Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Game 37: The One With All of the Challanges

Game: 37
Opponent: Montreal
Score: 3-4 (SO)

Well that was a bit of a flashback. Let's see:

The Lightning outplayed Montreal for most of the game, but lost.
There was a questionable goaltender interference situation.
Dale Weise was predominantly involved.

Are we sure this wasn't a replay of a game from the 2014 playoffs?

The Lightning played pretty well on Monday night, but blew a 3rd period lead to the reeling Montreal Canadiens in a shoot-out loss to Atlantic Division leaders (well they were after the game). It was a fun game to watch as the Lightning fired 39 shots at the Habs and their back-up goalie Mike Condon.

Condon, looking like a weird hybrid of Dominick Hasek and Patrick Roy, turned aside 36 of the shots to pick up his first win since December 1st. For the team overall it was their first win since December 12th, a span of six games without a win. While the Lightning are fighting for a playoff spot, the Canadiens are trying to right a sinking ship to stay atop the Atlantic Division.

The game itself was interesting as both teams fought back from deficits, there were two disputed goals and there was 3-on-3 overtime which is almost always fun. Early on it did feel like this was going to be one of those games that the Lightning played well, but ended up losing 2-1, like they have roughly 45 times already this year.

Tomas Plekanec and his magic turtleneck got the scoring started as he tapped the puck past Ben Bishop off of a nice feed from PK Subban. Speaking of Subban, can we all agree that it's time to stop not-liking him? He is a joy to watch on the ice, does nice things off the ice and actually has a personality. Sure he showboats a little bit, but doesn't the NHL need more players like that? God love Sidney Crosby, but he's boring as shit.

Down 1-0 in the second period the Lightning picked up a goal on the power play. I'd like to say that MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV scored a power play goal, but it was more along the lines of he tried to pass the puck to Steven Stamkos and Condon kicked it into his own net. Doesn't matter – he scored, tied game.

Five minutes later Alex Galchenyuk falls down, gets up, finds the puck on his stick and slings it past Bishop. The Lightning are down 2-1 halfway through the game and that creepy feeling started settling in as Condon kept making saves, leaving juicy rebounds, making more saves and watching pucks hop over Lightning player sticks.

Then the third period rolled around and things got a little wacky. Instead of bombing his shot from the blueline as he normally does, Jason Garrison skated in with the puck, shot it, followed up his rebound and scored on a wrap around, finding some open space under Condon's pads. It was pretty.

Ryan Callahan found himself open after Valteri Filppula's pass missed Cedric Paquette in front of the net. Callahan buried it into the empty net and scored his first goal since Luke Skywalker was rumored to be Kylo Ren. Montreal was so surprised that Callahan scored a goal that they had to challenge it. Paquette got his stick tangled up with Condon a bit, but the refs got together to say that it wasn't interference. Whatever. I'll take it. Lightning up 3-2.

See his stick touched his stick and then it was in the goal.

Turns about fair play. Less than two minutes later Dale “F'n” Weise is along in front of the net and fires it at Bishop. KICK SAVE AND A BEAUTY! Or was it? Review time. The refs conclude that the puck crossed the line before Bishop flashed the left pad out.

Wait, wait, wait says Coach Cooper. While the puck was in, Weise ran into Bishop on his way out from behind the net. Let me challenge it! I'm a lawyer! Review number two. Refs look at the NHL approved iPad and say..... good goal!

Sorry about the arrow in the way, but you can see the contact there.  You can also see Weise get inside position on Stralman.

Now look, I'm sure there are Lightning fans out there that were very upset this was called a goal. Weise obviously bumps Bishop on his way through the crease, but..... Bishop kind of brings this on himself (as he is wont to do). Whenever the play is behind the net he likes to swing his stick on the ice to break up any passes, it's good, but it also leaves him in the position of getting it stuck on a players skate.

Weise comes through tangles with the stick, bumps Bishop and gets set for the puck. Bishop, rocks back, but also looks to his right (no puck there) before snapping his head back around to find the play. In that split second the puck is on and off of Weise's stick and into the goal. I say it's a good goal.

Not much happened in the overtime, Anton Stralman got a good chance that was denied. In the shootout, Valterri Filppula scored, but no one else on the Lightning did. Brian Flynn (who) and Max Pacioretty score for the Canadiens and they get the win and the extra point.

The Lightning have to settle for one point and the fact that they gained a bit of ground in the extremely crowded Atlantic division. With the season almost halfway over they need every point they can pick up.

