turn down a couple of million bucks. Hell, I'd jump ship from my current employer for an extra $20,000 a year.

While I was emotionally prepared for him to leave (at least I'd like to think I was) I did have a feeling he wanted to come back. Again, I don't see someone working his ass off to recover from an injury to play one game for a team he was going to ditch in two months. No one would have thought less of him if he had sat out of Game 7 against the Penguins.

Did he waste a lot of our time and digital ink by signing what was, in essence, the same deal that was reported back in March? Maybe, but if you look at it from his point of view, not really. He used the system in place to get as much information as possible. In the end, waiting until June 30th wasn't a huge problem for the Lightning. If he had waited until August and then came back, that could have led to some animosity from fans and ownership as it would have handcuffed the things Mr. Yzerman needed to do to put a competitive team on the ice.

This is what a "thrilled" and "very, very, very happy" Steve Yzerman looks like.

Luckily for the Lightning and Lightning fans, money doesn't seem to be the driving force for Steven Stamkos. Even going back to the deal he signed as a restricted free agent. He could have held out for more than 5 years and $37.5 million. He could have forced the Lightning to sign him to an 8-year extension back then, but he didn't.

This summer he could have made more money signing elsewhere. Heck he could have demanded that Mr. Yzerman at least pay him a contract that averaged $9 million a year so that it would look like he made the team move off of their initial offer. Luckily his pride at being a leader and a player is stronger than his pride in being a negotiator.

While we're at it, let's give a round of applause to the NHL free agency process. When the new CBA was released with its salary caps and contract limits, this exact scenario was why it was put in place. In the old days, when cap hits weren't a concern a team like the Rangers or Toronto could have swooped in and offered him an Ovechkin-like 13-year, $150 million deal.

The Lightning, as a smaller revenue generating club, would never have had a chance to match that without crippling the franchise for years. Instead, they held the advantage by being able to add the 8th year to the contract (all other teams could only offer a max of 7 years) and keep the total value of the contract in the ballpark with what other teams could offer.

So for all of the legitimate crap that we give the NHL, as Lightning fans, lets acknowledge that the system does work in our favor from time to time. Now, if under the same system some team drops an offer sheet for Nikita Kucherov, all these kind words are forgotten.

Link shot me a text and asked me if I liked the deal. As a fan, my immediate thought was, “Yes, of course I do! Stamkos is back. I don't have to buy a new jersey!” However, the other part of me, the rational one, the one that kept me from weeping in the corner when Vinny Lecavalier was bought out, like the deal as well.

I miss Vinny and I miss this uniform.

From a financial point it was a big deal. It will probably lead to someone I don't want to see leave the team, leaving the team. But it was nowhere as bad as it could have been. For the last five years his salary cap hit has been $7.5 million. For the next eight years it will be $8.5 million. He is only 26-years-old so for half of the deal, he should still be close to his prime. If hockey revenues keep growing, by the time he's over 30, third-line centers are going to be making $9 million a year so it's going to be a bargain.

Since he entered the league in 2008, the only person who has scored more goals is Alex Ovechkin. Even in an “off” year he will score 30 goals. He makes people who play with him better (a scary thought if Jonathan Drouin manages to stay on his line). The Lightning keep two legitimate scoring lines with him on the roster.

It also establishes, without a doubt, that he is the leader of this team. That was the best thing to hear in his phone call on Thursday. He didn't talk about money being the reason he stayed, but about the opportunity not only to win the Stanley Cup, but to be the leader of the team that wins the Cup.

Even though he has been the captain since St. Louis left, the specter of him leaving hung over the team. In my drafts I had a post started breaking down who would wear the “C” after Stamkos signed with Toronto (spoiler – it was Victor Hedman). Now, there is no doubt. And it sounds like he is ready for it.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Recap of the Lightning's Weekend in Buffalo

Free agents were signed! Trades were consummated! Teenagers were drafted!  It was everything that Tampa Bay Lightning fans had hoped for. Yet, at the same time, there was a prevailing sense of incompleteness presiding over the weekend as well.  For all of the action it was the inaction that was the biggest story to come out of the 2016 NHL Draft.  After the dust settled, Steven Stamkos was still part of the team (although possibly in a contractual sense of the word only) and Andrei Vasilevskiy is still the backup goalie.

The big hype during the draft was that Ben Bishop was on the move.  It made sense. There were a couple of teams that needed goalies (Calgary and Dallas), the Lightning needed some cap relief and might be interested in moving up the draft board.  Besides they have a 21-year-old kid ready to assume the starter’s spot.  In the end it was St. Louis who stepped up to the plate and traded away one of their goalies (Brian Elliot) for a minimal return (2nd round pick and conditional 3rd ).

