Lightning Off-Season Rolling Along

Well, look what the cat dragged in?

Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you, folks. Yup, it’s that guy (and in written form, no less!) Formerly of ‘Da Buzz, currently the co-host of The Bolts Beat podcast and soon to be a permanent fixture as a featured contributor at another prominent hockey web site (to be announced via ESPN special, a la some basketball dude everyone’s been talking about lately), JJ is alive and well, stopping in here at Hockey Independent, officially the first of his many new homes moving forward.

Most of you were spot on when you called bullhonky on my hints at a possible eternal hiatus after leaving my last post. The thing is, I truly wasn’t sure if I’d really be continuing on as I had in the past. But I couldn’t stay away… And while my new role elsewhere will be the main attraction once that begins, I’m happy to announce that, starting now, I’ll be posting fairly regularly here at Hockey Indie as well.

What I’ll be doing primarily (and where I’ll be doing it) for the 2010-11 season remains a secret but there, I’ll have more than just Tampa Bay Lightning material to work with. Bigger and better, in terms of content… Which is exactly what I was hoping for.

But that’s in the future and today I’m here, officially throwing my HI kickoff party now for a few reasons

1 – The Brothers Gallof have been kind enough to host the first two re-launched episodes of The Bolts Beat here in recent weeks with the promise of further material down the road. Time to deliver. (Finally!) Looks like the show will continue to be hosted here throughout the summer and into next season as well.

2 – What I post here at HI will have a very familiar feel to what my longtime followers have come to expect. Most, if not all, of what you’ll find here from me will be focused on the Lightning in very similar fashion to my previous coverage elsewhere. (Which means, in all likelihood, the third annual JJ Awards will make HI their new home!) And, with plenty of Bolts news to discuss so far this summer, it’s high time I started chiming in again on the regular.

3 – You can’t keep the champ down for long, folks. That’s right. I said it. Champ. When it comes to online coverage, this Sunbelt franchise has a growing contingency of quality contributors out there. But my game hit its stride a long time ago and (aside from making an ass out of myself via Twitter from time to time) hasn’t slipped since. The strap’s mine until somebody else proves otherwise and it’s time once again to carry on as a fighting champion, bringing you the absolute best in Lightning news and opinion.

New home(s), new attitude, new man…

Fresh dressed, like a million bucks
Threw on my white socks with my all blue chucks

… … …

Lodi dodi
We likes to party

May as well get started then, eh?

I left the old stomping grounds on the heels of Steve Yzerman being named Lightning GM and Guy Boucher as head coach. Since those two widely praised hires, change has continued for Tampa Bay in the form of draft choices, buyouts, free agents coming and going and one simple, unanticipated trade that has some clamoring for an Yzerman statue outside the St. Pete Times Forum already.

Let’s have a look at what’s been done under Yzerman already and take a peek at what might be in store before the puck drops in October:

The new general manager put his faith in a holdover scouting staff and their collective decision for the sixth pick of the first round in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago left many scratching their heads. The general consensus had been that Tampa Bay would get their hands on the lone defense prospect left after two of the heralded trio of Erik Gudbranson, Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley were gone some time in the top-five.

Of course, Gudbranson was off the board at three to the Florida Panthers and when neither Fowler nor Gormley enticed Columbus or the New York Islanders enough at four and five, it seemed the Bolts had their rearguard of choice in waiting.

Not so fast!

The Lightning had their eyes on forward Brett Connolly, two seasons removed from a 30-goal, 60-point showing as a 16-year-old with Prince George of the Western Hockey League and didn’t let a hip injury that cost him most of the 2009-10 season scare them off.

As I mentioned on the pre-draft, re-debut episode of The Bolts Beat, I was right in line with most others thinking defense was the way to go for Tampa in the first round but I did offer one caveat, if the Lightning were of the “best player available” mindset:

“If there’s a forward there (at six) that they have rated higher than whatever defenseman is left available, could you really argue with them taking that guy, if that’s what they really thought?”

I was surprised at the Connolly pick, yes but, in checking the tape from my very own show, I guess I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was. Even a blind squirrel, huh?

The Bolts filled out their 2010 draft class with five defensemen (quantity over perceived quality, perhaps?) with everything from NHL bloodlines in Brock Beukeboom (via father, Jeff), to a heavy hitter in Radko Gudas to just a sick hockey name in Teigan Zahn and also plucked another pair of forwards in James Mullin and Brendan O’Donnell.