Did Matt Carle Score a Point:

No. Mr. Carle was a healthy scratch as Coach Cooper went with six defensemen. With all of the forwards coming back, he might keep that strategy going for the foreseeable future, which leaves Carle as the odd man out.

Toe in the crease! Wait, what? That's ok now?  Damn. Guess it was a good goal. (photo by Scott Audette NHLI/Getty)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Game 35: The One With All The Power Plays

Game: 35
Opponent: Vancouver
Did I watch Live?: Yes
Three Stars: 3. The penalty time keeper 2. Jonathan Marchessault 1. Jacob Markstrom

It's ten minutes after the game ended and I'm still trying to figure out how the Tampa Bay Lightning managed to lose this one. Did they outshoot the Cancucks? Yup 27-19. Did they win more faceoffs? Yup 35-17. More possession time? Yup.

What's that you say? They went 1-10 on the power play? The Lightning missed on 9 power play chances? They had a man-advantage for over 18 minutes and only scored ONE power play goal? Well, that's just not good. Not good at all.

There isn't much more to say about the game. They were playing a struggling team at the end of a long road trip and didn't take advantage. One of the weird things is that most of the penalties were legit. There wasn't too much tickey-tack calling by referees Fredrick L'Ecuyer or Dean Morton. Vancouver was taking tired-team penalties. The Lightning kept their feet moving and earned the hookings, holdings and trippings.

The problems started once they had the advantage. Tampa Bay made it way too easy to defend. For the first half of the game, at no point was Vancouver worried about the Lightning driving the net. The Canucks quickly figured out a remedy for the Lightning strategy of gaining the blue line and then dropping the pass back to a point man.

Instead of pressing a tired team, the Lightning had a very passive start to the game and found themselves down 1-0 heading into the second period. Despite having 3 power plays, they only managed 4 total shots in the period. That is inexcusable and indicative as to how they've played all season. Too much time spent setting up plays and not enough focus on driving to the net.

They played a little better in the second as they did start to put some pressure on the Canucks. They drew three straight penalties and finally got a couple of shots on net. Jonathan Marchessault continued his bid to stay on the team as he fired the puck past Jacob Markstrom with two seconds left in the period. It was Marchessault's fifth goal of the season and third on the power play (he only trails Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov in power play tallies despite playing in only 18 games).

The third period marked the long, sustained march to the penalty box for the Canucks as they found themselves short-handed four times in the final 20 minutes. The Lightning got their chances, including Stamkos ringing one off of the post, but they couldn't get the puck behind Markstrom. Then in the blink of the eye where the teams were at even strength Daniel Sedin fired a wrist shot that looked like it deflected off of Anton Stralman and past Ben Bishop. That was all she wrote.

Yup. That's a 1 for 10 power play look. Photo by Scott Audette/ NHLI Getty

This game more than any of the other 34 games this season showed how much the Lightning miss their skill players. If Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat were healthy, they don't go 1-10 on the power play. It's that simple. With Boston, Montreal, Detroit and Ottawa all losing, it would have been a great chance for the Lightning to make up some ground in the standings. Instead they tread water and head into the Christmas break six points behind Montreal in the Atlantic.

Time is starting to run out for the Lightning to make a move in the standings.

Did Matt Carle Record a Point:

No. He played 9:31 almost all of it even strength. He blocked one shot and had 3 giveaways. Despite the Lightning having 656 minutes of power play time, Mr. Carle did not see a second of it (he has 21 career power play goals).

He has now gone 31 games this season without recording a point. Overall he has one point in his last 40 regular season games (having picked up an assist in the final game of the 2014-15 regular season).

Monday, December 14, 2015

Some Thoughts on Steven Stamkos and the Lightning Cap Situation

Steven Stamkos is going to Toronto…to play a game.  If you follow hockey you have read that he is playing his first game of the year in his hometown. The national media has taken the opportunity to reopen the discussion about his future. From what I see, most still seem to think he is Toronto bound the second his deal with the Lightning expires.

As you may remember, I declared that I wouldn’t comment on the drama surrounding Stammergeddon II until he re-signed, was traded or signed with a new team and I’m not going to break that oath right now. However, let’s check in on the Lightning’s roster situation and how General Manager Steve Yzerman is going to handle his roster.

Let’s get this out of the way first.  The team that is in the best position to sign Steven Stamkos is the Tampa Bay Lightning.  They can offer the longest contract (8 years) and will have the least amount of impact to their salary cap no matter how much he signs for.  He is already eating up $7.5 million of their cap. Should he sign a deal that pays him $11-12 million that’s only an additional $4.5 million they have to come up with at most. Every other team in the league is going to have to find $12 million in cap space to accommodate the sometimes right winger.

