Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Lightning Looking for a Jump Start

The rights to negotiate with Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts for a conditional draft pick, reported to be a fourth or, perhaps, a third round pick (if Malone signs with the Lightning).

Well…that’s a way to go.

That is the deal the Tampa Bay Lightning worked out with the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier today. New Lightning owner Oren Koules said of the deal, “We said earlier this week we would be aggressive in our pursuit of free agents in order to win and compete. This trade today doesn’t guarantee anything, but we believe it gives us a leg up in our attempt to sign these two impact players.”

Ten days ago, the Lightning surrendered a seventh round pick in the 2008 draft for the rights to negotiate with Flyer free agent Vaclav Prospal (Philadelphia selected Joacim Eriksson with the pick).

It has all the look of an effort to jump start the team, to try and bite off the entire 23 points or so (the difference between Tampa Bay’s 71 points last year and eight-place Boston’s 94 points) in one fell swoop. Perhaps it is an effort to replicate what Pittsburgh did two years ago (a 47-point improvement over the previous year), or what Philadelphia (39-point improvement) or even Washington (24-point improvement) accomplished this past season.

There is a difference.

In the cases of Pittsburgh, and then Philadelphia and Washington, the improvements could be tied largely to the emergence of young players. In Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury showed in 2006-2007 that he could be a bona fide number one goaltender (40-16-9, 2.83, .906). Ryan Whitney took on a bigger role on defense (a 21-point improvement). Sidney Crosby built on his fine rookie year to win the Hart, Ross, and Pearson trophies.

In Philadelphia this past season, the Flyers added Daniel Briere via free agency, but it was Mike Richards who led the team in scoring. He more than doubled his point output from the previous season (75 versus 32) and almost tripled his goals scored (28 versus 10). Jeff Carter had almost a 50 percent improvement in scoring (53 points versus 37) and more than doubled his goal scoring (29 versus 14). Joffrey Lupul, obtained in a trade with Edmonton and who is still under 25, would have had a career year in scoring, but for missing 26 games with injuries. He still managed 46 points in 56 games.

In Washington, Alex Ovechkin turned into a monster (a 19-goal, 20-point, +47 improvement over the previous season), Mike Green had a breakout year (a nine-fold increase in goals, almost a quadrupling of assists, a five-fold increase in total scoring over the previous year), and Nicklas Backstrom did well enough as a rookie to be named a Calder Trophy finalist.

Where is that youth infusion coming from in Tampa Bay next year? Steven Stamkos is reputed to be quite a player. He should be the second line center on the Lightning on opening night and will be among the favorites in the Calder Trophy race. But is that enough? Even with Malone, Roberts, and Prospal, not to mention Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, it is a team that will lack depth, defense, and goaltending. And if you don’t think that is important, consider the experiences of Philadelphia and Washington this year. While Philadelphia improved its goal-scoring by 34 goals this past season, they improved their goals allowed by 70. For Washington, the improvement on offense was seven goals, while on defense it was 55 goals.

From the Lightning perspective, the risk in these pre-free agency period signings is small – mid to low round draft picks. The problem is that it has all the look of sizzle, but not much steak. Even these signings were to take place, it’s hard to conceive of Tampa Bay as a contending team next year, and it is not as if the Lightning have a lot of talent in their prospect pool following in behind these guys.

It might be an effort to jump start a return to competitiveness, but we suspect there isn’t enough juice there to get that engine to turn over.

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Mike Green

It’s been a while, but given where we are in the calendar, about to embark on the free agency period, it’s worth it to look back at the defense, some of whom are in the free agency mix. First up…

Mike Green

Theme: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Coming into the 2007-2008 season, Mike Green had 92 games of NHL experience under his belt over two seasons, and he was 3-12-15, -18, in the process. One might have expected him to be a full-time NHL defenseman, but entering his second full year, and still being only to turn 22 in the first week of the season, one might not have expected him to be more than a second or third pair defenseman as he continued to learn the ropes.

And as the year started, that’s what he was. In the first 21 games of the year, Green averaged a shade under 19 minutes a game. Only twice did he log more than 20 minutes of ice time. And while he showed a glimmer of offense (3-4-7, which works out to a 12-16-28 pace over 82 games), he was stuck down on the depth chart.

The coaching change that took place on Thanksgiving had quite an effect on Green. He scored goals in each of his first two games after the change behind the bench, and took off from there, going 15-34-49 over his last 61 games. And, he averaged more than 25 minutes a game. Only twice did he log less than 20 minutes a game, and those were his first two games playing under new coach Bruce Boudreau. In fact, nine times in those last 61 games he logged in excess of 30 minutes of ice time. The ten-game splits end up looking like this…

Green had two especially productive stretches in those last 61 games. In a 19-game stretch from December 8th through January 19st, Green scored at better than a point-a-game pace: 9-12-21. Not coincidentally, the Caps were 12-4-3, raising their record from 9-17-2 to 21-21-5, the first time the Caps were at .500 since October 24th.

The second stretch came to close the season. Over the last 12 games, Green was 1-12-13, +9. That last figure – plus-9 – was twice as good as any he posted in any ten-game split of the year (plus-4 over the third set of ten-games he played). And, of course, the Caps finished 11-1-0 to capture the Southeast Division crown.

Overall, breaking his season into the “Hanlon” and Boudreau” segments, Green registered points in only five of the first 21 games – the “Hanlon” segment. He scored points in 32 of the 61 games he played under Bourdreau. And, while he had only two multi-point games in the first 21, he had 14 in his last 61.

There is a subtle clutch aspect to Green’s performance this year. Of his 18-38-56 points line this year, he was 9-15-24 when the Caps were tied in games. That included a 3-2-5 line in overtime games.

On the flip side, it bears noting that among the 175 defensemen playing more than 50 games in the NHL last season, only seven registered less shorthanded ice time per game than did Green (20 seconds).

Green might end up getting a very large offer from another team, which the Caps appear likely to match, unless the offer would push him well into the top-ten paid defenseman category (last year, that would have been the “Rob Blake” threshold -- $6 million/year). It will make next week more than a little interesting, but the season Mike Green had is what makes it so.