Hopefully if that’s what Calgary offered for Bishop, Mr. Yzerman hung up the phone before Brian Burke finished his sentence.  You would hope a two-time Vezina-nominated goalie would be worth more than a couple of picks, although the rumor that Bishop wanted a  7-year, $49 million extension probably didn’t help things out.  The good news for Mr. Yzerman is that teams will always need goalies and waiting a little longer isn’t going to hurt Bishop’s value (unless he blows out a knee in the World Cup).

Bishop is under contract for one more season. Worst case scenario (barring injury) is that he has another good season and walks away from the team next July. Even in that case, the silver lining is that the Lightning wouldn’t have to protect him in the upcoming expansion draft, leaving them free to keep Vasilevskiy in the fold. I’m not sure what the best case is yet, but it probably involves another team panicking and throwing prospects at Mr. Yzerman.

Someone who is not under contract for another season (at least not yet) is Steven Stamkos.  As the days tick by it looks like the most prolific non-Russian goal-scorer in the league is going to be a free agent.  The draft seemed to be the last chance for the Lightning to announce they re-signed their captain.  After all it’s always nice to announce a big deal when the whole league is together in once place.  Also, it would mark the end of the period where they had exclusive negotiating rights with him.

So when Friday turned into Saturday and the Lightning’s exclusive negotiating window vanished into the Buffalo sky with no deal announced his free agency more or less was open to everyone.  And by everyone, I mean everyone.  While it was once thought that the choice would be Toronto or Tampa, it now seems that every hockey team except for the Cardiff Devils have expressed interest in signing Stamkos (I hope he has unlimited minutes on his cell phone plan…I wonder what carrier he uses?  Has he ever done a cell phone commercial?  I don’t think he has. It seems like one of the superstars of hockey should be advertising for a phone company…which is probably something that the Leafs pointed out to him during their sales pitch).

If I was Stamkos' agent - this is how I answer the phone.

Is it a forgone conclusion that his days in Tampa are over?  I don’t think so.  Stamkos strikes me as the type of guy who likes to have all of the information available before he makes a decision.  So even if he is leaning toward coming back, what does it hurt to hear what other teams have to say?  Besides if a GM or two is going to buy him a free steak over the next week, why not listen?

Unfortunately for Mr. Yzerman, Stamkos’ lack of a decision makes his life a little bit harder.  At this moment he is Schrodinger’s GM.  He is currently having to operate in a status where Stamkos is still with the Lightning and a status where Stamkos is not with the Lightning.  Unfortunately the rest of the NHL does not, and will not, wait for the pale-skinned blonde from Markham to figure who is going to give him millions of dollars.

So Mr. Yzerman is stuck trying to continue fill the needs of two very different teams.  A Lightning team with Stamkos needs minor tinkering.  Some help on the blue line, maybe a possession forward who can win face-offs, and little salary cap space to make those moves.  A team without Stamkos needs the same things and a way to fill a 35-40 goal offensive void.  Granted, there is a at least $7.5 million more in cap space to deal with, but replacing that type of offense requires more than a snap of the fingers.

In the meantime Mr. Yzerman does still have other things to worry about like pending restricted free agents and a winger with a broken hip.  He also has to mend the ego of a starting goaltender who was thrown out as trade bait for 48 hours.  While I’m sure Bishop understands the business side, it’s still a shot to the ego to be dangled out in front of other teams.

He did clear up some paperwork on Monday by making offers to seven of those pending restricted free agents. Only David Broll was left out.  While this doesn’t automatically mean the Lightning will re-sign all of them it does give them right of first refusal or draft pick compensation should some team come sniffing around with an offer sheet.  It buys him some time (like, until Stamkos makes up his mind) to figure out what kind of long term contracts he can work out with Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov.

As for players he’s already taken care of, Luke Witkowski picked up a one year contract while JT Brown and Cedric Paquette inked two year deals.  Brown was a good signing as he as emerged as an important shut-down forward for the Lightning.  His speed and fore checking can be quite disruptive to other teams (now if he can just learn to put the puck in the net).  Witkowski is depth on the blueline and a possible captain for Syracuse.  Paquette, whose cousin Chris was drafted by the Lightning this weekend, struggled against the Penguins but also fills a needed role in the bottom six.

After wrapping up those deals the draft was probably the easiest thing Mr. Yzerman had to deal with over the last couple of months.  He made it quite clear that current events don’t dictate who he picks in a draft. After all, by the time these kids are ready who knows what the team will look like. In all the Lightning drafted 10 players (1 goalie, 2 defensemen and 7 forwards).

Surprisingly Mr. Yzerman didn’t trade down from his first round pick or trade one of his extra second round picks.  In a move that stunned a lot of the Lightning faithful he actually traded for another second round pick.  The price for that pick was Anthony DeAngelo, the former first round pick who was slated to spend another season in Syracuse before being considered a part of the Lightning’s blueline in the future.