More good news. According to War-On-Ice’s contract page the Lightning have at least $5.2 million coming off of their cap without affecting the current roster.  Mattias Ohlund’s contract ($3.6 million) and Sam Gagner’s ($1.6 million) are both off the books after this season. That’s more than enough to cover Stamkos’ raise and have a little left over.  It’s not enough to cover everything the team needs so it’s a good thing that…

So long Mr. Ohlund and thanks for all of your long term injury relief.

…Gary Bettman is estimating the salary cap will go up about $3 million next season. Now Mr. Yzerman can start chipping away at his Restricted Free Agent Forwards (Alex Killorn, Vlad Namestnikov, JT Brown and Nikita Kucherov). I expect that once the Stamkos situation has been resolved at least two of those guys will sign a multi-year bridge deal to give the team a little more roster stability.

Taking care of just those five contracts will take up most of the extra cap space, leaving the general manager little flexibility in bringing in free agents or making trades to fix any holes that might develop over the next year and a half. Also, should the cap not rise dramatically over the next 2 or 3 seasons they’ll be looking to figure out how to re-sign Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman. All of them will be looking for new deals in 2017-18.

Hedman looks to be in line for the biggest raise as he is a steal right now at $4 million a year. If he continues his climb up the ladder among league defensemen he could be looking at least doubling what he’s making now. Should he not renew his deal in the next year, he’ll be the next Lightning player drawing trade talks throughout the year.

The Lightning could give them some breathing room if they can find a taker for Matt Carle ($5.5 million), but in all likelihood they would have to retain some salary and the return would be mediocre at best. That makes me wonder if Braydon Coburn’s name starts getting thrown around a bit more over the next couple of months.

Hey, even better they could BOTH by gone!

He is an unrestricted free agent after this season and with the number crunch it’s unlikely that the Lightning are bringing him back at what he makes, $4.5 million, or possibly higher.  The 30-year-old has been steady for the Lightning, picking up 5 points and averaging 16:44 on the ice through 30 games. He is the most physical of the defensemen on the roster have accumulated 46 hits on the season and does start a few more of his shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone (51.3/48.7%).

As the Lightning limp along what is increasingly lost situation I’m sure Mr. Yzerman’s phone is ringing a bit more. Defensive depth is always at a premium in the rush up the trade deadline.  Everyone wants to strengthen their blue line and an experienced , tough player with Stanley Cup experience might see his value rise a bit above what he contributes to his current team.

Mr. Yzerman is on record stating that he has no big deals in the works. He told the Tampa Bay Times, “Don’t sit around holding your breath waiting for us to make this big, giant move,” also mentioning that teams around the league are wary about taking on long term contracts.

Of course, Coburn doesn’t fall into that category as a team would only have to pay for him for the rest of the season.  Mr. Yzerman also hedged his words a little stating that if a team came to him with, “something (that) makes sense to make us better, we’ll do it”.  Not that a statement like that is out of character for the former Red Wing.  It is the cornerstone of his team building strategy.

He also isn’t one to panic. He won’t make moves for the sake of making moves or hoping that bringing in some new blood will spark a playoff run.  It is the smart move to do.  All evidence points to this season being an aberration enhanced by injuries.  They might have to write this season off in order to stay a long-term competitive team.  It’s not fun right now, but making knee-jack reactions could cause long-term issues in the future.

This season isn’t over by a long stretch and while the Lightning are on the outside looking in currently, a six or seven game point streak puts them right back into the playoff picture.  A turnaround could be sparked by something as simple as being healthy.  The Triplets were back together for just one game and it was a nice 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.  Messing with the roster before this team has a chance to show what they are really made of would be a shame.

There is the possibility that Stamkos does go somewhere else this off-season.  All of a sudden things change.  In addition to all of the money mentioned above, Mr. Yzerman would have an extra $7.5 million in his pockets.  The Lightning become a big player in free agency.  Perhaps Anze Kopitar is still on the market.  Eric Staal would be a solid addition.  Imagine a blue line with Hedman and Brent Seabrook.

So Mr. Yzerman has a pretty busy stretch of work coming up.  Oh and don’t forget there could be an expansion draft in the next year or so.  That’s not something that a GM with an organization full of prospects is happy to think about.

Friday, December 11, 2015

West Coast Recap

Games 26,27,28

The West Coast trip is over.  I managed to watch one-and-a-half games. It figures the one week where they are playing games I can actually watch I have to get up at 5:30 am.  Somehow I totally missed the San Jose game and to this point the only highlight I’ve seen is Ben Bishop getting clipped in the face with a stick.  At this point, I literally don’t know if they won or lost.  I think they won, but I’m not sure (ed note - They won).  If they did win, then they took 4 out of 6 points on the trip, which is pretty good.