Fans can get a look at these players and several other Lightning youngsters as they culminate this year’s player development camp with the Young Guns Game next Wednesday at 6:00.

Post-draft thoughts turned to free agency on July 1st where things were sure to be different than the free-wheeling, wild spending of the last two summers. In fact, free agent season opened for the Bolts with not a signing but a trade as Yzerman unloaded disappointing defenseman Andrej Meszaros to the Philadelphia Flyers for a second round pick in 2012.

That he was able to find a taker for Meszaros and his $4 million dollar cap hit until 2014 without bringing any bad salary back is commendable.

That he hauled in a 2nd round pick in return, the going rate these days for a significant trade deadline pickup, by the way, is where the Yzerman love fests are kicked into high gear.

Is this guy a Jedi or something? Picture this:

Yzerman: “Hey, Paul. How do you feel about Meszaros for a second rounder?”
Flyers GM, Paul Holmgren: “Well, sure… But you have to somehow reimburse us for whatever we paid Mike Rathje not to play the last few years.”
Yzerman: [waves hand] “You will take Meszaros and you will give up a second rounder for him.”
Holmgren: “How about a second round pick for Meszaros?”
Yzerman: “Deal!” [waves hand] “You will apologize for the Rathje bit. You want to go home and rethink your life.”
Holmgren: “Hey, Steve. Sorry for the Rathje bit. I’m going to go home and rethink my life.”
Yzerman: “No worries, Paul. Take care.”

Or something like that…

Either way, Obi-Wan Yzerman was off to a flying start by ousting Meszaros, who now will no doubt become an All-Star caliber d-man in Philly. After all, the Flyers turned Matt Carle (deemed useless in Tampa after 37 seconds or so) into a fine compliment to Chris Pronger and, against all odds, made Lukas Krajicek a serviceable postseason blueliner, of all things (though my Philadelphia following seems to hold “Killer” in the same unimpressed regard as his Tampa faithful did, to be honest).

In all seriousness, getting out of that contract may prove to be more of a rejuvenating maneuver in the long-run than any of us can really forecast now. Further, if you had your choice between moving Meszaros or Ryan Malone (something it truly may have come to, at some point), who would you pick? Exactly.

The Mesz trade may have been a stunner to yours truly but not much else from the first few days of free agency caught me off-guard.

Antero Niittymaki’s departure was something I told anyone asking to expect for quite some time. I didn’t know particulars but it was no secret that he wanted too much term and too much money for the Lightning to remain interested.

And bringing in Dan Ellis to replace Niittymaki as the other half of Tampa’s netminding duo was no shocker either. After all, I’d put that name on everyone’s shortlist for well over a year now.

But the most interesting and relevant thing, to me, about Niitty out/Ellis in is that Niittymaki got two years and $4 million from San Jose while Ellis will bring home $3 million for the same term. An extra $500k per season could have brought Niitty back then, presumably. So, why not?

For starters, while Niittymaki was very good at times last season, nobody can argue that the Lightning goaltending was up to par and Niitty is no doubt partially responsible for that. When the tandem from a year ago didn’t get it done and you’re no longer contractually obligated to one-half of that pair yet that particular half desires a significant increase in salary, you walk away. It didn’t work. Period. Move on.

Two, Niittymaki has not one but two wonky (okay, repaired) hips – the goaltending equivalent of a ticking time bomb.

Next, in Ellis, the Lightning have acquired a goalie of the same age with significantly less injury risk, if history is any indicator and saved a million bucks over two years in the process.

Finally, Ellis and Mike Smith have history as teammates in the Dallas Stars organization and friendly competition in a goaltending tandem is an excellent motivator.

Essentially flipping Niittymaki for Ellis was a coup indeed. And, while we can’t exactly measure how much of an accomplishment it was just yet, you can play along using the following formula:

Money saved ($500k/season) + Ellis wins (x 2 per shutout) + ½ per wins for Smith (moral support) + Niittymaki losses (x 837 per games lost due to injury) + 0.0027397 for Ellis being exactly one day younger than Niittymaki = True value of Ellis vs. Niittymaki

Or something like that…

Another expected free agent departure came by way of Kurtis Foster moving on to the Edmonton Oilers. At a reported two years and $3.6 million bucks, Foster didn’t exactly break the bank on the open market, which was what I thought might make his exit a foregone conclusion initially. My guess was, had the Bolts deemed his return a priority, an aggressive attempt to re-sign Foster prior to July 1 would have been made. When it wasn’t, I knew all I needed to know.