St. Pete Times beat writer Joe Smith intimated that DeAngelo might have requested a move to get a fresh start with a new organization.  If it was then, Jonathan Drouin, this is how you request a trade without embarrassing your GM and organization.  If he didn’t make the request then perhaps Mr. Yzerman and his staff didn’t see DeAngelo’s game progressing the way they would like it.

You can say a lot of things about Mr. Yzerman, but one thing he does well is cut the right young players loose. Have any of the young players that he has traded come back to haunt the Lightning?  If Brett Connolly could stay healthy maybe he would be the exception.

Speaking of Brett’s, the Lightning selected Brett Howden from Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League.  Howden is the definition of a safe pick.  He has size (6’2”) and was projected to be a late first round, early second round pick. He plays a two-way game (how Coach Cooper-y!) with his offense coming from hard work in front of the net. He might not have the most skill or speed (something his critics are lamenting) but he isn’t going to burn you with bad plays either.

His contributions to the Lightning are years away though.  The curse of a competitive team is that draft picks rarely vault straight to the big club.  In all likelihood it is back to the WHL for another year and then some time helping Syracuse rebuild as a contender.

I commented to Link that I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a fan base slightly disappointed that their number one goalie and number one scorer weren’t traded in the same weekend, but that’s the feeling I got from some of the Lightning fans on Twitter.  The thought of Stamkos walking “for nothing” really seems to be stuck in their craw.

My philosophy is that what we “got” was four seasons of Steven Stamkos.  We didn’t get three or three and a half seasons of him and some assets in a trade.  Nor did we “get” pennies on the dollar by trading him at the draft.  What we also have is a shot to re-sign him.  If Mr. Yzerman had traded him away, his days in Tampa were most assuredly over.  Now, for at least the next week or so the door is still open for him to come back.  Will he walk through that door?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lightning Card of the Week - Ryan Callahan 2015-16 MVP Green Parallel

2015-16 Upper Deck MVP Green Parallel Ryan Callahan

Welcome back to a semi-regular series on The Hopeful Chase – the Lightning Card of the Week. For this week it's everyone's favorite check-throwing forward, Ryan Callahan.

Callahan made the news yesterday when it was noted that he had successful surgery to repair a labral tear in his left hip. According to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, the well-paid forward had been struggling with the injury for most of the second half of the season and the playoffs.

After five minutes of research on labral hip surgery I feel a little better about his recovery and this not being the degenerative type of hip issues that has sidelined Bo Jackson and Albert Belle. As a fan I don't like hearing a player that is having issues with their hips, their backs or their feet. Those are three problem areas that never seem to get better.

However, it seems like this surgery involves repairing cartilage around the hip area. With a rehab time frame of 4-5 months Callahan should be back on the ice sometime around November. Will he be able to continue to play the same type of crash test dummy, aggressive forechecking style that fans love? That is the big question.

While the condition itself isn't anymore degenerative than pulling a hamstring or breaking a leg, it is something that can reoccur if you keep smashing your hip into other players and the boards. Think of a pitcher who tears the labrum in his shoulder. Surgery fixes it, but the very act of throwing a baseball could lead to it tearing again. The very act of Ryan Callahan being Ryan Callahan could lead to him doing more damage to his hip.

With him under contract for another four seasons that could be a bit of concern for Lightning fans. If Callahan can't play his style of hockey, is he any good for the team? He has been surprisingly durable for the Lightning having played in more than 70 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008-09 and 2009-10. He did chip in 24 goals in 2014-15, but fell off scoring only 10 last season. Of course, playing with a painful hip could be a reason he had the lowest goal output of his NHL career.

I think he can find a role with the team as a defensive forward who chips in 15-20 goals a year while slowing down the opposition's top line. I don't think he can ever stop being who he is and it will lead to more injuries along the same lines as his hip issue. That was one of the drawbacks of the long term, big-money deal he signed. When you have a player that throws his body around the ice game in and game out there is a chance the damage is going to catch up with him and cause his career to crater quickly.

The green parallel of last year's MVP set are available online only. Through Upper Deck's e-pack site you can purchase or trade packs of MVP cards. If you acquire 20 of one particular card you can merge them together for the exclusive green parallel. So far I've been able to trade for Callahan and Ben Bishop. I just had them sent to me and they do look pretty nice in person.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cut The Check? Should the Lightning Buy Out Valtteri Filppula

Let’s get two things out of the way before we dive into this post:

1. I liked the Valtteri Filppula deal when it was signed.  Liked, didn’t love.  It was a year too long and a million dollars too much, but the Lightning were signing a creative, veteran playmaker who played responsible hockey and would slot into a top-six position.

2. I don’t like teams buying out contracts.  Done incorrectly it can lead to roster-strangling dead cap space and an endless cycle of overpaying (because, hey you can always buy him out when it goes sideways) for free agents. It might seem like small change, but it can add up.  Buying one player out at $1.7 million and then another at $2 million and then things escalate quickly.  Before you know it you have $4-5 million wrapped up in dead money.

