The free-fall of the Tampa Bay Lightning this season led to Guy Boucher becoming the second NHL coach this season to lose his job, replaced by Jon Cooper, who coached their AHL affiliate in Syracuse.
I wasn’t surprised Boucher got the axe, though I was by the timing, coming as it did in the midst of a road trip. As more than one scribe pointed out, these things usually happen once a club returns to its home city.
Boucher is partially responsible for his demise. His 1-3-1 system got the Lightning within a game of reaching the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, but teams adjusted to it the following season, and he appeared to struggle trying to adapt.
Another reason is GM Steve Yzerman failed to provide Boucher with a quality goaltender. His mid-season pickup in 2010-11 of Dwayne Roloson, combined with the resurgence of backup Mike Smith, were key factors in the Bolts march to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final.
But Yzerman cut Smith loose in the summer of 2011, betting the 40-something Roloson had one good season left in the tank. When it became painfully obvious he didn’t by the midway point of last season, there was no one the Bolts could reliably turn to, and Yzerman couldn’t find a suitable replacement..
Last summer, Yzerman acquired Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators with the expectation he’d provide the Lightning with quality goaltending for years.
Lindback has considerable promise, but he wasn’t ready for the full-time starter’s role this season, and backup Mathieu Garon wasn’t a significant improvement. With Lindback sidelined indefinitely with an ankle injury, the Bolts appear well and truly screwed this season.
Injuries to other key players and an ongoing lack of experienced defensive depth also didn’t help. Little could be done about the injuries, but it’s up to the GM to ensure suitable depth within the lineup.
For the first time since taking over as Lightning GM in 2010, Yzerman is facing criticism from fans and pundits.
Nobody said rebuilding was easy, and the Bolts surprising success in the first season of Yzerman’s tenure undoubtedly raised expectations to an unrealistic level.
Fans and pundits were willing to forgive last season’s struggles, as long as the club regained its footing this season and became a serious playoff contenter. Instead, the Lightning appear mired in mediocrity again.
They haven’t plunged to the depths of the much-despised OK Hockey era, and they can thank the high-scoring tandem of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis for that. As of March 28, Stamkos had 23 goals and 43 points in 33 games, while St. Louis had 34 assists and 42 points. Without this offensive dynamic duo, the Lightning would be in serious trouble.
It’s not as though the Lighting lack good players beyond the Stamkos-St.Louis pair. Vincent Lecavalier was averaging nearly a point-per-game before his foot injury. Victor Hedman improves with each season. Teddy Purcell continues to be a pleasant surprise. Rookie forward Cory Conacher has promise. Sami Salo’s been a welcome addition to their blueline. Eric Brewer and Matt Carle are capable defensemen, though at a combined cap hit of over 9.375 million per season, they’re also overpaid for their services.
The problem is lack of sufficient depth beyond these notable players.
Ryan Malone, their most skilled physical forward, continues to be hampered by the toll his style is extracting from him, and cannot be considered reliably effective anymore. The Bolts lack skilled grinding forwards and shutdown defensemen, and of course, there’s the goaltending issue.
The question is, what will Yzerman do to address these problems? Does he shop some veterans for draft picks and prospects at the deadline? There’s talk of moving St. Louis, but unless the 37-year-old winger demands to be dealt, trading him would shed some salary and rob Stamkos of his set-up man.
A Tampa Bay pundit suggested shopping Lecavalier, but the eight-years and $45 million remaining on his contract is as effective a no-movement clause as the actual one in Lecavalier’s contract.
Yzerman has nearly $62 million invested in 21 players for next season, and with the cap dropping to $64.3 million, no wiggle room to add experienced depth via free agency.
He will get over $3.67 million in cap savings by putting Mattias Ohlund on long-term injury reserve. If Ohlund is forced to retire due to his knee surgeries, they’ll get similar cap relief, but without having to bump against the cap ceiling to do so.
He could move some players and salaries via trade, but as Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune recently observed, the Lightning have few tradeable assets they could afford to part with which would bring in the talent needed to bolster their overall depth.
Yzerman could free up cap space this summer via compliance buyouts, allowing him to buy out up to two players without it counting against his cap.
It would free up considerable cap space if he opted to buy out Lecavalier and Malone (over $12 million combined per season in average annual salary), though ownership would have to agree to that bold step.
Will Yzerman be that bold? Or could he use the modified no-trade clause in Malone’s contract (in which he lists a 12-team trade list) and hope to shed the remainder of his salary in order to plunge the $4.5 million cap hit savings into other acquisitions?
The respect Yzerman garnered as one of the greatest captains in NHL history, combined with the success of his first season as Lightning GM, earned him a free pass through his club’s struggles last season. Now, the pool of goodwill toward him is growing shallow, and critics are becoming more vocal.
When he first took over as Lightning GM, it was suggested Yzerman was facing a true test in cleaning up the mess left him by the previous regime. It turns out his first true test comes now, entering his fourth summer, to prove to his critics he can recover from his recent stumbles.