As we inch to the 30 games played point, we’re pretty much sure what kind of team the 2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning is going to be. And that team is……injured.  No.  Inconsistent.  Yeah, that was the word I was looking for.  Let’s face it, the way they are playing they are, at best., a fringe playoff team.  Instead of fighting for a seat at the head of the table they are battling to get invited to the dinner in the first place.

They’re at a point where they just can’t seem to get out of their own way long enough to keep any momentum going.  For instance, they win their first two games out west (I’m pretty sure) and then lay an absolute egg in Los Angeles.  Win a couple in a  row at home and then get trounced by Washington on the road.  You get the picture.

I can throw out a bunch of valid reasons why they’re struggling:

- Injuries to top offensive producers
- Stanley Cup Final hangover
- Lingering contract situation for a certain team captain
- The continued employment of a gentleman by the name of Matt Carle
- Everybody hates Jon Cooper
- They cling to an offensive strategy that other teams have figured out how to stop
- Brenden Morrow was the lynchpin to the offense

In the end the why doesn’t really matter.  It just matters that they are.  And I do use the term struggle in a relative sense of the word. They are not the worst team in the league. They are not the worst team in franchise history. I would venture to say they’re not even the worst team in their own state.

Are they worse than last year’s team?  I would say no considering it is pretty much the same exact team that skated all the way to the finals last year.  At least they will be when Ondrej Palat returns to the team. What they aren’t getting are all of breaks they did last year.

As fans/critics of hockey we can try to quantify everything that happens on the ice.  Even luck. PDO is a good stat.  Take your team’s shooting percentage and your goalies save percentage and add them up. If you’re way over 100 you’re probably living with a horseshoe up your ass.  If you’re below 100 then someone has voodoo cursed your team.

The last time I checked the Lightning were above 100 (currently at 101.7).  They were pretty much in line with where they rolled for most of last year (101).  Of course, the two components are a little different.  Last year they were shooting at a higher percent while this year Ben Bishop has been stopping a higher percentage of pucks fired in his direction.

What the number doesn’t measure are the tiny moments of the game, the inch here or there, the split second of timing that leads to a goal or a missed opportunity.  Now perception is not necessarily reality, but how many two-on-ones have been broken up this year?  How many times has a pass been a couple of inches ahead or behind of a stick?   For the love of God, how many shots have nicked off the knob of the opposing goalie’s stick?

Last season all of the passes seemed to connect and all of the decisions the players made seemed to work out.  The only thing that seems to have carried over is the fact that the power play still sucks. Of all of things that could carry over why would it have to be that?

They are playing better defense, so I’ll give them that. It seems like they haven’t broken themselves out of the playoff hockey mode that they spent most of the spring in.  Be smart with the puck, protect your zone and limit offensive chances for the other team.  That’s a pretty good model of success in the playoffs, but for an 81-game grind it’s a hard way to play.  The one thing about playoff hockey is that for it to be ultimately successful you actually have to make the playoffs.  Maybe the Bolts would be better off if they opened things up a bit, get back to the run-and-gun style that benefited them the last two seasons.  I’m not sure I can take another 1-0 game.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Game 25: Sometimes You Play Well and Lose

Game: 25
Opponent: New York Islanders
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Why Not?: Traveling back from Baltimore.
On Saturday?: Yup, wanted to avoid that holiday travel.
Did I watch on replay?: Yes
Three Stars: 3. Steven Stamkos 2. Frans Nielsen 1. Thomas Greiss
Worst Play: Kind of a bad luck Worst Play,but Brayden Coburn sweeping the puck onto Cal Clutterbuck's stick for the Islanders second goal gets the call. All of the hard work that the Lightning did in the second period was wiped out when he couldn't control the puck in front of his own net.


Coming off an atrocious game in D.C., it was interesting to see how the Lightning would respond in their next game. Luckily for them it was the next day so they didn't have a long time to dwell on the loss. The first period would be a big indicator on what the team's mindset was.

How did they do? Well....ok. Thanks to Alex Killorn's hand-eye coordination they had a 1-0 lead. They definitely looked better than they had against Washington. Playing the Islanders isn't easy these days as they like to hit and clog up the passing lanes. Tampa had some issues moving the puck, and it seemed that the Islanders roughhouse tactic got under their skin a bit as Ryan Callahan picked up the first fighting major of the year for the team.

