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Without a GM, Lightning lack answers to Free Agent questions

With the Lightning front office situation continuing to run on empty, it’s tough to really speculate on the roster or free agency in general. Usually, you have off-season banter and gossip about the future of players on the roster, who the team might chase in free agency and so on, and so forth.

It’s part of the off-season.  Sometimes it’s idle-speculation to fill the void.  Sometimes it’s real.

Right now, for better or worse, it’s a whole lot of nothing for the Bolts.  It can’t be much more than nothing.  While acting GM Tom Kurvers holds down the fort at 401 Channelside Drive, there has been no indication that he’s been given the green light to make any type of roster moves.  That includes re-signings of Lightning UFA’s.   Of course, with free agency more than a month away, there is no immediate need to get players re-signed, or RFA’s tendered qualifying offers.

But for what it’s worth, let’s revisit some UFA speculation from March regarding the Bolts own free agents.

It’s impossible to tell, with the new management team that will eventually be in place at Times Palace, just what direction the Lightning are planning to go in regarding the makeup of the team.  One fatal flaw from last season was different directions between former GM Brian Lawton and former Head Coach Rick Tocchet.  This is part of the reason why “former” is attached to both of their titles:  the make-up of the club didn’t fit Tocchet’s style and Lawton didn’t make changes to compliment his head coach (or to jettison his head coach and find someone more fitting).

With the uncertainty in mind, here is a list of the Lightning’s Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA’s).  It’s taken from a post I wrote in March (which will be cited with quotes later):

There are reports that suggest Brandon Bochenski has signed with a KHL club, and I must say Brandon wasn’t a high priority on the re-signing list to begin with.  As depth, he fills a void.  Beyond depth, his accomplishments tended to be at the AHL level and not so much with the Bolts.  Mark Parrish and Ryan Craig also fall onto this list of easily-expendable players.

With Stephane Veilleux’s recent SNAFU with the club regarding medical costs, it pretty much guarantees that he’s departing.  Allan Walsh’s grandstanding didn’t make much of a case for his client’s abilities as-so-much shines the light on Walsh (just where he wanted it to be).

But to cut to the chase, there are three guys that stand out as re-signing targets:  Antero Niittymaki, Zenon Konopka and Kurtis Foster.

For regular readers, you’ll know I’ve been cautious with the idea of re-signing “Frank” Niittymaki.  In the March article about free-agents-to-be, I had written:

While Antero Niittymaki has won support and playing time, you have to wonder if he’s won the right for a substantial pay raise from his $650,000 one-year contract, and the job security that will come with it.  Other teams will likely be in the market for goaltending this off-season and Niitty will be their target acquisition.  Do the Bolts get involved in a bidding war to retain Frank?

Even if Niittymaki was to be re-signed, remember that the team has the rights to six netminders at current: Dustin Tokarski (AHL), Jaroslav Janus (AHL), Michael Zador (CHL), Riku Helenius (SEL), Karri Ramo (KHL) and Vasily Kochechkin (KHL).   If the Bolts are serious about bringing Karri Ramo back to North America (as the general meme has stated), or introducing Koshechkin (a 2002 draft pick who is a towering 6’6″ and was listed as one of the 10 KHL’ers that the Hockey News wanted to see in the NHL ) to the North American game, the opportunity to play NHL minutes must be there.  To re-sign Niittymaki shuts the door on such opportunities unless Mike Smith is traded or bought out.

While I still believe other teams will be in the market for goaltending help, and that Nitty wouldn’t be wrong to test the open market… I think the situation is more uncertain for a goalie in free agency now. Back in March, there was much drama surrounding the Philadelphia Flyers goalie woes, and the uncertainty of goaltending in Chicago and Ottawa among other markets. All three of these squads made the playoffs, and the Flyers and the Blackhawks are humming along in spite the goaltending issues of the regular season.

The other point that I made – about the goalie backlog – still holds true.  I won’t make the judgment of ready-or-not for those in the minors, that’s up to coaching.  Speculation continues about Kochechkin (who has been playing for Russian in the World Championships in Germany) making the jump to the NHL, while the Ramo return talk has been mute.

The ultimate modifier to the situation with Niitty is who is on the market, and who is thought to be available through trade. Niitty, on the free agent market, will be in competition with the likes of Marty Turco, Martin Biron and Evgeni Nabokov for roles. I asked Lyle Richrdson, of Spector’s Hockey fame, for his thoughts on the upcoming free-agent goaltending class and the likelihood that Niitty could command a substantial payout:

I do believe middle-of-the-pack goalies won’t be getting big raises this year. The only ones who’ll command big salaries are Turco and Nabokov but even they could find their value not as high as it might’ve been a couple of years ago.

