Uneasy Anticipation

After a flurry of activity earlier this summer, the Lightning's offseason has finally slowed down. So, I think this is a good time to take stock of everything that has happened so far. There has never been a time in Lightning history where both the roster, the coaching staff, and front office of this franchise has changed so dramatically. The incredible multi-dimensional makeover of the Tampa Bay Lightning has rightfully generated a lot of interest in the upcoming season, and a lot of credit has to be given to OK Hockey on that account. It's not always easy to generate a significant buzz for a team that finished dead last in the NHL last season, and it's a credit to this group's salesmanship that the trade of two of four members of the ex "Fantastick Four" (Brad Richards and Dan Boyle) hasn't been accompanied with a sense of doom in the fan base.

That said, I think anyone with unbridled optimism for the Lightning this coming season needs to ratchet down expectations to a more reasonable level. The simple truth is that OK Hockey has made several risky moves and the outcome of those moves won't be known for months. What we should all be left with, I think, is what I would deem an "uneasy anticipation" for the coming season.

It starts at the top with the massive upheval in the front office. General Manager Jay Feaster is gone. Head Scout Jake Goertzen is gone. Former Assistant General Manager Claude Loiselle remains as a part of a bizarre three-headed monster with new hires Tom Kurvers and Mike Vernon, each of whom will share parts of the duties previously assumed by Feaster and Loiselle under the old organizational structure. Former agent Brian Lawton appears to be the closest thing to a General Manager in the new Lightning front office, but even he appears to be splitting power with owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie.

Look, I'm not a big corporate guy personally, but this kind of reluctance to really nail down individual roles within the Lightning hierarchy scares me and strikes me as bad business. The fact that almost every single job in the front office staff is filled by a former player adds fuel to the growing perception that the club is being run by committee by a group of jock/frat boys and that there is no one leader at whose desk the buck will stop and who will ultimately put their foot down and make decisions when the road forward isn't so clear cut. Frankly, I am doubtful the organizational structure in place can work, and while everything looks great and everyone feels good right now (with the team being 0-0-0 under this current front office configuration) I wonder what will happen the first time the team goes on a six or seven game losing streak. With power being shared six ways, it invites multiple points of disagreement within the organizational structure and, ultimately, finger pointing and back stabbing. At that point, the absence of a clear leader at the top of the chain of command could come back to firmly bite OK Hockey in the rear end. If I was going to give one piece of advice to Oren Koules, I think it would be this: name Brian Lawton GM. Give him the power and final say in organizational decisions and, at the end of the day, respect his decisions. To truly be an effective, professional organization there has to be one sheriff, not six deputies.

That said, I salute Koules and Barrie's willingness to put money into the team and their devotion to winning hockey games. That wasn't always the case with PS&E, especially with last season's self imposed budget cap. Mind you, I do have several reservations about some of the players that OK Hockey has brought in, but at least the team is no longer scraping the bottom of the barrel in the European leagues for players like Jan Hlavac and Andreas Karlsson in the vain hopes they can find a 20 goal scorer among the list of previously failed NHLers. That, more than anything, has buoyed the hopes of the Lightning faithful that the team can quickly re-ascend to the heights of the NHL elite.

The team struck quickly even before free agency to lock in place the team's top line by reacquiring Vaclav Prospal's rights from Philadelphia and then by locking in Vincent Lecavalier to what has widely been heralded as a lifetime deal. I'm not the world's biggest Prospal booster, and I am not terribly excited about the idea of watching a 38 year old Prospal lurch up and down the ice at the St. Pete Times Forum, but it was smart business to reassemble this line. At the end of the day, Prospal/Lecavalier/St. Louis is arguably the league's most dominant line.

On the second line it gets a bit more dicey. The Lightning managed to have the perfect situation unfold for them at the draft lottery as they gained the right to select wunderkind Steven Stamkos with the first overall pick. I expect no less than 20 goals and 70 points from Stamkos as a rookie, and when all is said and done he will be a franchise centerman for this organization. Finding wingers to put around Stamkos was the team's biggest priority for this offseason, and they struck quickly to make a deal ahead of the free agency period to get the right to talk contract with Ryan Malone. They also proceeded with all the deft backroom manuevering of the craftiest crooked southern college football coach by hiring Lawton, Malone's former agent, and Malone's father as a pro scout to seal the deal. Malone eventually signed a seven year, $31.5 million dollar contract with the Lightning, averaging out to a $4.5 million dollar cap hit per year. Fans can be excited about the fact that Malone scored 27 goals last season, but I have to also point out that Malone's 51 points last season were just 3 more than Michel Ouellet's 48 points in his final season with the Pens. $4.5 million per on a seven year deal you say? And yes, I'm well aware Malone brings more to the table in terms of his physical toughness and his penalty killing ability, but it has to be said that Malone is now in a rent district that is above what his level of play has been to this point in his career. In fact, prior to last season, Malone's career high in the NHL was 22 goals and 44 points. Can Malone step up and be the player his contract says he is? Sure. Will he? I have uneasy anticipation.