The year of the penalty shot continued as Steven Stamkos drew a penalty on a partial breakaway. An old-fashioned poke check kept the score at 2-1. Minutes later Thomas Greiss stopped Valteri Filppula on a breakaway and it started to feel like those missed chances would come back to haunt the Lightning.

There were a lot of good things to take away from the loss. The Stamkos/Killorn/Filppula line was the best line on the ice. Overall they did a good job of pressuring the Islanders at all points on the ice. Instead of giving them free passes out of their own zone, the Lightning forwards did a great job of making them work hard and generated several turnovers.

It felt like the Lightning really missed some of their injured players in this game. Joel Vermin, Johnathan Marchessault and Luke Witkowski have played admirable over the last two weeks, but they are not Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat or Johnathan Drouin. Not only are the new guys in the line up, they are playing big minutes. Marchessault played almost 17 minutes and Vermin played almost 12. Throw in 12 minutes each for JT Brown and Erik Condra and that's just too many minutes for third and fourth line guys.

Losing is never “good”, but some losses are better than others. The 3-2 loss to the Islanders were one of those not-so-bad losses. Of course, if they don't build on it against Anaheim in their next game, then it's all for naught.

Game 24: Post Thanksgiving Hangover

Game: 24
Opponent: @Washington
Did You Watch it Live?: Live? I was there, baby! Section 410 rocking the blue and white!
By Yourself?: Unfortunately not. The Duchess was there and my parents.
Did they have fun?: I think they enjoyed the Christmas Market outside the arena more than the game.
Three Stars: 3. Andrei Vasilevskiy 2. Jason Chimera 1. John Carlson
Worst Play: So many to choose from. I'm going to go with JT Brown nine-ironing the puck over the net after he stole it from Braden Holtby.

So I waited 24 hours to write this (and god knows how many days to actually post it). Simply put, I try not to write angry. It clouds judgment and the chances of writing something that I would regret would increase greatly. That being said, the game itself was hot garbage. They've played some uninterested periods of hockey this season, but the first period of the game against the Capitals was so very, very bad that I wondered out loud if they knew the start time of the game was 5:00pm.

It didn't help that they kept taking penalties against one of the better power play teams in the league. The Caps burned them twice in the first period with the man advantage while keeping the puck in the zone for most of the period. Washington's power play didn't seem complicated – play with the puck until they can isolate Alex Ovechkin by the side of the net – but it worked well against the Lightning.

Ovechkin sniped one past Vasilevskiy 7 minutes into the game to start the scoring. At that point, Vasilevskiy was the only reason the Lightning were still in the game. Tampa was apparently trying to tire the Capitals out by letting them shoot the puck, shoot the puck and shoot the puck some more. Eighteen shots made it to the net and tons of others sailed wide or were blocked. It wasn't much better in the second period when Washington added another 13 shots on net.

It wasn't until the third period that the Lightning showed some signs of life. Down 4-0 Brian Boyle found the back of the net and two minutes later Victor Hedman notched his second goal of the season by blasting the puck past Holtby to bring the Lightning within two goals. That would be it for the offensive output and the final ended up 4-2, a much more respectable score than they deserved.

Playing in Washington has always been trying for the Lightning (unless it's the playoffs) so it's probably a good thing that they only have to come up here once a year now. However, the way they played in the first 40 minutes they couldn't have beaten an AHL team. Whether the injuries are now catching up with them (losing Tyler Johnson after 48 seconds left them shorthanded) or if the Capitals are that much better of a team it was just disappointing to watch them play that bad. It's becoming harder and harder to look at them as a playoff team.

Random Hockey Thought:

I wasn't impressed with the atmosphere at the Verizon Center. Yes, everyone wears red and cheers when the scoreboard tells them to, but for most of the game it was pretty flat. Despite the Caps dominating the game there was no energy coming from the crowd until they scored the back-to-back goals at the end of the second period.

The folks sitting around us were more concerned with mundane aspects of their life then what was going on on the ice. The closest to game action I heard was the girl behind us analyzing Tom Wilson's mustache.

There was a fairly impressive amount of Lightning jerseys in the crowd and we didn't get much flack from the crowd. There was one random “Stamkos Sucks” guy at the end of the game on the way out, but he was outnumbered by the “Go Lightning” folks that we ran into.

Even the “It's all your fault” chant directed at Vasilevskiy after the Washington goals were announced was half-hearted and muddled. Get it together Caps fans.

Game 23: Hey, Hey The Win Streak Hits Three!

