Tonight the Tampa Bay Lightning will kick off their quest for the 2017-18 Stanley Cup championship. General Manager Steve Yzerman has used every asset at his disposal, squeezed every dime out of the payroll and glared at every player’s agent in order to assemble a team that he hopes will navigate the twists and turns, the unforeseen injuries, the possible suspensions (here’s looking at you Dotchin), and inexplicable losses of production to be the one team left standing at the end of the season.
How did Yzerman do it? By identifying and signing to long-term contracts a small core of talented players and then filling in the gaps with free agent signings and trades. This season marks one of the biggest turnovers from year to year since Jon Cooper took over as coach. As Geo points out in the preview (coming out after the lines are published), there are seven players who weren’t on the roster at this time last season. How the team meshes on the ice and in the locker room will go a long way to determining if Mr. Yzerman had a successful offseason.
The collection of players includes eight free agent signings, four players brought in by trade and 11 players drafted by the organization. Drafting well and filling in the holes with smart acquisitions is part and parcel of the Yzerplan. While it has yet to lead to the ultimate reward, he has built a team that is constantly considered one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Free Agents:
Tyler Johnson - Signed as a free agent on March 11th, 2011. Passed over at the draft because of his size (despite the fact that all he does is win championships), Johnson was signed out of the Western Hockey League and managed to win another championship in the AHL before heading the wave of call-ups that comprise the foundation of the present day Lightning. All of the hard work paid off as he inked a seven-year, $35-million contract this summer to become the second highest paid Tyler Johnson in professional sports.
JT Brown - Signed as a free agent on March 28, 2012 - Tampa’s favorite gamer, Brown was another collegiate free agent that Mr. Yzerman plucked away from rival GMs. While he hasn’t found the scoring touch he had in college he has developed into a relentless forechecker and aggressive penalty killer.
Andrej Sustr - Signed as a free agent on March 21, 2013 - In 2013, Mr. Yzerman dipped into the college free agent pool again signing the 6’8” defenseman out of Nebraska-Omaha. The Lightning were familiar with the Czech Republic native as he had participated in their rookie camp the previous summer. He is nearing the 300 professional game mark that, for the most part, defines what type of player a defenseman is going to be.
Yanni Gourde - Signed as a free agent on March 10th, 2014 - Another undersized forward who had slipped by everyone’s radar, Gourde was initially signed to an AHL contract with the Syracuse Crunch. Prior to the Crunch he had played for Worcester of the AHL and Kalamazoo of the ECHL. After the Lightning were decimated by injuries last season, he was called up and performed admirably in his 20 games.
Anton Stralman - Signed as a free agent on July 1st, 2014 - Stralman may be the best free agent signing in the Yzerman era. A journeyman defender for the first five season of his career, the Swedish native finally put his game together in New York. In a free agent summer that saw Washington sign both Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to long-term deals, Stralman’s signing was a relative bargain. He’s proven well worth the investment in both his on-ice play and mentoring of Victor Hedman.
Gabriel Dumont - Signed as a free agent on July 1st, 2016 - Another depth signing for the Crunch, Dumont ended up in 39 games for the Lightning last season. He provided some some stability and versatility for Coach Cooper and will likely continue in that role this season.
Chris Kunitz - Signed as a free agent on July 1st, 2017 - Anytime you can sign a 4-time Cup winner to a one-year, $2 million deal, you have to do it. Even at 38-years-old Kunitz should have enough left in the tank to contribute as a role player who will most likely score more goals than expected.
Dan Girardi - Signed as a free agent on July 1st, 2017 - The Lightning needed some help on defense. The Lightning signed Girardi. It might work out.
Ryan Callahan - Traded from New York Rangers on March 5th, 2014 along with two 1st round picks for Marty St. Louis and a 2nd round pick. Faced with a disgruntled superstar who only wanted to be traded to one team, Mr. Yzerman pulled off a pretty good haul in Callahan and a first round pick. While trading for the Rangers’ former captain was an excellent move, signing him to six-year deal the summer after has proven a bit more troublesome.
Braydon Coburn - Traded from Philadelphia on March 2nd, 2015 for Radko Gudas, a 1st and 3rd round picks. As they made their push to the Stanley Cup Finals in the 2014-15 season, the Lightning needed some help on the blue line. Mr. Yzerman saw the veteran Coburn as that help. So he paid a pretty hefty price for him. Two months later, Coburn rewarded his GM by scoring a series-clinching goal in Game 7 of the first round against Detroit.
