Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Yzerman Fills in the Missing Pieces

When I go grocery shopping I wander the aisles putting things in my basket until I have what I need. Often I have to double back to pick up things I forgot to get the first time around.  When my wife goes shopping she has a list. She hits everything on that list in order with no wasted time looking at ice cream and wondering when they stopped making Pudding Pops. When it comes to free agency I'm like the Washington Capitals grabbing overpriced items at the checkout line.  Steve Yzerman is my wife.

It makes me smile to think that he woke up a couple of days ago, grabbed a pen and his “Things to Do” stationary and went to town.  He probably had himself a nice little Saturday.  After yesterday’s frenzy it probably looked a little something like this:

Big Steve’s To Do List

Draft a talented but troubled teenager - Anthony DeAngelo - check
Pick up a defenseman on the cheap - Jason Garrison - check
Clear up some cap space - Teddy Purell, BJ Crombeen, Nate Thompson - check
Chuckle at the thought of beat writers and bloggers not getting enough sleep - check
Drink one Heineken (Because Kid Rock rhymed it with my name in a song) - check
Wait for desperate GM’s to throw crazy money around in the first few hours of free ageny - check
Sign solid defenseman to a reasonable contract - Anton Stralman - check
Call Ecklund on a burner cell phone and say that “sources” tell me Yzerman is offing $49 million to Matt Niskanen - check
Chuckle - check
Replace rugged 4th line center that I traded the other day - Brian Boyle - check
Sign veteran back up goalie in case #1 goalie gets hurt a week before the playoffs (again) - Evgeni Nabokov - check
Throw a bone to Syracuse after raiding their team last season - Mike Blunden Mike Angelidis - check
Figure out a way to turn all my 2015 picks into Connor McDavid - pending

This is the upside of having a cold, calculating general manager running the organization.  He eschews the drama and gets things done.  Sure you have to deal with him passionately trading away or buying out fan favorites, but it’s worth it when he pulls off days like July 1st.

Once he started clearing space with his pre-July 1 trades, speculation that the Lightning would be major players in free agency started to mount.  Odd, since historically Mr. Yzerman didn’t dip too much into the market.  In the past he tended to target one or two players that weren’t among the top targets and then go about his day.

We hear about teams having multi-year plans all the time.  Every time a new general manager or coach takes over a struggling team we hear about a new “three year” or “five year” plan.  Most of the times those plans fizzle or the GM or coach gets axed before seeing it to fruition.  Mr. Yzerman has managed to actually build it as he wants to.

He came into a mess of an organization and immediately started stockpiling assets whether they were draft picks or young players.  The surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first year masked some deficiencies, most notably depth in the defense and goaltending. When Dewayne Roloson reverted back to a 98-year-old goalie the next season, the team struggled.

However, Mr. Yzerman didn’t waiver. Digging into his vault of draft picks and young forwards he brought in a couple of young goaltenders with promise.  While Anders Lindback didn’t pan out, he looks like he has a future all-star in Ben Bishop.  Meanwhile he kept getting rid of salary while not over committing to long term deals with veterans.

Last season, saw the influx of young prospects into the lineup.  They played well, enjoyed some good luck along the way and found themselves in the playoffs.  Montreal managed to expose some of the weaknesses that lingered on defense and in net, but the core of the future was established.  Now, Mr. Yzerman just had to add the missing pieces.

With a ton of cap space and the important parts of the team already under contract  (top six forwards, goaltender and top defense pairing) he could pick and choose what he needed this year to not only get back to the playoffs, but also be a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.

Anton Stralman is the biggest piece of the puzzle that Mr, Yzerman acquired. He is the veteran (394 NHL games) steady presence that the team lacked last season. According to the scouting reports he won’t rack up the points, but he is good at getting the puck out of the zone. One thing that I’ve read over and over is that he is a “darling of the fancy-stats crowd”.  Which, to me, boils down to - he does great things in terms of puck possession. The basic tenant from the #fancystats crowd is that good things happen when you have possession of the puck.

With Stralman and Garrison in the fold the Lightning shouldn’t be booking flights out of  Syracuse to patch holes in the blue line during the season. Andrej Sustr will probably spend most of the season in New York where he will get to develop his professional game.  Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio will see their minutes reduced, which isn’t a bad thing for players in their second NHL season.

With seven healthy defensemen under contract (and Sustr soon to be re-signed) Mr. Yzerman also has the flexibility to cut someone loose.  The number one contender to be moved would be Eric Brewer. A team looking to add some depth in defense might be willing to take on his cap hit in exchange for a draft pick or two.  With Stralman eating up his minutes Brewer’s place in the line up is a little shaky.

Evgeni Nabokov is not the player he was five years ago, he’s also not commanding as much money as he was five years ago.  He is someone, however, that should be able to play 20 games a year (or more if needed) and not completely disgrace himself.  The Lightning were burned badly by not having someone ready to step in to back up Bishop last year. Nabokov fills that role without affecting the future prospects they have in the pipeline (and yes I’m avoiding looking up how to spell their names).

Brian Boyle is a nice signing.  He adds some size, but seems to do the same things that Nate Thompson did - win faceoffs and forecheck.  I would have liked to see Dominic Moore come back to the team to fill the role, but the Rangers had to re-sign at least one of their free agents.

The overall theme of the Lightning’s actions off-season revolve around goal prevention.  They didn’t add a lot of offense, in fact they sacrificed some in letting BJ Crombeen Teddy Purcell go.  I’m sure they are planning on Purcell’s production being replaced by having a full season of Steven Stamkos in the line up as well as adding Jonathan Drouin to the team.

It’s pure folly to judge how a team did in free agency before anyone has laced up the skates. However, if you’re a fan of the Lightning you should be encouraged on the moves that they made. None of the other teams in their division really strengthened their teams on the first day of free agency.  Granted Boston didn’t really need to add too much, but Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Detroit mostly held serve.  Buffalo and Florida made a lot of noise, but nothing that would make them a serious contender next season.

There is going to be some pressure on the Lightning to succeed for the first time in a couple of seasons.  Simply making the playoffs isn’t the goal any longer, now they are expected to go deep into the post season.  At first blush the team Mr. Yzerman has assembled is built to do just that.

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