Friday, December 28, 2007

Happy New Year... You've Been Waived!

Happy New Year Marc Denis! You are going to get to ring in 2008 in a new city. Will it be in Springfield as a member of the Lightning’s AFL affiliate Falcons or for another NHL city that’s desperate for a goaltender (Los Angeles or Atlanta, maybe?)

This has become the first major trade to blow up in Jay Feaster’s face. Back in June of 2006 the GM pulled off his first important post Stanley Cup deal when he dealt a pair of Fredriks (popular winder Fredrik Modin and young goaltender Fredrik Norrena) to Columbus for Denis.

At the time the Bolts were desperate for a true number one goalie. Nik Khabibulin had left Tampa for Chicago and big money. The John Grahme experiment was a disaster and the organization was weary of trusting any of the young netminders such as Norrena or Gerald Coleman that they had in their system. Denis was young, just 28 at the time, but had several seasons of NHL experience under his belt including 3 years as the starter for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

He had 3 seasons in a row with a save percentage over .900 for a Columbus team that wasn’t very good. Tampa was willing to believe that his best days were in front of him and with a better cast of teammates in front of him he could realize the potential that had made him a number one pick and Patrick Roy’s heir apparent for Colorado when they drafted him in 1995.

Now, not even a season and a half later, Denis and his 3 year $8.5 Million contract are sitting on waivers waiting to see if any team is willing to take a chance on him. Meanwhile the team, still desperate for a true number one, turns its attention to 21 year old Karri Ramo.

With 43 games left in the season and a record that has them tied for last place in the Southeast Division the Bolts are hoping the young Finn can spark them on a playoff run that turns around what has become a disastrous season. The confident young goalie has been better than advertised as he’s posted a .929 save percentage and a respectable 2.54 Goals Against in the four games he’s played since his recall. The stellar play has vaulted him past Johan Holmqvist and into the starting role, but hasn’t translated into wins thanks to the suddenly anemic Tampa offense.

Getting back to Denis he has reached a critical stage in his career. Three teams have now decided that he’s not their answer and at 30 he’s getting past the stage where teams are willing to risk that he can improve. Before he stopped a puck on Tampa ice he was the poster child of the organization. Literally. Few fans will forget the 30 foot poster of Denis that greeted them as they entered the Ice Palace in the beginning of 2006. A year later he joins an illustrious group of players to call themselves ex-Lightning goalies. What a list of names that is from Corey Schwab to Derek Wilkinson to Zac Beirk many have strapped on the pads only to fade into obscurity.

There could be an argument made that he never had a chance. Trading away fan favorite Modin clouded a lot of fans opinions on Denis. He scored 22 goals for Columbus last season, 22 goals that could have helped out the Bolts. In addition to his offense his willingness to play a defensive role made him invaluable to a team with free spirits like Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St Louis.

Meanwhile in two seasons Norrena is showing himself to be a capable netminders. He posted 24 wins last season and despite being supplanted by the monster that is Pascal Leclaire has 4 more wins in the season than Denis (5 to 1).

This turned out to be one of the few deals that has not worked out for the Lightning. Has it set back the franchise? Possibly, but it’s also opened the door for Ramo. For the first time since Vincent and Brad Richards were coming up the Lightning have a young player who’s ready to make an impact on the team.

Paul Ranger is a nice story, but as a defenseman he doesn’t garner the same attraction as a stud goaltender or a flashy scorer. It’s nice to see a young player like Ramo perform on the professional level when given the chance.

If he can’t keep up the strong play and fades into a Denis-esque slump where he looks lost on the ice it could spell the doom for the vaunted Big Three. One of the big guns would have to be moved either for a top-shelf goaltender or to free up money to make a run at a free agent in the off-season (Henrik Lundqvist anyone?) There was some chatter about the Bolts moving St Louis to Dallas for Marty Turco earlier in the season and a Canadian paper mentioned that they had also expressed interest in bringing Khabibulin back.

All of those rumors make for good internet and idle chat room gossip. The only the only thing that is known is that when the calendar turns to 2008 Marc Denis, once the hope of the organization, will be wearing a new uniform.

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