After a couple of days the smoke is finally beginning to clear on the frenzy that is free agency in the NHL. There were plenty of players changing uniforms, luckily for Lightning fans Vincent Lecavalier wasn’t one of those names. In fact, only David Koci decided to leave. He traded the sunshine and beach for the snow and granola in Colorado. Now that I’ve gotten those clichés out of the way lets take a look at how the Lightning faired on their trip to the free agent flea market.
Shortly after the gates opened at noon the Lightning made their first signing. Looking to plug a whole on their blue line and unable to afford the big names (Jay Bowmeester or Mike Komisarek) they went after Mattais Ohlund. Seven years and $26.25 million was enough to lure the 11 year veteran to the TBA. A lot of money, not really. A long time, definitely.
However, as the deal breaks down it’s not as bad as it looks at first glance. Most of the money will paid out in the first five years of the contract. Those years should be the most productive of his career. Ohlund won’t be an offensive force from the blue line, but he brings solid play and his veteran leadership.
For the first time in two years the Bolts will have an acknowledged top two veteran defenseman on their roster. Ohlund on the ice for twenty minutes a game will be much more effective than Marek Malik or Josef Melichar for the same amount of time. The Swede won’t bring Dan Boyle-like offense because that isn’t his game. What he will bring is steady play in his own zone, calmness in leading the attack out of that zone and that vague term “veteran leadership”.
By the time he plays out the end of the contract he will be 40. Ten years ago that would have been a huge red flag,. These days, with athletic conditioning allowing players to perform at top levels for longer, it isn’t unusual to see blue liners skating into their late 30’s. Also, with the front loaded contract the Lightning would be able to cut Ohlund loose after five years and not absorb too much of a cap hit.
The other big signing for Tampa Bay was Chicago’s Matt Walker. Another addition to the defensive corp Walker is another large (6’3 213 lbs) defense first player. A former third round pick by the St Louis Blues, Walker has only lit the lamp two times in 240 NHL games. By all accounts he’s a nice guy who plays with a bit of mean streak. That is something that has been lacking a bit from the Bolts backline for quite some time.
Walker’s addition gives the team a lot of depth in defense. Younger players like Kevin Quick and Ty Wishart can spend another year in Norfolk playing instead of shuttling back and forth to Tampa to sit on the bench. It also creates competition in camp for the seven spots on the roster.
The top four will be Ohlund, Paul Ranger, Andrej Meszaros, and newcomer Victor Hedman. The next three players will be out of a pool that includes re-signed Lukas Krajicek, Matt Smaby, Noah Welch, Mike Lundin and Matt Lashoff. There is a chance that they could sign another free agent or make a trade to bring someone else in, but with where they are in regards to the cap it looks like they will settling it with the players already on the roster.
What’s left for them in the next few months before camp starts? GM Brian Lawton would like to add a top six forward and a back up goalie. The goalie position shouldn’t be difficult to fill. While the fans may have clamored for one of the top free agent goalies (Craig Anderson, Scott Clemmensen, or Nik Khabibulin) financial restrictions wouldn’t allow that. Look for them to settle for a player along the lines of J.S. Aubin or Joey McDonald.
Finding a top six forward will be a little more difficult. The free agent market is pretty desolate at this point. Past their prime players, third line role players or former Lightning wingers dot the landscape. One thing that the Bolts might want to keep an interest in is the tender offer debacle in Chicago.
TSN is reporting that Chicago might not have submitted the qualifying offers to their restricted free agents in time, thus making them unrestricted free agents. One of those possible free agents is young winger Kris Versteeg. The 23 year old netted 22 goals last season with the Blackhawks. He would look nice skating alongside Steve Stamkos.
As far as currently available free agents and intriguing name would be Maxim Afinogenov. The Russian born right winger is an unrestricted free agent with potential. He is only 29 (turning 30 before the season starts) and seems to have faded off of the national radar over the past two seasons. Beset by injuries last season he only appeared in 48 games, scoring only 6 goals.
The groin injury that sidelined him last year may sap some of his world class speed, but as a cheap reclamation project he might be worth a two year contract. He’s never been a prolific goal scorer (his career high is 23 in 2006-07), but paired with a playmaker like Stamkos or even Lecavalier could help his numbers.
So far the Lightning have had a successful offseason. The fixed their most glaring need - defense and can now focus on filling the rest of the holes on their roster. If they can obtain another scorer and have a healthy season from goaltender Mike Smith there isn’t any reason why they couldn’t compete for a playoff spot in the upcoming season.
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