Peter Budaj - Traded from Los Angeles on February 26th, 2017 along with Erik Cernak and a 7th round pick for Ben Bishop. When Mr. Yzerman finally pulled the trigger on the Ben Bishop trade, the return was a little underwhelming for most Lightning fans. Budaj, initially thought of as a throw-in, may turn out to be the most important part of the return. A solid veteran with experience, he is the perfect counterpart for Andrei Vasilevskiy. Budaj has proven that he can carry a team if he needs to, which should give Coach Cooper a bit of relief should his prized number one falter throughout the season.
Mikhail Sergachev - Traded from Montreal on June 15th, 2017 along with a conditional 2nd round pick for Jonathan Drouin. Once again Mr Yzerman made limoncello out of lemons when he dealt disgruntled wunderkind Drouin to Montreal and received their best defensive prospect in return. Sergachev impressed the organization enough to make the opening day roster. If he sticks past his 9th game is still to be seen, but so far this looks like a trade that will work out for both sides (unless Drouin folds under the immense pressure the Montreal media and fanbase will put on him).
The Draft Picks
Alex Killorn - Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2007 Draft - If the question, “Who has been in the Lightning organization the longest?” was asked, not many people would answer with Alex Killorn’s name. But that’s the case for the Harvard grad who was drafted the same day as Dana Tyrell.
Steven Stamkos - Drafted in the 1st round of the 2008 draft - The Chosen One. The center in which Steve Yzerman has built this team. While Mr. Yzerman didn’t draft him, he also hasn’t let him go.
Victor Hedman - Drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft - If Stamkos is the heart of the team, Hedman is the spine. The smooth-skating spine that should win his first Norris trophy sometime in the next three years. It’s hard to believe that a contract that pays out almost $8 million a year can be considered a bargain, but that is exactly what the Lightning are getting with Hedman’s 8-year extension that kicked in this year.
Vladislav Namestnikov - Drafted in the 1st round of the 2011 draft - Namestnikov was the first pick for the Lightning in their most successful draft ever. Six players were drafted and all six suited up for an NHL game in a Lightning uniform. The Russian-born center has proved to be a jack-of-all-trades for Coach Cooper, finding time on the top line and the fourth line, sometimes in the same game.
Nikita Kucherov - Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft - Every single team in the NHL passed on drafting Nikita Kucherov. Nikita Kucherov has scored against every single team in the NHL. That may or may not be a coincidence. He has scored 108 goals in the NHL, second most in the 2011 draft class and the only player with more goals, Gabriel Landeskog, has played in 143 more games and only has 10 more goals. Kucherov is good.
Ondrej Palat - Drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 draft - Another player that was passed over by every team was Ondrej Palat. Not only was he passed over once, he was passed over several times until the Lightning him 208th overall. Through his first 307 games in the NHL he has recorded 219 points and played a key role as a two-way forward for the Lightning.
Slater Koekkoek - Drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft - Was he worth the gamble as the tenth overall pick in 2012? It’s hard to say since he really hasn’t gotten a chance to prove himself yet. Out of the first 20 picks from that draft only Griffen Reinhart has appeared in fewer games. Hopefully, this is the year Lightning fans figure out if Koekkoek is good or not.
Andrei Vasilevskiy - Drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft - If Koekkoek was a risk at 10, then Vasilevskiy was a steal at 19. Just 23-years old, Vasilevskiy takes the reigns as the number one starter for a Stanley Cup contender. He had a dress rehearsal run at the last season after Bishop was traded and showed that he could handle the pressure. Now he just has to show that he can be “the guy” for 60+ games.
Cedric Paquette - Drafted in the 4th round of the 2012 draft - Paquette will probably never scores 20 goals in a season. Now should he be asked to. He exists to make other teams miserable. Win face-offs, block some shots and move the puck from the defensive zone to the neutral zone.
Jake Dotchin - Drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 draft - Perhaps the second biggest surprise of last season was Dotchin playing capably after getting called up for a 35-game stint. Oddly enough he was first called up when Victor Hedman missed a few games with the flu. Odd because, once Hedman returned, Dotchin was virtually stapled to his hip for the rest of the season. That allowed Coach Cooper to split up the Hedman/Stralman pairing and give opposing teams more than one defensive pair to worry about. Dotchin will have to show that it wasn’t a fluke to keep his spot in the line-up.
Brayden Point - Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft - The biggest surprise of 2016-17 was Brayden Point not only making the team but being the best player not named Kucherov or Hedman for several stretches during the season. The Lightning have a history of taking their time with their prospects and for Point, who was eligible to be returned to juniors, sticking with the team was a huge reversal in their normal development program.
So those are the 23 uninjured players that will begin the journey to the Stanley Cup. If all goes well, the same 23 players will be the ones lifting it around the ice in June.