Game: 23
Opponent: Los Angeles Kings
Did I watch Live?: Nope
Why Not?: Can't remember, but probably work. No wait. Travel. That's right. I was in Baltimore and didn't have a strong enough signal to watch live.
Did I watch on replay?: Eventually.
Three Stars: 3. JT Brown 2. Johnathan Quick 1. Ben Bishop
Worst Play:
Not really a worst play of the game, but something that's been annoying me all season. The Lightning made their hay last year by never letting a cross-ice passing opportunity...well...pass them by. It's a great idea in theory. Draw attention to yourself and fire the puck to the other side of the ice to an open player who can drive it on net.

The problem is, they were so successful with it, other teams have noticed. Detroit in the playoffs was probably the first team to work hard to shut down the passing lanes and force the Lightning to find other ways to create offense. Tampa was able to do that. This year it's been a bit of a different story. Let's go to the first period of the game against L.A. to demonstrate.

To set up the screen shot below. The Lightning have forced a turnover in their own zone. Erik Condra is going to get the puck in the middle of the ice and take it into the offensive zone. As he crosses the blue line, this is what it looks like:

The Kings are back and in position. Condra is surrounded. At this point his best bet is probably to ring it around the boards as Jason Garrison is covered at the blue line and at least three players would have a shot at the puck if he tries to get it to Brian Boyle (number 11 at the right of the screen). Needless to say, Condra tries to saucer a pass to Boyle. The Kings pick it off and start an odd man break the other way. Nothing resulted in the play, but it prevented the Lightning from setting up in the zone. If Condra had taken it down low, Boyle is in the best position to retrieve the puck and allow the rest of his teammates to set up in the zone.

Welcome back Tyler Johnson! The diminutive forward returned from missing three games to score the Lightning's lone goal in regulation as Tampa Bay beat the Kings 2-1 in a shootout win to drive their winning streak up to 3 games.

It was good to see the center back on the ice, even if he wasn't much of a factor outside of his goal. His return allowed Coach Cooper a little more flexibility with his lines and added a legitimate second scoring line to the attack. Cooper started the game with Johnson flanked by Nikita Kucherov and Vlad Namestnikov while Alex Killorn joined Ryan Callahan on Stamkos' line.

The Lightning were getting some chances but in the second Coach Cooper shook things up a bit by flip-flopping Namestnikov and Killorn. I like Namestnikov on Stamkos' line as it relieves some of the playmaking responsibilities from the captain. As great of a player as he is, he does better if he has someone setting him up. For his part, Killorn is as amendable as they come. He can pretty much fit in with any line, providing offense and a little bit of defensive responsibility.

Unfortunately, the line ups didn't really get too many quality chances and the Lightning were unable to follow up their offensive awakeining that they experienced against the Ducks. The power play problem reared its ugly head again. They were able to coax three extra man opportunities out of the Kings, but were unable to convert any of them. With the exception of a puck jumping over Killorn's stick when he had a wide open net, they weren't even able to really generate much pressure.

Hopefully they get that turned around against the Caps. The special teams are going to be important against Washington if the Lightning want to keep these winning ways going.

Random Hockey Thought:

We're a quarter of the way through the season and I think that's enough time to critique Brian Engblom as the Lightning's new analyst. My first thoughts are that he is...ok. It feels like he's trying to stay impartial and he covers the games like he is doing a national telecast. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but from time to time you'd like to hear a little homerism coming from the guys calling the game. There is a balance between being objective and obnoxious (I'm looking at you Jack Edwards...oh and you Paul Steigerwald).

Also he tends to hold onto to certain thoughts or aspects and repeat them ad nauseum through several games to the point where we could have a drinking game going. Early in the season it was the new rule where the defensive player had to get his stick down first for faceoffs. Lately it's been the phrase, “The Lightning have to play like they want to win 1-0.” Why? Why not play like they want to win 6-1. Unleash the offense. Let the boys play!

In the end, I think he's been a good replacement for Bobby Taylor and I actually do enjoy the fact that he brings a little bit more analysis to the game.

Game 21: Holy Crap. A Win! Against A Good Team!

Game: 21
Opponent: New York Rangers
Did I watch Live?: Yes
Three Stars: 3. Henrik Lundqvist 2. JT Brown 1. Ben Bishop
Worst Play: Probably Bishop banging a pass off of Anton Stralman that led to the Rangers only goal.
The New York Rangers had won 9 games in a row coming into Thursday night. The Lightning had lost their last two games by giving up goals in the final minute of play. Oh and they were starting an entire line of players that had been in Syracuse a week ago. Things weren't looking to swell for the Bolts.

