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?

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