Thursday, August 15, 2013

Off Season Hockey is The Worst Hockey

A few weeks ago, ok a month ago, the fine folks at Raw Charge asked me a question.  Well not just me, but Lightning bloggers, and since I was briefly a Lightning blogger on a semi-prominent website, Raw Charge still invites me to partake in their Questions of the Week. I guess it’s kind of like sportswriters who wrote about baseball 20 years ago still get to vote for the Hall of Fame even though they haven’t covered the game in a decade.

The questions was: “So looking at what the Lightning have done {in the off-season}, now we ask: Are We Better Yet?”

My response was basically, sure why not? Valtteri Filppula was an ok signing (once the length of the contract was removed as a factor) and number one pick Jonathan Drouin has an excellent chance of making the team and providing some excitement.

Since this is my spot in the mad chaos that is the internet I figured I’d finally get around to expounding on my thoughts. Originally I was going to post it the same week the question went up, but as you might know by now, I’m quite the lazy blogger.  As the season draws ever nearer I figure it’s not a bad time to take a look at the off-season roster makeover and see where they stand, at least on paper.

The Big Loss

This is Photshopped, right? Please say yes.

We barely knew you Benoit Poulet.  I’m kidding, of course. No discussion of off-season moves can begin or end without mention of the compliance buyout of Vincent Lecavalier. The all-time leader in games played, goals scored, shots taken, money donated to local hospitals and Stanley Cup Finals fights with other superstars was given his walking papers  (and $32 million) just before Free Agent Frenzy began in July.

I’m not sure I’ve totally processed it yet.  Until he actually takes the ice in those ugly orange and white sweaters that Philadelphia wears I refuse to believe it actually happened.  He’s totally coming back, you guys.  It’s just a well-worked swerve job by the Lightning.  October 10th, the lights are going to go dark in the Ice Palace, “Thunderstruck” will start playing, Dave Mishkin will scream out, “Dear God! That’s Vinny’s Music!” in his best JR voice and Lecavalier will step on the ice.  IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN!!!!

But, for the sake of this column let’s say Lecavalier is really with Philadelphia and the Lightning have to replace his production. Over the last two season’s Lecavalier provided .79 points per game - that’s not chicken scratch. It was productive enough that other team’s had to worry about the second line, occasionally freeing up young Steven Stamkos to do what he does - score goals.

Quite frankly, there is no one on the roster set to provide that kind production or second line protection. I’m pretty sure we’re seeing the pinnacle of Teddy Purchell’s scoring ability (which isn’t bad) and Nate Thompson isn’t going to blossom into a 25 goal scorer overnight. Thus General Manager Steve Yzerman waded into the Free Agency Frenzy looking for a second line center and signed….

The Big Pickup

Valterri does "smoldering" well.

…Valterri Filppula* to a five-year $25 million contract, instantly burning up some of that precious cap space Lecavalier’s buyout had provided.  I have nothing against Filppula, and I apologize for spending the last seven years thinking his name was “Valarie Fippula”, but like or not, no matter how to the contrary coaches and players say it, he’s going to have to fill Lecavalier’s shoes.

Will he be able to do it?  Maybe-ish.  Health will be a big factor.  If 2011-12 was the last season he played fully healthy then things are looking rosy.  His .81 points per game are right in line with what Vincent was providing and by all reports, Filppula might be a bit more responsible defensively. I love Vinny as much as a guy can love a total stranger who he has only seen on TV, but asking Lecavalier to play defense is like asking Secretariat to pull a carriage of tourists down Michigan Avenue.

According to the Finnish forward a knee injury didn’t let him prepare in the off-season as well he would have liked before the lockout shortened 2012-13 season and led to his drop off in production.  He feels that he should be in better shape this season despite the ankle injury he suffered in game 7 of the Western Conference finals.  In other words, nothing to see here folks.  Keep whistling past the graveyard.

Some folks out in Lightning-land are wondering why the former Detroit was signed in the first place. After all, the Harvard Man, Alex Killorn looked pretty solid in his debut season posting 19 points in 38 games for the Lightning.  Why not give him or Tyler Johnson the reigns and let them run with it? Well, because it’s kind of a big role on the team and Mr. Yzerman might not be willing to bet the season (and his job) on a player that was cramming for finals less than two years ago.  If the Lightning go into the season with Killorn as their number two center and he fails Alexander Daigle-style (aka spectacularly) then it is harder to find a replacement. With Filppula penciled in as the starter and Killorn waiting in the wings (probably quite literally) Mr. Yzerman has given himself an out. Should his free agent fail, then Killorn can step right in.