Similarly, the Lightning filled the other spot on Stamkos' line with former Phoenix Coyote Radim Vrbata who potted 27 goals and 56 points last season after having a previous career high of 14 goals and 41 points. His contract is much more manageable both in terms of magnitude and term (three years at $3 million dollars per season) compared to Malone's, but the same questions about Malone apply to Vrbata. Is he capable of stepping up and becoming a consistent 25 goal, 60-70 point a year player? Sure. Will he?

Now, to the Lightning's credit, they did originally make a run at Brian Rolston, who does have a solid body of work in the NHL. And, they have signed an insurance policy in the ageless Mark Recchi to a very nice one year, $1.5 million dollar deal. Recchi, who by all accounts had a subpar season last year, had 48 points last season split between Pittsburgh and Atlanta. That's just 3 less points than the Lightning's new $41.5 million dollar man (Malone). That's simply a smart move by the organization. There was some criticism about Recchi's age given that the team has already signed the venerable Gary Roberts and Olaf Kolzig this offseason, but the difference is Recchi still produces.

The lower lines appear to be a bit more of a mixed bag. The Lightning appeared to have struck gold last season when Jeff Halpern and Michel Ouellet formed a potent duo down the stretch of the season. However, Halpern suffered a serious knee injury at the World Championships and won't be back until around midseason, leaving his running buddy Michel Ouellet, who is in the last year of his contract, perched precariously on the trade block with fellow forward Jussi Jokinen. The team also re-signed Bolt Prospects alumni Ryan Craig, who is returning from injury, and Evgeny Artyukhin, who is returning from Russia (and Mark Gandler being a jerk). The team also has affordable fourth line grinder Nick Tarnasky returning.

Augmenting these younger players (with the exception of Halpern) the team has brought back Chris Gratton and has also signed Gary Roberts to a one year deal with bonuses that take his cap hit to just a touch below $2.1 million dollars. In the absence of Recchi's acquisition, the trade for Roberts for leadership made a degree of sense. But, with Recchi in the fold, Roberts' cap hit becomes part of what I suspect will be the main criticism of OK Hockey's moves if everything doesn't come together for the Lightning this season.

The Lightning's season will likely be made or broken on the blueline where a lot of pundits around the league have tarred Tampa Bay as having the worst blueline in the NHL. That's not accurate, to be sure. They aren't the worst blueline, in fact there's a ton of talent on the Lightning's blueline. The problem is that there's no experience on the Lightning's backline, which I suspect Lawton will remedy by moving Ouellet or Jokinen over the next month or so. This is another area where OK Hockey has taken a considerable gamble by moving Dan Boyle, and if the Lightning come off the rails this season my gut instinct is that the problems will be traced back to that decision.

The line of attack for OK Hockey's critics will be wide open: the team paid $4.5 million per season for a 51 point player in Malone and almost $2.1 million for Roberts, who wasn't healthy last season for the Penguins and who hasn't broken 50 points since 2000-2001. The combined cap hit of Malone and Roberts is $6.6 million, which neatly mirrors Boyle's cap hit which is $6.67 million dollars. If you're looking for the genesis of the Boyle deal and why it became a necessity, there it is. OK Hockey will argue it was more important to create forward depth and that they got quite a package in return for Boyle. Fair enough. But if you held a gun to my head and asked me if I'd rather have Boyle, one of the best offensive defensemen in the game, or a relatively unproven Malone and a broken down old Roberts, the choice to me seems pretty obvious.

