The offending defense and the off-season
Browsing through news pieces on the local media web sites recently, it'd been easy to find a lot of banal stuff regarding the Bolts... News about off-season plans, the losing, and plans for the immediate future and thoughts regarding the season that was have dominated headlines.
One earnest column that I came across was from Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune on Friday. Erlendsson proposed the top five decisions that cost the Lightning dearly in 2008-09. It's easy to nit pick singular items but there is one dominant failure by OK (Not Really) Hockey made in separate moves that handcuffed and strangled the Lightning season to death:
Dismantling the defense By the first week of October,Tampa Bay had moved almost its entire defensive core from last season, trading away Boyle, Brad Lukowich, Filip Kuba, Alex Picard and Shane O'Brien and receiving only Lukas Krajicek, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle in return. Carle was later traded for Steve Eminger, who was later traded for Noah Welch. While the team spent millions of free-agent dollars on forwards over the summer, turnover and injuries resulted in 22 different players manning the blue line.
And in all of the hoopla, in all of the anarchy, and in all of the volatility of the season, the question "Why?" has never been adequately answered. Of course, it's their team -- but a method to the madness being explained to the fans would have been nice instead of cliché management responses to these transactions.
But let's move on from this grievance for a moment and look at the Lightning as it is today -- Geoff Kinrade served as the team's 22nd warm body defenseman of the season on April 9th. 22 different players served on the Lightning. Some are stuck in the minors now, some are on other rosters and some of them are recuperating from injuries.
That's not to say that Boyle, O'Brien, Picard, Lukowich and/or Kuba wouldn't have fallen to the wayside because of injury (O'Brien missed much playing time due to injury for Vancouver this season -- see correction in comments)... But that's five NHL defensemen who were turned over in a short timespan for the likes of Janne Niskala, Jamie Heward, Matt Carle, Lukas Krajicek and Andrej Meszaros.
And that was for starters.
Janne Niskala ran home to Europe, Cory Murphy was an emergency pick up. Steve Eminger came over after the Lightning gave up on Carle, oh and of course Eminger was later dealt for Noah Welch... Matt Lashoff and Richard Petiot were other trade acquisitions at the deadline; Matt Smaby, Kevin Quick, Ty Wishart and Geoff Kinrade were part of the minor-league-musical chairs on D.
It's easy to go on forever about this but there was a self-made disaster on defense by Lightning management. We'll just say that.
And with the close of the season, the mess gets even muddier.
Cory Murphy, Marek Malik and Josef Melichar -- three veterans lost to injury -- are all Unrestricted Free Agents after the season. I won't color them as huge loses if they are signed by other teams... But they much more tried, tested and experienced than the AHL calibre crew that manned the blue line to close the season.
In the end, it's a question of who stays and who goes on D and all signs are pointing to another volatile off-season of change. Oh sure, Paul Ranger and Meszaros will be back next season... But after that, everything comes into quesiton.
Lukas Krajicek, Matt Lashoff, Mike Lundin and Matt Smaby are all restricted free agents after the season. With Lundin having been trapped and exiled to Norfolk for more than half a season, I would guess that having him re-signed is a priority -- the Bolts hadn't wanted to lose him to waivers.
But are all of the above considered a young nucleus to build around, or simply depth to be shuffled between Norfolk and Tampa?
And while General Manager Brian Lawton has said he will be active shopping for defensive help (and also expressed willingness to shop the Lightning's first round draft pick), it's uncertain which of these unrestricted free agents he will target... Or what will ultimately be guiding his decisionmaking while hunting for help.
Stability would be nice. Revamping the defense again in haste with a makeshift lineup may only cause problems in the end. Though it's also difficult to say "build up around what you have" -- that applied before last summer, and right now? What we have is an offending defensive mess where up-is-out and down-is-in.