What does work in his favor on the open market is that he’s 31, while other UFA’s on the market are in their mid-to-later 30’s. What doesn’t work in Niitty’s favor, however, are some of the other goaltenders who may be on the market as trade bait. Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun had been available (this was before Dale Tallon was hired as GM, things may have changed since then); Carey Price is likely to be shopped by Montreal; Tim Thomas could be on the block in Boston with thanks to Tuukku Rask’s play during the playoffs. I asked Lyle for other possible goalies on the block:

Cristobal Huet is also mentioned but given his salary and poor performance few consider him a viable trade option. Erik Ersberg of the Kings might be available this fall should Jonathan Bernier outplay him for the backup job to Jon Quick. Canucks prospect Cory Schneider has also been mentioned but I believe they intend to make him Luongo’s backup. Minnesota’s Josh Harding could also be shopped and given the drop in his performance (injury-related) last season he could be an affordable trade option. Edmonton’s Jeff Deslaurier could also be shopped as the Oilers risk losing him to waivers this fall.

A lot of players, and only so many NHL roster spots available.  It may be a wiser investment for the Bolts to keep Frank around than take a flyer out on someone else.  This says nothing of Mike Smith, and his future with the club.  That’s speculation for another day.

One of the other resigning I’d like to see is Zenon Konopka, which would be a PR move as much as a move for the sake of the roster.  Zeke may be renowned for fighting, but he was also handy in the face-off circle.  He won 62.3% of his face-offs this season and led the team.  He also led the league in penalties in minutes with thanks to his habit of dropping the gloves.  Zeke is the popular, blue collar type that has a loyal following in the market, comparable to Rudy Poeschek and Enrico Ciccone from days-gone-by.  It may be a reach, but I feel Zeke could be more of a contributor to this club than playing solely as an enforcer.  I’d like to see them keep him around and let him prove it.

Then there’s the case of Kurtis Foster, the lumbering defenseman with the booming slap-shot.  Foster proved valuable on the power play, but defense wasn’t considered his strong suit by some.  With the Bolts carrying as many defensemen as they were through the season, Foster ended up getting playing time at forward on the bottom lines.

In March I noted the complication of bringing back Foster:

But he is not a natural forward and could potentially be blocking the way for Lightning defensive prospects if he were retained specifically on D.

Lightning prospects such as Ty Wishart, Vladmir Mihalik and Matt Lashoff will try again to crack the Lightning roster come the fall… However the folly of my argument is only seeing Kurtis Foster as taking up a roster spot and blocking prospects. That’s missing an intangible of his game that the Lightning had lacked for some time. Pete Choquette of Bolt Prospects pointed this out to me:

Kurtis Foster has a very rare and particular gift: he’s a righty point shot who can run your power play. They’re as rare as hens teeth and 1000 times as valuable. That’s why it was so foolish to trade Dan Boyle, and that’s why if the Lightning don’t re-sign Kurtis, they’re going to have to find another righty shot defenseman or forward to play point on the power play…but Lashoff, Mihalik, and Wishart are all lefties (and Mihalik has never progressed as a power play point man anyway). Lefty point men are a dime a dozen, by comparison.

That’s why last year I was quietly foaming at the mouth for the Lightning to try to draft a righty point man like (St. Louis Blues prospect) David Rundblad or (Colorado Avalanche prospect) Stefan Elliot. It’s an obvious hole in our system and we need to start trying to cultivate some righty point men so we’re not having to overpay for a one-dimensional guy like Foster (I think he’s just dreadful at even strength and on the PK, and I hate paying 3-4 mill to a guy you’re not comfortable feeding 20 plus minutes a night) or an older retread like (upcoming UFA Pavel) Kubina.

It’s a different dynamic for why Foster should be retained. While Wishart, Lashoff and Mihalik all have their strengths and weaknesses (and Pete made sure to remind of Kevin Quick and Scott Jackson, two other prospects on D in the Lightning system), Foster brings a dynamic to the table that the up-and-comers can’t touch. He may not be a top pair D, or a top line wing, but he does fill a need with the Bolts game that had been sacrificed by the previous brain-trust of the franchise.

That brings us back to where we started: the uncertainty of things moving forward, and how it keeps the overall direction of the club in question.  It’s hard to plan for the future when the current is in limbo.  It’s hard to look beyond the immediate – which you need to do when assembling a team long-term – when the immediate remains a blank page.

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