Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lightning Card of the Week - Witness the Death of the Personal Collection

That's it. I'm done. I'm throwing in the towel, stopping the fight before someone gets killed. That somebody being me. The reason – see below.

How that signature is "Brett Connolly" I have no idea

Yup, that's a Brett Connolly 2010-11 Panini Luxury Suite Relic/Auto numbered to 99 Rookie. I received it on February 27th. By sundown on March 2nd Mr. Connolly was no longer a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Following in the grand tradition of buying out Vincent Lecavalier and trading Dustin Tokarski, General Manager Steve Yzerman orchestrated a transaction to personally piss me off.

Therefore I'm done. No more new personal collections. I'm sticking with what I got, because I can't bear the responsibility of having MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV or Alex Killorn or Radko Gudas (wait what?) traded simply because I focused on him for my collection. Better to hunt for circa 2001 Lecavalier cards then have the blood of an innocent rookie on my hands.

As for the trade itself I'm not really that surprised. It was kind of expected that at some point Connolly was going to be traded. Despite being the first player drafted by Mr. Yzerman it seemed like the former Prince George Cougar was always the odd man out. The ascension of the TKO Trio kind of bumped Connolly and fellow non-personal collection forward J.T. Brown down the depth list. Once Vlad Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette joined the roster and didn't fall flat on their faces it was only a matter of time until Connolly was on his way out the door.

The return for Connolly was decent (a 2nd round pick in 2015 and a 2nd round pick in 2016) and helps Mr. Yzerman recover some of the assets that he lost in picking up Braydon Coburn at the deadline as well. Since he dealt one of his 1st round picks it was nice to get back into the 2nd round (the Lightning lost their initial pick in the round to the Rangers once they re-signed Ryan Callahan) and a chance to keep the prospect pipeline flowing into Tampa.

If the organization is going to be successful long term, they are going to have to keep drafting well. They don't have the financial resources to keep signing big name free agents in the off-season so they have to fill the roster from within. They also can't afford to constantly trade away 1st round picks for deadline acquisitions like the Penguins have been doing. So if they do trade a 1st rounder like they did for Coburn it makes sense to use a surplus asset (like young forwards) to recoup their losses.

It's interesting that Mr. Yzerman has now traded away the first three picks he made as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Connolly was his first (drafted 6th overall), Brock Beukeboom, a 3rd round pick was traded to St. Louis for Eric Brewer and Radko Gudas, also drafted in the 3rd round, was part of the deal that brought Coburn to Tampa this winter. I guess he kind of wants a do-over for that draft.

One of the few photos of Brock in a Lightning uniform and he is apparently auditioning for the Tonight Show.

Connolly was a stretch pick from the moment the Lightning called his name. While some evaluators had him as one of the top offensive talents in the draft that year, a hip injury had limited him to only 16 games during the 2009-10 season. When he was drafted everyone's favorite bald analyst Pierre Mcguire called him, “either a grand slam or a ground out”. Bob McKenzie pointed out that Connolly's right-hand, his dominant hand, had been crushed in a metal gate when he was a kid and that it “lacked structure”.

In the end, Connolly was more a less a solid double. He bounced back and forth between the AHL and the NHL, bounced back and forth between lines before finally settling as a 3rd liner who was starting to find his scoring touch having netted a career-high 12 goals in 50 games for the Lightning this year. The Bruins were looking to add his presence for a playoff run, but a broken finger suffered in practice has pretty much shut down his season.

Compare the 2010 draft to the one a year later where four of the six picks (Namestnikov, MBNK, Nikita Nestorov and Ondrej Palat) have played for the Lightning and the other two players (Adam Wilcox and Matthew Peca) are among the organization's best prospects. Now that's a pretty good draft year. In fact, in terms of games played for the organization, it's probably the best draft since the Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Dmitry Afanasenkov, Martin Cibak draft of 1998 and the players are still on their entry level deals.

One of the problems of having so much young talent on the roster is that it does make it hard to figure out which individual players to invest in be it with cards or jerseys. I did take the plunge on drop a few bucks on a Kucherov jersey just because:

A – he shoots the puck a lot
B – not many people rock the 86
C – Nikita Kucherov is a bad-ass hockey name.