Now, mind you, I salute OK Hockey for their shrewd handling of the Boyle situation from an asset management standpoint (although I condemn whoever in the organization was stupid enough to question Dan Boyle's work ethic). If you had to trade Dan Boyle, then what the Lightning did was the absolute best way to maximize the return. By signing Boyle, the team held onto an asset they knew they could capitalize on very well in an offseason market for offensive defensemen that included only Brian Campbell. Once Campbell went off the board to the Blackhawks, the Lightning held all the cards, and their position was probably strengthened by having the Philadelphia Flyers in the bidding for Boyle. The Flyers, due to cap issues, probably had to include two good roster players in their package just to make the numbers work, which is why the Lightning could extort Ty Wishart and a 1st round pick along with Matt Carle in the deal for Boyle.

From the standpoint of this coming season, the Boyle deal will be a minus for the Lightning. However, and you can write this down, three or four years from now the Lightning will have the deepest and best young defensive corps in the game. They already had three very good young lions at the NHL level with Paul Ranger, Shane O'Brien, and the surprisingly solid and talented Alexandre Picard who was picked up at the deadline with what turned out to be a 2nd round pick from the Flyers for Prospal. In Carle, the team adds a 23 year old defenseman who has already posted a 42 point season in his career. Like most of the Lightning's acquisitions, Carle is a gamble coming off a poor season last year where he only managed 15 points and was periodically a healthy scratch for the Sharks. However, the talent is there and with playing time and more experience, the chances are that Carle will, at a minimum, become a 30-40 point a year defenseman again.

Adding to the Lightning's young blueline depth is Wishart, who is a bluechip prospect, and Matt Smaby and Vladimir Mihalik who also aren't far from making the NHL. Last year's camp surprise, Mike Lundin, is also in the mix although because he is no longer exempt from waivers the Lightning may need to trade him rather than lose the young mobile blueliner for nothing. The team also is likely to have new acquisitions Janne Niskala or Andrew Hutchinson also fill a spot on the NHL roster on opening night this season. So, there's a lot to look forward to for the future of the Lightning's defense. The bad news, though, is that with 531 NHL games under his belt Filip Kuba is by far and away the gray beard of this group. That's a recipe for disaster, especially considering the Lightning goaltending is anchored by 26 year old Mike Smith, who has never been an NHL starter, and Olaf Kolzig who, for those keeping score at home, was taken in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft along with such youthful luminaries as former Lightning captain Rob Zamuner. That's why it is so critical for the Lightning to find one more veteran for their blueline capable of mentoring the team's youth and playing on the penalty kill and the shifts after goals to prevent situations where momentum is compounded or lost and where the ice is suddenly tilted against the Lightning. A band aid fix might be to re-sign long time Lightning blueliner Jassen Cullimore who has 708 games of NHL experience and played surprisingly well with Florida last season, although rumors have had the team pursuing former Lightning Darryl Sydor (1,171 games) and Toronto blueliner Bryan McCabe (917 games).

The final gamble, as previously mentioned, will be between the pipes where the Lightning will go with incredibly green Mike Smith and dusty old Olaf Kolzig between the pipes. The odd thing is that, for my money, Karri Ramo might be better than both of them. Had the Lightning not signed Kolzig, I suspect Ramo would've taken Smith's starting job by the end of this coming season. As it is, he still might get the chance to upstage the top two netminders on the depth chart.

Well, I should amend the previous paragraph's comment. That's the final roster gamble. Arguably the biggest gamble of all will be behind the bench where Barry Melrose will try his hand at coaching after close to 13 years spent behind the cameras at ESPN. What will Melrose's system look like? No one knows, and adding to the uneasy anticipation will be Melrose's relatively inexperienced assistant coaches Rick Tocchet and Wes Walz. Expect Melrose to lean heavily on Cap Raeder, although Raeder himself hasn't been in any coaching capacity since the 2002-2003 season in San Jose. Sound scary to you? It should.

If everything falls in place perfectly, and assuming Lawton does indeed acquire a veteran blueliner, the Lightning could be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The law of averages, however, favors only half of OK Hockey's moves panning out and a Lightning team that will have to fight for every point to make the postseason. Fortunately for the Lightning they play in a bad Southeast Division, which means if they can beat up on Washington (starting goaltender Jose Theodore), Carolina (perennial underachiever of late), Atlanta (Ilya Kovalchuk and very little else), and Florida (who just traded their best player and captain, Olli Jokinen, for what amounts to a bag of pucks) they could claw their way into a three seed in the conference. That may be the best case scenario for 2008-2009, with the added hope that the team can, no pun intended, catch lightning in a bottle for their postseason run.

And so we sit and we wait for the season, with uneasy anticipation.