Depth on defense suddenly disappeared
The Tampa Bay Lightning have made some changes on defense over the past week, with signings, trades, and non-tendered RFA's being jettisoned.
The defense is much the same, yet so very different right now. This is only the start of what will be a retooling of the Bolts blue line:
The hole that you may notice in the defensive pairings is Mike Lundin. Lundin was not given a qualifying offer on Monday from the club (for legitimate reasons - he being arbitration eligible and his award likely to be high), and will be able to test the unrestricted free agent market come tomorrow. The team may still re-sign him but Lundin can go elsewhere.
The Lightning also allowed the departure of defensive depth by not qualifying Matt Smaby and prospects Vladmir Mihalik and Kevin Quick. While Quick has since signed on with the Norfolk Admirals (and thus remains close to the Lightning), the quartet of defensemen being let go represents an end, of sorts, to an era of the Lightning. All four were draft picks from former GM Jay Feaster. While Lundin, a former fourth round draft pick, has proved himself a bona-fide NHL'er, Smaby has struggled to get consistent ice time, while Mihalik and Quick have failed to crack the NHL.
Mihalik, especially, is an example of high-draft pick failures of the past. Over a three year span, the Lightning used their 1st pick on defense. Between Mike Egener (2003, 34th overall), Andy Rogers (2004, 30th overall) and Mihalik (2005, 30th overall), they have played a total of 15 NHL games. And in truth, all of those games were played over 2 seasons by Mihalik.
It should be noted that Smaby was taken 7 selections after Egener in 2003 (41 overall), and has had injury issues that have seemed to follow him around from the AHL to the NHL the past two seasons. He's also only seen scant amounts of playing time for various reasons when healthy. Though he is a veteran of 122 games at the NHL level, his ice time had dwindled to a scant 7 minutes last season, and it looks like a fresh start elsewhere is what the doctor ordered.
The focus should not be on the past here, it's on the present and the future.
The Lightning suddenly seem very thin on defense, with Mike Vernace as the next in line for a call up should injuries happen at the NHL level. Scott Jackson has very little NHL experience, while second-year pros Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio aren't to be rushed into the NHL. Look for the Bolts to rummage through RFA castoffs and minor league free agents during July and August.
It's uncertain what the Lightning could do at the NHL level with free agency, but it's notable that two former Bolts are highlights to the 2011 free agent defensive class (Roman Hamrlik, Paul Mara). It's also debatable if either would fit into the Tampa Bay system, and doubtful that Hamrlik could be had for a realistic price (he made $4.5 million last season).