However, there is no guarantee he'll be here long term. The Lightning have a crazy amount of good young forwards who adapting well to the NHL level. While that is all well and good while they are under team control, it can get a bit expensive once they hit the open market. There is no way the team is going to be able to keep all of the players that they are developing now.

As a matter of fact I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to see another team try and snatch one of the restricted free agents from the Lightning be sending them an offer sheet. Luckily, most of the players are actually signed through next season, but the 2016-17 off-season could be very, very interesting. Killorn, Brown, Kucherov and Paquette are all RFAs that year and could garner some interest. Oh and there is also the fact that Tampa Bay could still be trying to sign some old man named Steven Stamkos in that same summer.

Those, however, are headaches for the future. For now things are looking mighty bright. While my personal collection might be lying broken on the floor at least the team playing on the ice is moving right along. And I'll move on. In fact I actually went to a card show this weekend and acquired some new cardboard. The first card I picked up (at a ½ off sticker price box):

Signature is a little better in this one.

Friday, February 13, 2015

It's That Time! The NHL Trade Deadline is Almost Here!

One of my favorite days of the year is right around the corner.  Hockey Christmas! That’s right, the NHL trading deadline is just over two weeks away. If history is any indication, the market will be heating up soon. In fact the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres officially kicked off the festivities a few days ago by swapping injured forward Evander Kane for inconsistent defenseman Tyler Myers in old-fashioned blockbuster trade.

This year, despite the early deadline, I expect a couple of more big deals to be consummated before the actual deadline day. After all, if you’re jockeying for playoff position, why wait a couple of extra games to fill that needed hole in your roster. And if you’re in full “Dishonor for Connor” mode, getting rid of any actual talent you have on your roster might be the difference between drafting first or second (Powerball Winner!) and drafting third or fourth (Scratch Off Winner!).

So will my beloved Lightning be a part of the chaos, the false rumors, the fake B0b Mackensie tweets, and the eventual empty feeling that comes at 5:00pm on March 2nd (Wait, it’s over…there are no more last minute deals? But we didn’t get what we needed! You mean we didn’t get Taylor Hall for the rights to Riku Helenius and Bobby Taylor’s Hattricks Frequent Diner Card? C’mon!)?  Sadly I feel that the answer is going to be no.  I’m sure General Manager Steve Yzerman will kick the tires on a few players, answer a few calls about some of their forwards and then go on about his day of scowling from the press box during game.

This is Steve Yzerman smiling.

Why can he schedule a little more time on the golf course and less time meeting with his scouts? Well, simply put, he’s done a great job of building the roster he has in front of him right now.  So, at best, he might tinker a little or perhaps acquire an extra draft pick or two with a minor deal.  If there are any weak spots on the team right now it would be on the blue line, and those could be considered temporary.  As long as there are no setbacks, and they don’t decide to rehab in the Buccaneers MIRSA-riddled clubhouse, Radko Gudas and Matt Carle should be back in time for the postseason grind.

Among the ever growing Lightning presence on the internets it does seem that Mr. Yzerman will be doing his due diligence to see if he can improve the defense to carry the team during the remaining weeks that Carle and Gudas are out.   The current fill in rotation of Luke Witkowski, Nikita Nesterov, and Mark Barberio has played out as expected.  They’ve had some good games and some not so good moments on the ice.

With the Lightning fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference,  it might behoove Mr. Yzerman to find someone who can fit in right away and eat up some of the minutes that the younger players are currently absorbing and then transition to a support role once the regulars are healthy. Oh, and they can’t really cost that much either.

If his past has taught us anything, Mr. Yzerman morphs his needs for what’s best for the organization at the trade deadline. When they’re not in competition for a playoff spot he looks for draft picks and young talent (2012 - young defensemen like Keith Aulie and Brian Lee along with a cornucopia of draft picks, 2013 - Ben Bishop and draft picks).  When they are looking like the playoffs are a possibility he brings in veteran players to fill a need (2011 - Eric Brewer, 2014 - Ryan Callahan. Is anyone trying to trade their captain this year?).

I’ve read in a couple places that Mr. Yzerman doesn’t like trading for “rental players”. That is, players who will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season thereby only helping the team for a couple of months. Whereas I would say that he doesn’t make a habit of targeting them, he isn’t allergic to the idea either.  After all, both Brewer and Callahan were set to be free agents when Mr. Yzerman made the trade for them. I think the fact that they both ended up re-signing with team makes people forget that he was willing to trade assets for rental players in the past (of course, had Callahan walked the Lightning still netted two first round picks and unloaded a disgruntled Martin St. Louis in that deal so it was totally worth it).

