Providing a counterpoint to the Tampa Bay Lightning's stated preference to bring pending unrestricted free agent Ryan Callahan back into the fold and another article featured here clamoring for that very development, Kyle Alexander recently laid out a fairly detailed rationale for the organization opting to let unrestricted free agent Ryan Callahan find a very green pasture elsewhere. It's a compelling take, even if it's one some aren't (as I am) inclined to agree with, and well worth your time if you haven't previously read it.
Let's revisit Alexander's central premise:
In a salary cap NHL, it's unwise to commit so much to a player who will not contribute a substantial amount of points or puck possession ability and is likely to decline severely over the course of the deal he signs.
Here's a limited but demonstrative and readily digestible, I believe, statistical overview of Ryan Callahan in 2013-2014 that reinforces this perspective:
Not to disparage Callahan but, there it all is: underwhelming possession results despite very favorable usage, both generally and relative to his teammates, with each team with the key distinction stemming from a rather fortuitous shift in his on-ice percentages after being traded. This should serve as a glaring red flag for any club considering bankrolling what amounts to a tremendous gamble Callahan will be worth the sizable amounts of money and cap space he's reportedly seeking in quantifiable ways.
It's one thing to say what the Bolts ought not to do, though, and another to offer up alternatives for effectively getting the lion's share of the contributions Callahan likely would provide were he to be retained, and for a relative bargain. If you're short on time, I'll tell you plainly I think the Lightning can do just that, be it via free agency, trade and even internally. If you're able and willing to soldier on, I've given a bit of thought to each approach.
After pouring over all of the forwards scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer, I whittled the group down to nine players whom, should they actually hit the market come July, would probably make wiser additions -- taking the big picture into account -- even if they don't necessarily provide the same versatility or intangibles such as "grit", "intensity", or "leadership" which have often been used to describe the play of Callahan. Some of the names might surprise you (I'm counting on it) but in addition to brief commentary, the same 2013-2014 statistical run-down is available for each player to serve for comparison. My suggestions:
Brian Boyle has evolved into a dependable bottom-liner who has been used in an markedly defensive role with the Rangers the past several seasons, seeing a heavy burden of own-zone deployments at evens and routine shifts as a penalty killer. In that sense, Boyle's usage roughly approximates Adam Hall's in Tampa Bay not too long ago, although nobody who's ever watched either play would ever confuse the two. There's appreciable skill in Boyle's mitts, which registered double-digits in goals in 2011-2012 after cracking the 20-goal mark the season prior, and virtually all of his production comes at even-strength these days. Even with a bit of a hike in pay, two or three years of his services would likely be money well spent.
Former Lightning castoff Jussi Jokinen followed up a strong regular season -- one that saw him get within range (57) of his career-high in points (65) -- with a hot run in the postseason for the Penguins. No, he doesn't kill penalties but that's the only area where Jokinen's usage differed substantially from Callahan's last season. For a fistful of dollars you could potentially add a quick and agile skater who darts to and fro around the ice, with and away from the puck. It may seem strange to suggest Jokinen's return given the circumstances of his leaving but there's already precedent for a player shuttled off rather unceremoniously, after a short initial stint, by the old regime only to be lured back by a free agent payday (see: Carle, Matt). Granted, adding a small-framed, skilled play-making winger may seem odd considering the Lightning's present collection of talent up front and I find this one of the less desirable options but, if Jokinen could be coaxed into settling for a limited term, he'd provide a somewhat pragmatic means to extending the club's depth for a few seasons.
Here's a soon-to-be-28-year old that, after putting up 30 goals and 57 points over the course of his third NHL campaign, might be sneaking under a lot of radars given the decline in his production that has come in conjunction with a somewhat marginalized and unquestionably more defensive role with the Maple Leafs the past several seasons. It's easy to imagine the Belarusian enjoying a resurgence with a change of scenery, similar to how his friend and former teammate, Mikhail Grabovski, fared after being bought out last summer and signing a one-year deal with the Capitals. However, an apparently strong desire to re-unite with Grabovski almost certainly takes Tampa Bay, which does not need both, out of the running for potential landing spots. It's too bad because Kulemin, who can play in all situations and move up and down the lineup, doesn't seem poised to break the bank.