Mr .Yzerman wasn’t done there, he also signed ummm…..Geoff Walker.  Hmm…I guess he was done.  Which, I actually took as a good sign.  Or at least a sign that the organization’s depth has improved over the last three years because he did re-sign most of their restricted free agents and J.T. Brown, Mark Barberio, and Keith Aulie will probably all see significant time with club this season (Godspeed Evan Oberg, we’ll always have this to remember you by).

The General Manager’s lack of attention towards the defense has me a little nervous, since the returning group didn’t exactly light the world on fire last season.  However, with such a young core, they can only get better with experience, right?

Sitting with the third pick in the draft Mr. Yzerman did have an excellent shot at picking up another exciting young defenseman in Seth Jones after Colorado and Florida passed on the highly rated blue liner. However, he dashed aside visions of a Victor Hedman/ Seth Jones pairing terrorizing opponents for the opportunity to have goaltenders shake in fear at the sight of Steven Stamkos locked and loaded waiting for the puck from….

The Big Draft

Love that he's wearing a shirt and tie under the sweater, but has his gloves on. He's ready to play, or go to a job interview.

…Jonathan Drouin.  Mr. Yzerman might just be thinking, “if you can’t stop ‘em, outscore ‘em”. What is scary is that Drouin might actually make Stamkos better.  Noted hockey expert Bob McKenzie has compared him to Patrick Kane and states that the newest Bolt “can process the game faster than anybody else {in the draft}.“ It’s that extra “hockey sense” to see plays develop before they actually happen and put the puck where it needs to be to confound the other team.

Go to you tube and search Jonathan Drouin and you will be happy if you’re a Lightning fan.  Not to put too much pressure on him, but he could really be the best pure playmaker the Lightning have ever had in their history.  Their draft history/prospect history has tended to focus on big scoring forwards whose talents lie in putting the puck in the net, not setting up their teammates.

Of course, if you’ve been privileged to follow my live tweets during a game (@TorchRamrod) you know that one of things that drive me batty is the forward’s desire to score pretty goals instead of just putting the puck at the net (aka The One More Pass Syndrome). The biggest victims of this disease were Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. I’m all for being a giver on the ice, but sometimes you want someone that is a bit more selfish. Gimmie the GOALS!

There is a danger that Drouin, as an electric playmaker, might fall into that habit especially if he defers to his elders on the ice.  It’s hard to project how effective he’ll be this season, especially with the Lightning’s history of not rushing their prospects.  He will have to earn his spot on the roster, but if he does he will replace some of the offense lost with Lecavalier.

Somewhat lost in the hype of the Drouin pick is that the Lightning picked up a pretty good prospect with their second round choice of Adam Erne. Where Drouin gets the “electric,” “flashy,” “sizzling” superlatives, Erne is described as “gutty,” “hardworking” and “big-bodied”.  He is more in the line of the big power forward mold prospect (think Brett Connolly). I would think he spends next season back in juniors, but after that he should provide some size to the young crop of talent that makes up the Lightning prospects.

So where does that leave the 2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning?  In the end I still think they’re a better team. Simply because they were a better team then they preformed last season AND the additions they made make them even better.   Losing Lecavalier hurts, it really, really hurts. But it’s not a back breaking loss.  Let’s face it, injuries are starting to catch up to him and counting on him for a full season is no longer a given. The financial flexibility helps this season and will really help next season when the cap should go up.

While the Lightning might be better on the ice, planning your next summer vacation based on them making the playoffs might be a bit premature. The main problem is the fact that their competition ratcheted up several notches due to realignment. Contending with Boston, Montreal and even Toronto is going to be a lot harder than contending with Carolina and Winnipeg.

In the end, any talk of success echoes the discussions of the previous two seasons. Those discussions revolved around goaltending.  If Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback can’t keep the puck out of the net, it doesn’t matter what Filppula or Drouin do on the ice. That’s why the lack of improving the defense, other than a full season of Radko Gudas, has Lightning fans a little skittish about improvement.

With about two months to go before the actual drop of a meaningful puck, there is a chance that Mr. Yzerman makes a few last minute moves (cough, cough blueline depth), but I think the feeling on Channelside drive is that this is the team they are going to live and die with.

* Yes I want to make Filppula’s nickname “The Big Pickup”. It won’t happen, but that doesn't mean  I can’t dream.


Johnny Fonts said...

It's not like I never asked you to be assimilated into our collective at RC, Justin... I don't think you responded to those emails though :-/

I need to send a link from this post to Nolan, I think he'd dig it the most.

Justin G. said...

John, I know you've asked, but that would be too much like responsibility. Besides I can't hold a candle to the stable of writers you guys have put together. Best Lightning bloggers on the web!