More so than ever I think Mr. Yzerman would be inclined to bring in a player who won’t have to worry about buying property in the area (although if they are I have a nice condo in Largo for sale!). The aforementioned notion that whoever he might bring in will slide down the depth chart once the injured blue-liners return is one reason.

A second reason is, and its importance can never be discounted, finances. The Lightning aren’t exactly abounding with room under the salary cap. While they’re pretty set for next season (Brenden Morrow is their only unrestricted free agent) signing anyone with a long-term commitment could make things a bit dicey for the capologists in the area.  So don’t expect Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Dion Phaneuf to come walking through that door.

Also, players with controlled costs tend to fetch a bit more on the trade market. Arizona is committed to Ekman-Larsson for four more years at $5.5 million. That’s not a horrible contract for a top pair defenseman. And it’s only going to look better as salaries go up, so to pry him away it’s going to take a pretty nice package.  There is no pressure for Arizona to deal him right at this moment. They can quietly listen to offers and if nothing makes them happy, they can just keep him.

In comparison, Zbynek Michalek is a pending free agent.  There is a little more urgency to deal him because if they don’t he has the ability to walk away leaving Arizona with nothing but $4 million in extra cap space. So teams calling General Manager Don Maloney have a little bit more negotiating power.  So a second round pick and a fringe prospect might do it as opposed to a first rounder and top prospect for Ekman-Larsson.

The Lightning don’t really need to bring a defenseman that they’re going to keep past this season. Carle, Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman and Jason Garrison (the nominal top 4) are all signed long-term. The young guys like Gudas, Barberio and Andrej Sustr are still under team control. It doesn’t really make sense for them to take on a player with 5 or 6 years left on their contract when the organization has more pressing financial decisions to worry about (yes this is an oblique reference to Stammergeddon II).

So let us get to the real reason you’re reading this column.  Who do I think the Lightning should go after (also known as what names am I going to add to the rumor mill with absolutely no factual evidence to support my claims)?

6. Andrej Meszaros - He’d be cheap! The former Bolt hasn’t played much recently (only one game in February) but he plays for a team that is in sell-off mode and could do alright getting 15 minutes a game. At worst it would cost the Lightning a mid-to-late round draft pick.

You know you want him back! Dust those jerseys off.

5. Cody Franson - I actually think the Toronto blue-liner would do well in Tampa, but he’d also do well in other uniforms. With Myers off the market the 27-year-old might be one of the top players on the market. A bidding war could drive his cost past what Mr. Yzerman is willing to pay.

4. Jeff Petry - Switch “Toronto” with “Edmonton” and you have the same story with Petry.

3. Nick Schultz - The Flyers signed Schultz as insurance in the off-season and he’s been the poster boy for why players take a chance on one-year deals. He’s played top-pair minutes and held his own on a Philadelphia team that is on the outside looking in.  There is a good chance that he parlays this season into a multi-year deal this summer.  Would the Lightning be willing to part with a young forward to bring in the 32-year-old?  Perhaps.

2. Zybnek Michalek - The previously mentioned Coyote has been mentioned in rumors since January. Mr. Yzerman might have held off on trading for him while he monitored the play of his young replacements.  Without a second round pick to deal, it would probably cost the Lightning a player like Brett Connolly or Vlad Namestikov to top what other teams can offer.

1. Marc Methot - His name is starting to crop up more with Myers now in Winnipeg. Supposedly the Senators are working to re-sign him, but have not ruled out trading him at the deadline (after all they could theoretically trade him and then re-sign him in the summer). Injuries have limited his time on ice this season, but he has played well when he’s been on the ice.

The Lightning have a couple of arrows in their quiver to offer teams. Despite not having a second round pick (the asset de jour) they do have an extra picks in the first (thank you Marty), third (thank you Eric Brewer) and fourth (thank you Nate Thompson) . Couple one of those picks with one their extra forwards that are battling for playing time (Connolly, Namestikov, JT Brown) and that’s not an unattractive offer for a team that is rebuilding.