So, of course Tampa Bay won, 2-1, by scoring a goal in the final minute of play. Once again they played a solid defensive game, dictated possession for long periods of time, but struggled to put the puck in the net. When Brian Boyle took a penalty with a minute and a half to go in the game pretty much every fan was waiting for the Rangers to score the game winner.

Instead the Lightning flipped the script. Valteri Filppula got to a puck in the defensive zone, pushed it to an open JT Brown and kept skating to the net. Brown waited for the perfect moment to slide the puck over to Filppula who shot it past a stretched out Lundqvist. A short-handed, game-winning goal for the Finnish forward.

Brown, whose better half was in the building, had a fantastic game. He played with a ton of energy, got physical without being over the line and found himself on the ice during crunch time. Of all of the healthy forwards, he has the chance to make the best impression with all of the extra ice time he should be getting. If he can start converting some of his hard-nosed play into points he might find himself with a spot on the top three lines even after the wounded start skating again.

Once again the Lightning look to build off of a “character” win. They face Anaheim next (in a game that might never end because neither team can score). After a little bit of a break the road gets a little tougher with games against Los Angeles and Washington (a game that I will be at).

Jo or Johnny:
Due to the disastrous effect this section is having on his career, I'm going to discontinue this feature. I will come up with something else for the next game.

Hot Stove Time!

It’s December.  Hockey season is in full swing.  The NFL is entering the home stretch and millions of fantasy football players are bitching about their team for the tenth year in a row.  So it’s the perfect time to write about baseball.  That’s right, with the grey clouds and brisk winds blowing lets talk about summer’s game.

There is something about going back to Baltimore that always puts me in a mood to talk about baseball.  Perhaps it’s hanging out in my brother-in-laws basement which is adorned with Orioles gear from wall to wall.  Or it’s seeing all of the black and orange, or staying at a hotel overlooking the ballpark (if you’re going to town to see the game, the Sheraton Inner Harbor can’t be beat for location).

So let‘s talk Hot Stove! It’s still early in the process - of the top 10 free agents on the market only 1 has signed.  The ink is barely drying on Jordan Zimmermann’s new deal with the Tigers. One of the top starters on the market set the bar at 5 years and $110 million.  That will pretty much price the Orioles out of the David Price/Zach Grienke/Johnny Cuerto market.  With an estimated $30-$40 million to spend and A LOT of holes to patch, blowing it all on one starter isn’t in their plans.

So what should they do?  Hoping that Dylan Bundy’s arm stays together for an entire season is probably not the best plan.  There aren’t any prospects to call up that can step into a starting role. There is too much needed for Dan Duquette to rely on his patented wait-and-see style.  Without having a top tier ace available to them (sorry Chris Tillman) they should probably focus on adding as much offense as possible to the line up.  Doing that without Chris Davis and his 40 home runs is going to be challenging.(but not impossible).

At least our GM doesn't have one foot out the door this offseason

First off, go hard for a free agent corner outfielder not named Gerardo Parra.  The top two on the market are Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward (Don’t come at me with Yoenis Cespedes, too many injuries and much too inconsistency..  Also, there has to be a reason he’s been traded roughly 75 times over the last two years). Both Gordon and Heyward would cost the O’s their number one pick in the upcoming draft so it’s a huge decision to make.  Actually it’s not.  Go ahead and look at the O’s draft history.  I’ll wait…..not pretty, eh? .

If I had my druthers I would sign Heyward. You sacrifice a little bit of power for a more all-around game. He does something that the O’s struggle to do - get on base. He posted a .359 On-Base Percentage last year, which would tie him for second on the O’s with Manny Machado (Chris Davis, despite his strike out tendencies led the team with a .361 OBP).  Playing with a shorter porch in right field might see the former Atlanta Brave bring his power levels up to the  low-to-mid 20’s.  Not quite Crush Davis territory, but better than what they’ve gotten out of right field the last few years.

The J-Hey Kid would also give Baltimore some semblance of a running game.  He averages 20+ stolen bases a game (I know, stolen bases are an old-timey stat nobody likes anymore), but for a team that doesn’t manufacture runs very well, having someone who can pick up an extra base with a steal roughly 76% of the time isn’t a bad thing.  Would he hit leadoff?  Maybe. I could see Buck Showalter rotating Heyward and Machado in the top spot depending on match-ups.  Slide Adam Jones into the third slot with Matt Wieters hitting clean up wouldn’t be a shabby way to start off a lineup.

Speaking of Jones. Having an outfield of Jones, Heyward and a pot of steamed crabs in left field would be better than some of the combinations they put out there last year.  Heyward would give the O’s some consistency they haven’t seen in right field since Nick Markakis left. With the depth chart showing Ryan Flaherty as the de facto starting right fielder should the season start today, Heyward would be a tremendous upgrade.