As with Jokinen, it might seem curious to see Milan Michalek listed here as he's probably generally viewed as an offensive-first forward and, unlike Kulemin, there'd probably no shortage of suitors for his services come July. It might come as a surprise to some that it was Michalek and not Callahan who played a bigger penalty-killing role last season for their respective clubs. However, this was largely because the Senators spent the second-highest amount of minutes shorthanded and it doesn't necessarily follow that Michalek is better in his own end. The point remains, though, that he's versatile enough to be used in all situations, more than many might realize. Both were used similarly at evens but Michalek's on-ice metrics might have a wee bit more shine to them had he not skated in front of Ottawa's goaltenders last season. If the 29-year old is destined to search for greener pastures -- which is far from certain right now -- and the Lightning are hell-bent on tossing good money and significant term at a guy, well, here's the route I'd go.
I'm imagining a few double-takes and groans spilling out over keyboards. After all, Dustin Penner's best years are behind him, he's starting to bounce around the league after extended stints with a couple teams and, perhaps most damning of all, isn't to afraid to peek out from behind the curtain from time to time to demonstrate his outsized (by NHL standards) personality. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Bolts avoid 'Pancakes' at all costs, right? Yet, Penner has consistently provided a positive on-ice impact wherever he goes. He was an unappreciated but vital cog for the Oilers before Dean Lombardi's analytically-progressive Kings outfit swooped in and plucked him away to supplement an emerging heavyweight with a talented core. He put in a solid showing, even by traditional measures alone, with the Ducks this past season prior to being inexplicably shipped out (a development that Penner admitted left him stunned) to the struggling and ultimately doomed Capitals at the trade deadline, with whom he went on about his usual business. Coming off a one-year, $2 million deal and with presumably limited competition for his services, Penner presents a potential bargain-rate addition. Washington may or may not want to retain him but with the organization in flux, he might very well be amenable to a marriage of convenience elsewhere.
Just based on how Benoit Pouliot limped along to the conclusion of his sole season with the Bolts -- he suffered a diminished role and found himself a healthy scratch multiple times as the Lightning began its transition under its new head coach -- and slipped away quietly afterwards (the Lightning, to my limited knowledge, made no effort to retain him), he presents another unlikely reunion. He may not hit the market anyway but, if he does, he'll likely be a smart buy for whichever club he'd wind up with. So, why is this first-round "bust", who is arguably the best free-agent value signing GM Steve Yzerman has made since he inked Sean Bergenheim for close to the league-minimum in 2010, so valuable? In short, he's an even-strength puck-hound. Take this assessment from Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby:
"They're pretty good at holding on to the puck in their offensive zone," Crosby said of the Pouliot line. "They're skilled guys. They don't need a lot of space to create plays. When you're against a line like that, part of you understands they're going to get possession, so if they do, you want to eliminate the momentum they create."
No, he's not a penalty-killer but he's often been utilized on the power play where gives teams a deceptively strong presence down low. The Bolts wouldn't be giving up much utility, really, forgoing Callahan to sign Pouliot instead and would actually be opting for the forward who demonstrably helps drive play. Of course, some really strange things would have to happen for Pouliot's return to come to fruition, so this is more a mild lamentation about a guy that got away than anything.
Dig a little deeper in the barrel and you scrounge up a scrappy, speedy forward who labored in near obscurity after breaking into the league with the Panthers, with whom he once notched 20 goals. After a marked decline, the Panthers waived Santorelli during the lockout-abbreviated season and he was picked up by the Jets but eventually let to walk in the summer. The 29-year old had to settle for a two-way (!) agreement with the Canucks but rewarded his new employers, skating in all situations when he was in the lineup, with an inexpensive bright spot in an otherwise disastrous campaign for the franchise, one that has led to sweeping changes. A local, Santorelli -- who missed most of the second-half of the season due to a shoulder injury -- might prefer to stick around and, with all of the recent upheaval, re-signing him makes plenty of sense for Vancouver to gamble on again so it's highly questionable he'll even be available come July. But if he is, the Lightning would have a quarter-on-the-dollar alternative, a sensibly-priced and quite serviceable placeholder, to consider.