Thankfully, due to all of the work he’s put in over previous years,  it shouldn’t be a particularly stressful or interesting deadline for the team and its fans. Of course, all that means is that Mr. Yzerman is sitting in his lair plotting ways to make his future teams better.

Never forget those that have netted the Lightning picks on Deadline Day. #DownieForever (photo by Scott Audette)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Baseball is Right Around The Corner - So I bought a Pack of Cards

I am looking forward to the upcoming baseball season more so than recent years past. Which, on the surface, is kind of odd seeing how:

  1. The Orioles are more than likely to regress to a .500 team.
  2. The Cubs are going to be better thus making tickets more expensive
  3. The Lightning are poised to make a decent run in the playoffs cutting into the start of the baseball season.

Yet, here we are. In the depths of winter I am getting excited for pitchers and catchers to Florida and Arizona. Not only that I am actively putting together Topps Series One Baseball. Normally, I don't buy cards before Opening Day. And when I do buy cards I just buy a box and then collate them. This year I feel like doing it the old way. Packs om packs. And the first pack came from the unlikely source of Wal-Greens. Yup, on a quick trip to buy cat food and bandages I noticed that Wal-Greens was selling Topps fat packs. So I picked one up. How did the first pack turn out?

First Card of the Season -

Phil Hughes. The former Yankee has found a new career in Minnesota (where he just signed a four-year extension). This was also going to be my 2015 wallet card (behind the curve as always). Unfortunately, due to the stream-lined wallet The Duchess bought me last year, the card doesn't fit. So I'll have to wait for a mini-card I guess.

First Card of a Player I Didn't Recognize -

Shawn Kelley -

Six seasons in the majors? Hmm.Twelve-year old Justin G. would be disappointed that 38-year old Justin G. doesn't know everyone in the majors.  He would also be disappointed that I was writing about baseball cards and not featured on them.

First Player Pictured in a Uniform He Won't Be Wearing This Year -

Sergio Santos. Santos signed with the Dodgers as a free agent in January. Through the years I've been back and forth on the “air brush a uniform on a player”. In some cases (Orioles new acquisitions) I like it. In other cases (everyone else) I don't care for it. I'd rather the photo on the card capture an authentic, if unrecognizable, piece of history. Plus some of the airbrush jobs are horrendous.

First Card of a Hopeful Chase Hall of Famer -

Michael Taylor. The former Clearwater Thresher finally gets his long-awaited rookie card. Sometimes I forget how long it can take a player to make his way to the majors. Oh wait, it's a different Michael Taylor? Damn it.

First Baltimore Orioles Card -

Team card. It's kind of a fitting that it would a team card. The 2014 were really a sum of the parts being greater than the individuals. As the back of the card pointed out they did manage to mash 211 home runs which, along with a pretty good defense and bullpen, propelled them to 96 wins and an AL East Title.

Unfortunately, I don't think it's going to be that easy this year. Everyone around them in the AL East made significant moves to better themselves (except for the Rays, but you never know with the Rays). The Orioles big acquisitions? Wesley Wright and Travis Snider. While I like Snider as a potential sleeper pick I don't see him offsetting the losses of Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz. Throw in the weird Dan Duquette to Toronto saga and it was just an awkward off-season. So far I've kept pretty calm and trusted in DanBuck, but this season just feels like a step back. But we might have a second half of the season that features Dylan Bundy AND Kevin Gausman in the rotation and that will be fun!

First Chicago Cubs Card -

Also a team card. Happy fun card (also the last time Starlin Castro smiled in a Cubs uniform). I'm not sure where the Cubs will finish this year, but I do think they are going to be fun to watch. Who knows how their prospects are going to turn out, but there is a solid chance that within a year their infield is going to be Rizzo at first, Javier Baez at second, Starlin Castro (or Addison Russell) at short and Roy Hobbs reincarnated Kris Bryant at third. That's not bad. Oh yeah and Jorge Soler running around in the outfield.

First Insert -

Hank Aaron ar-che-types. The fact that it is Aaron helps mitigate the fact that I don't care for most of the inserts that have come to bloat the flagship series. On the surface this particular set doesn't bother me, but breaking up the word archetypes really bothers the shit out of me for some reason.

First Insert I'll offer on Ebay for a starting price of $0.99 -

Javier Baez 1st Home Run. We'll see how it goes. C'mon idealistic Cubs fans, bid away.