Keeping those two things in mind,  I think the Lightning buying out Valtteri Filppula isn’t the worse thing in the world.  The Finnish forward with the filthy hands is owed $10 million over the next two years.  According to General Fanager if Tampa Bay buys him out before the window ends on June 30th they will save $3.34 million this season and next.  Of course, there are consequences.  For the following two seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20) they will take a $1.67 million cap hit.

Probably not his finest Lightning memory.

Three-and-a-third million dollars is a lot of money to play with on a roster that has a lot of young talent looking for raises.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend some of that money on locking up Nikita Kucherov and his consistent goalscoring as opposed to Filppula and his diminishing flashes of puck-handling brilliance?

I think Filppula has taken a lot of unwarranted flack over the past few seasons, but I’m also aware that he is a 32-year-old forward whose offensive numbers have been declining over the last three seasons. It’s getting harder and harder to justify rolling him out there for 18-20 minutes a game.

In the playoff run this season which forward led the team in ice time?

A: Kucherov with his 11 goals in 17 games?
B. The young Jonathan Drouin and his breakout performance?
C. The steady Tyler Johnson who quietly put up a point a game during the postseason.

The answer to this obviously leading question is - none of the above.

Filppula led all forwards with 20:45 of ice time throughout the playoffs.  Part of that could be explained by the fact that he won 52% of the faceoffs he had.  Coach Cooper threw him out there at the end of games, short-handed and every other time he had an important face-off. Those minutes rack up when you’re doing it game after game.

He did a decent job against the Red Wings and Islanders top lines.

He wasn’t actually that bad in the playoffs (at least until the Pittsburgh series).  He did put up 7 points overall, but against the Penguins his most glaring deficiency was exposed - he just isn’t fast anymore.  Watching him carry the puck into the offensive zone was like watching Jonathan Drouin in slow-motion.  The moves were there, the slick puck-handling was there, it was just at a slower pace.  Even if he was in the zone with numbers, the high-energy Penguins were able to chase him down.

Despite his lack of foot speed it is obvious that he is a player that Coach Cooper trusts.  He is somewhat responsible in the defensive zone and can (at least theoretically) generate offense.  Over at Raw Charge, loserpoints is reviewing the team with a slant towards enhanced stats.  Those numbers place Filppula place just off-center and the writer sums up his season simply saying, “Valtteri Filppula is declining as would be expected of a player his age”.  So…yeah.

Barring injury to other players he is not cracking the top-six next season.  With the Triplets coming back, Alex Killorn, Jonathan Drouin and (hopefully) an extremely rich Steven Stamkos filling out the top of the roster, at best Filppula is going to be looking at another year as a third-line center.

Do the Lightning have someone on the roster that can replace Filppula?  After all, if he’s bought out, someone has to fill that spot. It could be Jonathan Marchessault.  The 25-year-old center is an unrestricted free agent, but could be brought back at a reasonable (under $2 million) salary.  While he doesn’t have the same offensive promise that Filppula brings to the table, he wouldn’t be a total train wreck playing 15 minutes a game.

Also, it might open a spot on the roster for a young player in the organization like Adam Erne or Yanni Goude.  Also, while the free agent market might not be deep, there are third-line forwards available at reasonable prices (P.A. Parenteau maybe?)

Something else to think about that could affect the team a little farther down the road is that Filppula has a no-movement clause in his contract and is signed through the 2017-18 season which means the Lightning would have to protect him in the Las Vegas expansion draft.  Wouldn’t you rather protect Vlad Namestnikov or JT Brown instead of Filppula?

So I just spent a page and a half laying out a case for buying him out.  Should Mr. Yzerman cut him a check and wish him well?  Yes, but after next season.

I think they can get one more serviceable season out of him without handicapping the team out of contention.  Mr. Yzerman should be able to get all of his business done with Stamkos and his restricted free agents and still stay under the cap.  He can then apply the cap savings to Victor Hedman’s extension (let’s start putting the positive vibes out there now) and longer term deals for Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

The Lightning GM has played the buyout game pretty well so far. The only contracts he has bought out have been Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone, both of them were compliance buyouts that didn’t count against the salary cap. He did retain some salary when the Lightning flipped Sam Gagner to the Coyotes for a 6th round pick.  That salary, as well as the cap hit from Vlacav Prospal’s buyout (done under the Brian Lawton regime) fell off this season.

Thirty-one points from a center that can win faceoffs and kill penalties isn’t the worst thing in the world. He has been relatively healthy over his Lightning career (something that was a bit of a worrying point when he signed the deal) and can still contribute.

So don’t trade in those “51” jerseys just yet.

I will miss those platinum locks when he's gone.