Once a prized young winger who had registered three-consecutive 20 goal seasons with San Jose and one of the key pieces (Charlie Coyle, then a prospect, being the other) the Wild received in the deal that sent Brent Burns to the Sharks, Devin Setoguchi may be be let to test the market after just one season with the Jets. You could excuse Winnipeg, which used a second-rounder to acquire him, for being underwhelmed but, then, being centered by Olli Jokinen isn't quite the same as skating alongside Sidney Crosby. Still, some might wonder if the 27-year old is close to a ticket on the Jonathan Cheechoo train to former-NHLer status. If he's not in the Jets plans moving forward, it'll be interesting to see what kind of interest he draws in July. You'd think there's a number of teams who'd at least be mildly intrigued and a few clubs, with the top-heavy Penguins really coming to mind, for whom Setoguchi would definitely be a worthwhile gamble. You wouldn't be getting a guy with a reputation for being intense, gritty and a stalwart in his own end, so why should Tampa Bay even bother? Well, skating Setoguchi in Callahan's stead according to the latter's even-strength usage (favorable zone starts, skating on one of the top lines) would be a good starting point for a return to form. A solid chunk of power play time surrounded by more offensively dynamic talent than he's had in the past can't hurt, either.
Often tenacious -- speaking more to his motor than his physical play -- all over the ice, Daniel Winnik has served as a capable bottom-liner and with distinction during penalty kill situations for the Ducks. He's coming off a career year, points-wise, but any notable production is more a bonus than anything and not what any suitor should be chasing here. Winnik is, essentially, a less-gifted version of Ryan Callahan, one who's not going to feature on either power play unit. If Anaheim isn't sure about issuing a raise that takes him to a level that's beyond what's usually commensurate to how he's been utilized, the Bolts could step in to make a generous offer that doesn't compromise the club's long-term cap structure. Put simply, if the Bolts are willing to significantly overpay a player, it's best they do so at this end of the spectrum.
Of course, the Lightning could opt to replace Callahan by trade, especially if the team makes defensive adjustments via other means. The ever-churning rumor mill has led to plenty of speculation regarding Vancouver's Ryan Kesler and his reported inclusion of the Lightning on a limited trade-to list has some wondering whether he'd be a good fit with Tampa Bay.
Ryan Kesler (signed through 2015-2016)
On the surface, Kesler seems to make plenty of sense since, like Callahan, he's a versatile forward who can play throughout the lineup and in every game state when called upon and is already signed. However, expending assets on Kesler now would or him this summer would put the Lightning at a very similar juncture after just two more seasons and, considering the Canucks would almost surely want a sizable return for the 29-year old, it's just very hard to justify going this route when he may be expendable at the end of his current deal.
Here, also, are several players the Lightning would probably be better off inquiring about instead, and on teams that might just be willing to strike a deal depending on evolving circumstances:
Vladimir Sobotka (RFA)
Prying Vladimir Sobotka away from the Blues may require some extra sweet-talking but higher expectations and perhaps the sense that the clock is ticking on the club's competitive window, plus the fact that St. Louis has a handful of young forwards needing new deals this summer and next, may mean the club will be more receptive than it otherwise would be. It's hard to imagine Sobotka going solely for futures but the Blues may be eager to recoup a first-round pick after giving up its 2015 selection as part of the blockbuster that brought in Ryan Miller. As for Sobotka, he's a pesky, undersized 26-year old who's put up some moderately impressive underlying numbers at evens and has earned consistent ice time in all situations with the Blues the past several seasons. The downside here is Sobotka is due for a pay hike and he only makes sense to go after if you envision him as a key piece of the puzzle for the next half decade or so but there shouldn't be anywhere close to the sense of apprehension the thought of locking Callahan down for the long-haul should generate.
