Now, more than ever, it looks like the chances for postseason are sliding away for the Tampa Bay Lightning. On Tuesday they take on the Western Conference leading Vancouver Canucks at the newly christened Tampa Bay Times Forum (it will always be the Ice Palace to us) fighting for their postseason lives. While no games are must win until facing elimination, every game from now on is pretty damn important.
The Bolts return from a road trip through Canada that started with high hopes. Having won three straight at home prior to departing, a solid road trip would have launched them into the thick of the playoff race. Alas, it wasn’t to be so.
They return to Tampa with nothing more than a couple of new stamps on their passports and some new faces in the lineup. Three straight losses and zero points have dropped the Lightning to thirteenth in the Eastern Conference. They are now closer to last (3 points ahead of the Islanders) than playoffs (9 points behind the decimated Penguins). With forty games gone in the season it’s starting to look like they will be sellers at the deadline.
|Looks like someone is scared of Mr. Downie - Getty images Graig Abel|
No one on the team or in the organization will admit that they aren’t planning for the playoffs, but it’s time to be realistic. Even if they take advantage of the home-heavy portion of the schedule, there are five teams in front of them that they have to leapfrog. If they do manage to pull that off then they are sitting in the seventh or eighth seed and staring down a first round matchup with the Rangers, Bruins or Flyers.
Still, the fans on the internet call out for GM Steve Yzerman to trade for a stud goalie, a top-six forward and a top-four defenseman. It’s not going to happen. The individual cost of any one of those types of players is going to be astronomical as the season marches to the trade deadline (48 days and counting!). During his short reign in charge Yzerman has made it quite certain that he isn’t interested in trading the future for the now.
Blowing up the farm system (i.e. Carter Ashton, Brett Connolly, the Russians or Dustin Tokarski) for a goalie or a rental forward is going to do more damage to this team in the long run than missing the playoffs this year. The goal of the owner and the front office is to put together a team that is successful for a long run. In that process there will be bumps in the road, this year obviously being one of them. There is no need to sacrifice what has been built because of a temporary detour.
Last year’s deadline deals cost them Ty Wishart, a 23-year old defenseman who might be a career AHL’er , and Brock Beukeboom who may develop eventually but is still years away from making an impact in the NHL. Neither player was considered an integral part of the Lightning’s future so they were exchanged for pieces that helped solidify a much better product than what is on the ice this year.
Those types of deals won’t make the 2011-2012 Tampa Bay Lightning Stanley Cup contenders. Trading for Corey Schneider or Tuukka Rask sounds like a good idea at first, but there is no guarantee they are going to perform to the level that they have displayed with their current teams. If the Semyon Varlamov trade is the starting point for young goaltending talent then it’s a non-starter. Yzerman is not going to sacrifice a first and second round pick for goalies that have performed well, but haven’t proven anything. Especially since both goalies are Restricted Free Agents next summer and could be heading for decent raises.
Josh Harding has been another name bandied about the internets, but one would wonder how he would perform outside of the Wild’s defensive system. More likely, if Yzerman is going to address the goaltender situation, he is going to target a veteran backup such as Johan Hedberg or Evgeni Nabokov to ride out this season and then start over in the off-season. Would that be an upgrade over what they have now? Probably not and it would be making a move for the sake of making a move, something Yzerman isn’t known to do. So face it Lightning fans – Roloson and Garon are the team going forward.
As for the blue line, it seems that every GM in the league is searching for a top-four defenseman heading into the second half of the season. That demand is going to drive up the market at well, with sellers looking for young controlled talent or draft pick. Which leads into the next discussion – if the Lightning aren’t buying this season what are they selling?
Yesterday, in an email to a couple of friends I picked the top three members of the team likely to be packing their bags at the deadline. They were:
Pavel Kubina – Since the injury to Victor Hedman, Kubina has stepped up and filled the role of the physical blue-liner that everyone wants to add at the deadline. He still can’t skate his way out of a paper bag, but he provides twenty-plus minutes of defense and a heavy shot from the point. With the competition for available defensemen expected to be heated he could draw a second round pick or a decent prospect in return. As an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, it’s unlikely that the organization would be bringing him back anyway so they might as well get some value for him.
|Prety much the only Malone photo ever needed.|
Ryan Malone – If only he could stay healthy his value would be much higher. Malone still has 3 years left on his contract at a $4.5 million cap hit. However, for a team with cap space his contract isn’t that bad. In actual salary he is scheduled to make $3 million, $2.5 million and $2.5 million over the life of the contract. Not bad for someone who plays the physical game in front of the net. Clearing that cap room could help the Lightning bring in a decent free agent in the off-season. If a club is offering a 2nd round pick and a mid-level prospect I’m sure Yzerman is listening.
|One of these guys can be had at the deadline. And it's not the little one.|
Brett Clark – His numbers are down a bit from last season, but for a team needing some depth on the blue line he could be a fit. Clark playing ten minutes a game is more effective than Clark playing twenty minutes, a role he’s been forced into with the injuries suffered by the Lightning. For a fourth round pick he could be had.
Other names that could come up in trade talks would be Mathieu Garon, Dominic Moore, Teddy Purcell and Adam Hall. Teams looking for depth could take a flyer on any of those players and help themselves make a playoff push.
Whatever happens, expect Steve Yzerman to make the best of the situation. Take for example, the Blair Jones trade. Jones was a role player and was turned into a young defenseman that fits the Guy Boucher model – a smooth-skating puck mover. I would expect similar moves going down the stretch. And hey, most of the moves have worked out in the Lightning’s favor so far so why not trust in Yzerman?