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.