Viktor Stalberg (signed though 2016-2017)
When a club that desperately needs an influx of offensive talent makes Viktor Stalberg its signature acquisition for the summer and that club then subsequently misses the playoffs and fires its longtime coach, it's sort of natural to wonder if the general manager is feeling any heat and if he might be open to some assistance in rapidly reshaping the roster and the organization's pipeline. Stalberg, who is fairly speedy despite a big frame, is a fine player who would probably thrive roving on Tampa Bay's lower lines but a potential downside is he's a relatively unknown quantity at special teams as he seen, almost exclusively, even-strength minutes in the NHL.
Jiri Tlusty (RFA)
After registering a career-high 23 goals and 38 points through all of Carolina's 48 games in the shortened season following the lockout, Jiri Tlusty's production took an anticipated percentages-driven dip this last season. He's another guy whose appeal lies in his ability to provide secondary scoring rather than any perceived defensive prowess. Between the firing of head coach Kirk Muller, and Jim Rutherford stepping down as general manger to make way for past team captain Ron Francis to take the helm, the Hurricanes organization is at a crossroads with crucial decisions to be made. What to do with Tlusty, who's in line for a sizable bump in pay, is one of them and he may very well have been deemed expendable even if Francis wasn't going to have to deal with a limited budget. Used similarly as he has been, he looks to be, with a pronounced departure here and there, a perennial 15-20 goal, 35-40 point complementary winger who does almost all of his damage at evens.
A further wrinkle in the early going here in the silly season is the latest round of speculation -- partially fueled by on-air comments made by league insider, Bob McKenzie -- that the Sharks will, or ought to, move forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both of whom are still productive in their mid-thirties, in the wake of San Jose's latest playoff collapse. Of course, in the midst of all this, predictions as to where either will wind up began cropping up and the Lightning was linked to Marleau by a rather infamous rumor-monger.
Patrick Marleau (signed through 2016-2017)
Well-respected veteran leader? Check. Able to log key minutes in all situations? Check. Some speed and a strong skater? Check. Sure, there are some obvious hurdles, starting with Marleau's no-movement clause, that would have to be cleared before the Sharks could strike a deal with any team but, you know, you can build a decent case for passing on Callahan for Marleau. As is, Marleau's cap hit almost certainly further dilutes any potential return but his value could be nudged back up if San Jose is willing to eat a portion, say 20% ($1,333,333), of the remaining money owed. From Tampa Bay's perspective, getting a high-grade forward who is on the books for several more seasons and at a reduced price that puts him within range of the money and cap space that had previously been allotted to Martin St. Louis might just be a masterstroke.
Interestingly enough, the Lightning might just be best served by deciding not to sign or trade for anyone. The depth and talent in goal has been dramatically improved in a relatively short period of time, but it is up front where the club, with its stable of prospects whose professional careers are in their infancy supporting an assortment of players close to or already vying for NHL spots and a crop of young graduates of the farm system that helped propel the Bolts back into the playoffs last season, seems most capable of marching onward despite a prominent subtraction. In particular, J.T. Brown and Richard Panik are two possible near-term beneficiaries who played a healthy portion of last season with the Bolts.
J.T. Brown (RFA)
Richard Panik (RFA)
Perhaps individually, but more likely collectively, these two young forwards could give the Bolts most of what Callahan brings to the table. Both played very controlled even-strength minutes on a lower line last season but where Brown earned recurring penalty killing duties, Panik saw his special teams opportunities come with a number of looks on the Lightning's second power play unit.
To this point, the discussion has been arbitrarily limited to two players based on the number of games played last season. The thing is, the Lightning will almost surely have 2013 1st-round draft pick, juniors phenom Jonathan Drouin, who was immediately pinned as the heir apparent to Martin St. Louis, in the ranks as well. Drouin, then, would also factor into the equation and thus make a replace-by-committee approach -- cost-effective, flexible -- even more appealing.
There's no readily obvious slam-dunk when it comes to identifying how to the Lightning could best move on without Ryan Callahan but, if the club's imperative this summer should be to avoid ending up with a situation like the Leafs have with David Clarkson, it should be clear there's a spectrum of alternatives, multiple ways for Tampa Bay's brass to skin the proverbial cat, with some being much more plausible than others. Of course, how aggressively it can pursue the various options depends on what the club's ambitions for other perceived needs are and how its plans to address them.
Note: All statistics cited from Extra Skater.