So what’s this going to cost the O’s? Well, their first round pick since Heyward declined his qualifying offer from the Cardinals.  At 26-years-old his most productive years are still ahead of him.  I could see him signing anywhere from a 6-10 year deal with an annual value between $20-$22 million. Not cheap, but not too crazy considering he is probably the best all around position player available.  This is exactly the type of free agent that is worth sacrificing a first round pick for.

As a second choice, Alex Gordon wouldn’t be bad either.  The main separator between him and Heyward would be the fact that Gordon is five years older.  The benefit is that he would be a little cheaper to sign in terms of length of contract. The drawback being well…he’s five years older and his window of productivity is shorter.

Gordon would give Showalter some lineup flexibility as he can fill in at first base as well as play the outfield.  He brings the same strengths to the lineup - defense, getting on base and a little bit of pop in the bat. Giving him $20 million per year over 4 or 5 years wouldn’t be absurd.

Plus, we could all re-live the Alex Gordon Rookie Card Story!

Signing either player sucks up about half of the club’s theological money to spend.  That leaves them $15-$20 million to find another corner outfielder, a starting pitcher and a first baseman.  That’s going to be tough, and at least one of those spots will have to be filled internally. However, that’s an upgrade considering they’ve been trying to patch two or three spots with AAAA players for the past two seasons.

There has been some mutterings on the internets that the O’s could consider giving prospect Trey Mancini a chance of winning the first base job in spring training.  Which I would love, because promoting from within is awesome, but asking a kid who hasn’t played above AA to jump into the minors is a bit much.  I’d rather see him start in AA or AAA to keep his confidence up and see if they can get a stop-gap solution for this year.

Enter Mr. James Loney. The 31-year-old Tampa Bay Ray might be on the downside of his career, but he still brings value in his defense and experience.  The O’s might not have the caliber of prospects to go after higher end trade targets, but they do have the ability to pay his contract.  If they call up the Rays and offer to take Loney off of their hands and pay 90% of the $9.67 million he is owed, they can get him for a mid-tier prospect.

Let Loney start and have Christian Walker on the bench if you feel the overwhelming need to have a home-grown talent on the roster.  God, looking at the top prospects for the O’s is a little depressing. I haven't seen this many C and D ratings since my sisters high school report card. Draft better Baltimore!

Loney won’t strike fear into pitchers, but he will make the infield better.  Imagine an infield of Loney, Machado, JJ Hardy and Jonathan Scoop.  Not a bad foursome to pitch in front of.  Especially if you’re a ground ball pitcher like….

…Mike Leake.  A second-tier free agent pitcher who probably won’t sign until after the big boys start getting crossed off the list, Leake would be a good fit for Camden Yards. He doesn’t walk many (2.3 walks/9 innings) and gets a lot of groundballs (over 50% ground ball rate for his career).  While I normally don’t like pitchers jumping from the National League to the AL East, he has a skill set that should carry over.  Plus he’s only 27!  And he doesn’t cost another draft pick!

Would he be an ace?  Simply put - no.  He would slide in behind Tillman as the probable number 2 starter, or 3rd if Kevin Gausman lives up to his potential.  What he would do is eat up a lot of innings while keeping the O’s in the game.  The fact that he barely touches 90MPH with his fastball is offset by the fact that he throws strikes and mixes up his pitches.  No one is going to confuse him with Greg Maddux, but a second coming of Mike Boddicker wouldn’t hurt the rotation.

Signing him to a five-year $75 million deal wouldn’t break the bank (even if it would be the 3rd highest deal on the team) and keep him under control through his prime years.  Since he isn’t a power pitcher, his numbers should stay consistent as he ages since he won’t be hurt by a deteriorating fast ball (can’t lose what you never had!).

If the O’s could pull off those two signings and one trade they would be a much deeper team than the 2015 version.  They would still have a hole or two (hey maybe this is the year Nolan Reimold stays healthy!) and a don’t think they would be a favorite to win the AL East, but they wouldn’t embarrass themselves.

Justin G.’s Projected Rotation and Lineup:

Chris Tillman
Ubaldo Jimenez
Mike Leake
Kevin Gausman
Michael Gonzalez

Manny Machado - 3B
Jason Heyward - RF
Adam Jones - CF
Matt Wieters - C
James Loney - 1B
Steve Clevenger - DH
JJ Hardy - SS
LJ Hoes - LF
Jonathan Scoop - 2B