And let’s all be honest here: While Foster might be a great guy and everyone’s sentimental favorite stemming from his recent personal battles and, more than anything, a legitimate family tragedy, is his leaving any great loss, in the grand scheme of things?

Yes, he has a cannon for a shot. Grand. But for every goal he scored last season, he was left behind his own net for two by the opposition. We aren’t exactly talking about a defensive stalwart here.

But Foster’s departure did leave the Lightning a little short on the blueline, numbers-wise, which was addressed the very next day with the return of Pavel Kubina to Tampa Bay and, days later, the addition of former Colorado Avalanche d-man Brett Clark. As longtime Lightning fans surely remember, Kubina brings some offense (118 points the last three seasons) to the table, while Clark appears the more ol’ reliable type (though struggles last year in Colorado appear to indicate that he’ll have to work awfully hard to earn that description in the future).

Elsewhere, Alex Tanguay managed some Jedi magic of his own, swindling nearly $2 million in salary and a freakin’ no-movement clause in a deal to return to Calgary, Ryan Craig left the only organization he’s ever known to sign in Pittsburgh, Todd Fedoruk was bought out of the remaining year of his contract (that Radim Vrbata deal looks thrice as lovely now!) and fan favorite Zenon Konopka punched a ticket to Long Island on a one-year deal with the Islanders.

There’d better not be any tears shed over the first three names here but it’s safe to bet that Konopka’s departure bothered a few among the Lightning faithful.

While he won’t turn the Islanders into a playoff contender, he’ll do exactly what he did in Tampa: He’ll fight anyone and hit everyone, he’ll win more faceoffs than he loses, he’ll energize the bench, he’ll endear himself to the fans immediately and he’ll do wonders for the locker room.

He’ll also make you local New York scribes wet yourselves from laughing. (I never wet myself… But I’m pretty sure my radio co-host did!)

Case in point, on the day the Canadian Olympic roster was announced, as us local media types entered the Lightning locker room to annoy Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos with questions about why they weren’t given the honor of representing their country, Konopka walks in with this gem of an ice-breaker:

“Don’t worry boys, I have dual citizenship, so I’m sure I’ll make the American team. You don’t even have to ask me.”

He’ll be missed by many in Tampa and do the same wonders for the young Isles as he did for last year’s Bolts but I didn’t see a real on-ice fit for Konopka here looking ahead, honestly. After all, this is a Steve Yzerman team now and all you had to do is ask yourself, “How many successful Red Wings teams do I remember over the years dressing a full-time, one-dimensional enforcer type?” Mmm hmm…

Want toughness, Tampa Bay? You’re still taken care of. In the event his services are needed, 6’7”, 240+ pound Mitch Fritz was recently re-signed to a one-year deal. Fritz was singled out by several part-time Bolts/part-time Norfolk Admirals as a stabilizing force in the Norfolk room last season… And, oh yeah, he’ll mangle your face if you disagree.

Speaking of re-signings, restricted free agents Mike Lundin and Teddy Purcell were officially re-upped yesterday, each to one-year contract… And, before I forget, Yzerman gave some dude named St. Louis a four-year extension. (Hardy har, JJ… Hardy har.)

The St. Louis extension is probably Yzerman’s most important feat to date. He obviously recognized what Marty means to this organization as its true heart and soul, not to mention what he did last year for the development of Stamkos and Steve Downie. Locking up St. Louis shows Yzerman is a man of his word (he had indicated it was a priority almost immediately upon being named GM) and immediately identifying him as a cornerstone of the club, whereas others may have been tempted by trade value, reveals that the new GM has his finger on the pulse of his club far more than his immediate predecessor ever did.

That takes care of what’s been done already and both Yzerman and Boucher have commented in recent days that, with the defense and goaltending set, it’s time to focus on filling out the forward ranks.

