Recapping Tampa Bay Lightning’s moves in free agency

Have the Lightning won or lost the free agency game? It’s kind of hard to tell.

Upon the conclusion of the NHL Entry Draft, the hockey world shifts its view to the next big moment of the off-season—free agent frenzy. At noon on July 1st each year, teams try to outbid one another for the biggest fish who hit the market. In doing so, more often than not teams overpay and are stuck with the consequences when the player whom they sought is no longer at the top of their game.

The biggest fish to hit this year’s open market were defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner, who landed multi-year deals with the Rangers and Canadiens, respectively, and forward Alexander Radulov, who is supposedly choosing between his most recent team, the Canadiens, and the Dallas Stars.

There were a handful of other players that were within range for Steve Yzerman to target, like Justin Williams and Cody Franson. The Lightning General Manager noted how he was in the market for a top-9 winger and a top-4 right-handed defensemen; both would’ve fit the bill.

However, it seems as if Yzerman sought players who possessed veteran leadership and a boatload of playoff experience instead. In doing so, he signed 4-time Cup Winner Chris Kunitz and aging defenseman Dan Girardi. He also let Greg McKegg go to free agency.

After having gone through multiple boxes of Kleenex weeping over the Girardi signing (two years, $6M total), I was slightly consoled by the fact that Yzerman signed veteran Chris Kunitz to a one-year deal with $2M, with $1M in potential bonuses based on a variety of factors. Kunitz can play up and down the lineup, and it will be very interesting to see where he fits in Cooper’s system. I’d like for him to start out on the third line, but when injuries hit, he could easily be brought up to the first line alongside Steven Stamkos.

Kunitz has a winning pedigree, and brings an edge and a feistiness each and every night. He is a pill to play against. I’m sure he’d love to have one ring for every finger, so why not press his luck in Tampa?

As for Girardi, I hate this signing for a multitude of reasons. First, Girardi is declining tremendously quickly in his play and speed. He is thirty-three years old and was just bought out of the final three years of his contract with the Rangers. Second, Yzerman said upon the conclusion of the Entry Draft that the young kids (Sergachev, Koekkoek, and Dotchin) would all get a chance to make the roster this year. However, with 8 defensemen, including Sergachev, in the mix, how is that possible? There is no way that Yzerman sits two of the aforementioned young players in the press box the entire season.

On top of that, both Dotchin and Koekkoek are now eligible for waivers, and there is no way either make it through without being claimed. Third, Girardi is nothing more than a #6/7 defenseman now, and Yzerman basically guaranteed him top-4 minutes with that contract. It makes no sense to me, but I’m hoping Yzerman saw something that 95% of Lightning Land did not and proves us wrong. I’d love to be wrong in this scenario.

The Syracuse Crunch will be a far younger and more inexperienced club than this past season. Roster regulars Tanner Richard, Henri Ikonen, and Joel Vermin were lost to teams overseas. Defenseman Matt Taormina, who had been with the organization for a total of four seasons, was not brought back by the Lightning. He signed with Montreal, as did forward Byron Froese. Defenseman Dylan Blujus was not qualified by Tampa, and potential Syracuse returnee Luke Witkowski signed with Detroit.

Keeping all of this in mind, Yzerman’s additions to the Crunch roster were very cunning. With the glut of rookie forward prospects entering Syracuse next year, there was not much room to add. But the additions made by Yzerman will provide a good core group of leaders to help the rookies acclimate to the professional ranks. Yzerman added right-handed AHL veteran defenseman Jamie McBain, left-handed defenseman Mat Bodie, veteran goaltender Michael Leighton, and scrappy winger Alex Gallant to Syracuse. All of them are on one-year, two-way deals.

Another player that ended up moving onto another organization was goalie Mike McKenna, who I thought would’ve been re-signed. He wasn’t even offered anything by the Lightning and instead signed with the Dallas Stars. Leighton will be taking his place, serving as a mentor for rookie goaltender Connor Ingram, who will begin his professional career in Syracuse. He was drafted by the Lightning in the 3rd round of the 2016 Entry Draft.

With a solid #3 goaltender in the system and an incoming rookie, there was seemingly no room for Kristers Gudlevskis in the organization. Gudlevskis had been plagued with inconsistency over his four-year tenure with the Crunch, and it was rumored that he was headed overseas for next season. The Islanders traded for Gudlevskis in return for AHL forward Carter Verhaeghe. It will be interesting to see if Gudlevskis becomes the Islanders backup this year, as Halak and Greiss are likely ahead of Kristers on the depth chart on the Island.

In regards to the players that I would’ve loved to see in Bolts Blue—those being Justin Williams and Kevin Shattenkirk—I can see now why Yzerman didn’t bite. Williams priced himself out of Tampa Bay and received a two-year, $9 million contract with the Hurricanes. As for Shattenkirk, it is believed that Yzerman offered him a four-year deal, but he was very gung-ho about joining his hometown team. Taking that into account, it was very unlikely that the Lightning was going to sign him.

Lastly, it would have been a nice treat had Yzerman signed Cody Franson as opposed to Dan Girardi. Franson is almost 3 1/2 years younger than Girardi and is a solid #4 right-handed defenseman in this league. He remains unsigned as of Sunday morning, which will continue to drive me nuts, but he would’ve fit perfectly in the Lightning’s depth chart this year.

As for the remaining tasks for Yzerman, he is debating adding another forward, which I wouldn’t be opposed to. In addition, he needs to sign Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to cap-friendly deals. With Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin also needing contracts, I will be watching with intrigue to see what Yzerman does with those two young defensemen. Is Koekkoek now trade bait? Who knows? What I do know is that both deserve a shot in the NHL now, and if Tampa Bay can’t offer that to them, then they should be moved.