Downie’s new deal is a work in progress, though there is no indication that it will become any sort of problem. A mega-extension for Stamkos was also identified as a priority as Stevie Y took the reins and, with the St. Louis deal as a leading indicator, we should expect that gets done some time this season, I’d imagine.

The only RFA headed to arbitration is grinding center Nate Thompson, who will likely be back by either working out a deal prior to their as-yet unscheduled hearing or being awarded a fair award by the arbiter.

No one else on Tampa Bay’s list of restricted free agents sticks out as a major player at the NHL level other than, that is, Mr. Question Mark himself, Paul Ranger.

Everyone’s been sensitive to his plight since day one and will continue to do so. Besides, at this point, why he’s been gone doesn’t really matter. But it’s time – now – for the kid to figure out if he wants to play hockey or not. Otherwise, the Lightning need to move on.

Ball’s in his court, really, what with a qualifying offer already being made and all. If he wants to play, sign it. If not, don’t. In case of the latter, the Bolts technically will retain his rights but should otherwise politely walk away.

Time to resolve this matter, one way or another.

By the way, I’m not being insensitive here at all. While no one’s ever indicated exactly what’s going on with Ranger, a quick glance through the CBA told quickly last year that his status as a non-roster player excluded illness, injury, substance abuse, etc.

So, to me, it boils down to a kid having to decide whether he wants to make serious money to play hockey or not.

Okay, then. Decide.

Over the remaining off-season months, I expect Tampa Bay to add a couple of muck-and-grind types at forward – guys that can contribute a bit offensively, add some veteran character to the mix and play a responsible, two-way game. I have some names in mind, personally, but I think I’ll save that for next time.

For now, sit tight. I’ll be in the mix at development camp and will be all over Twitter with notes on that and anything else than pops up in the coming weeks.

Until then… It’s a pleasure to be here and thanks for having me.

JJ

jjordan79@tampabay.rr.com
JJ on Twitter

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About the Author: Jon Jordan established himself as one of the web's most reliable resources on the Tampa Bay Lightning for four-plus seasons, covering the Bolts for HockeyBuzz.com and then Kukla's Korner, as well as contributing several guest spots around the web and in print, including Yahoo! Sports, McKeen's Hockey, AOL Fanhouse, NBC/Versus and of course, a stint right here at HI. "JJ" has offered his opinion as a guest on dozens of radio shows across the US and Canada, most notably featured on SiriusXM's NHL Home Ice, and co-founded and co-hosted "The Bolts Beat" podcast (formerly known as "BoltsBuzz Radio") which ultimately became "Hockey Night in Tampa Bay" on the local airwaves at ESPN1040 in Tampa. Outside of hockey, Jon co-founded and served as contributing editor for LockedInMMA.com, focusing on the Florida fight scene and covers college basketball for Sports Direct, Inc. After stepping away from hockey coverage almost completely for the 2011-12 season, Jon will contribute intermittently here again in 2012-13.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jon Jordan, Jon Jordan and Jon Jordan. Jon Jordan said: Lightning Off-Season Rolling Along http://bit.ly/9dfKXT [...]

  2. WB Philp says:

    Great to have you aboard JJ! We are proud to have you at HI!

  3. Fred Poulin says:

    Woah great blog on the Lightning and glad to have you join us are at HI! Keep on the good work.

  4. Jon Jordan says:

    Happy to be here, boys! Grazi!

  5. Callie says:

    Jon, is there a way to get just your posts in my RSS reader? I’m getting updates from the whole site. I’m sure they’re all great bloggers but I’m mostly interested in Lightning news.

  6. Jon Jordan says:

    Callie, I will research your question and get back to you ASAP! (Remember, I’m new here!!!) ;)

  7. Patrick says:

    JJ,

    Great to read you again! Nice take on Ranger… hope we find out soon either way. Any thoughts on what you expect out of Lecavalier this year?

    • Jon Jordan says:

      I expect a big resurgence, personally. Yzerman does as well. Vinny no longer has any excuses, no distractions and no reason not to deliver.

      If he doesn’t, expect a reboot of the incessant trade rumors… (Otherwise, don’t even start…)

  8. Ruthe says:

    Glad you resurfaced here. Nice to read your blogs and follow you on Twitter. Thanks for always taking the time to answer my emails.

  9. What a pleasant write-up! I’m so pleased you thought to write about it.

  10. Hey! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back often!

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