So for $4.99 I got 36 cards (well 35 cards and one coupon) closer to completing the series. Overall I like that that Topps is bringing some color back to their base set. After all they've done just about all they can do with the white border design over the last few years. There are too many inserts, but there are always too many inserts. Once again there are variations in the base set. I'm not as against that as most people, but it does annoy me simply because I have to go to two or three places to see if I have a base card or a variation that I'm going to trade away for nothing.

I'll still make a go at completing the set. Hopefully I'll be done sometime before the next millennium.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Lightning Card of the Week Returns! Draft Day Edition

There are certain cards out there that you have to have because they are awesome cards (1971 Topps ThurmanMunson). There are some cards that you have to have because they are iconic (1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr). And there are some that you have to have because they represent a specific moment in history.

For me, the 2011-12 Panini Rookie Anthology Draft Year Vincent Lecavalier/ David Legwand because it represents the draft that the Lightning got right and started building into a Stanley Cup winner. The fact that it has Vinny on it and two jersey swatches makes it a little bit awesome as well.

Let's talk about the 1998 draft. Heading into it, it was clear that there were two players at the top of the class and then a bunch of decent players after that (sounds familiar). Both of those players were centers (sounds familiar). There was a consensus number one pick, a franchise savior, a “Next One” if you will, but the other player was quietly gaining in popularity to the point that some think they might go first overall depending what team ended up with the overall pick (sounds familiar). One was Canadian and one was American (again, sound familiar).

So yes, there are a lot of parallels between the 1998 NHL draft and the upcoming 2015 draft. Instead of McDavid vs. Eichel we had Lecavalier vs. Legwand. Lecavalier played the part of McDavid, dominating Major Junior hockey for years leading up to the draft, while Legwand was the hard-working American kid that may be having a better year (mostly because of McDavid's injury, but hey I'm trying to build a narrative here!)

It's odd looking back now that fifteen years have passed, but there was talk that the Lightning might go with Legwand instead of Lecavalier. At the time, Legwand was actually considered the more offensively gifted of the two players by some. Now, it was quite apparent that the Lightning were all aboard the Lecavalier train, but that doesn't prevent experts from speculating.

Would things have developed differently if Art Williams had declared Legwand the “Michael Jordan” of hockey instead of Lecavalier? Would he have blossomed into the scorer under the defensively lax guidence of Jaques Demers and Steve Ludzik? Would Lecavalier developed into a solid two-way center instead of the 50-goal scorer under Barry Trotz's offense-stifling style of play?

One thing is certain – Lightning fans wouldn't have had to sit through a decade of “Lecavalier to Montreal” rumors. Talk which actually started before the Lightning had drafted him. In an April 1998 St. Pete Times article, Tim Buckley mentions that Montreal was rumored to be dangling Saku Koivu inexchange for the pick.  Joe Sakic's name was also floated around as potential trade bait.

While Sakic and Koivu never ended up in Tampa, without a couple of trades this card would look a lot different. The picks used by Tampa and Nashville were not their original first round picks. The number one pick used by the Lightning was originally held by the Florida Panthers who traded it to San Jose for Victor Kozlov. At the time the deal was made (November of 1997) the Panthers were 5-9-4 (the last column was for ties. Yes Little Jimmy in the '90s games could end in a tie). They were struggling, but not necessarily out of the playoff hunt. General Manager Bryan Murray thought Kozlov, 23-years-old at the time, would be more beneficial to the team in the short run then what he thought would be a mid-round draft pick. “Certainly we thought we'd be a playoff team and never expected the top pick, but we'll have a top player in Kozlov for many years to come” he told the Sun Sentinel after the draft order was announced.

While Kozlov never reached the upper echelons of stardom he did have some solid seasons for the Panthers topping out with 22 goals in 2002-03 before getting dealt to New Jersey in 2004. Oddly enough Kozlov has the distinction of being traded for a #1 overall pick (Lecavalier) AND a #2 overall pick as his rights were traded from Hartford to San Jose for a package that included Chris Pronger in June of 1993.

Speaking of the Sharks, they kept that first round draft pick all of four months when Lightning General Manager “Trader” Phil Esposito came a' calling. For Bryan Marchment, David Shaw and the Lightning's first round pick Espo received the Sharks first round pick and Andrei Nazarov. Marchment himself had barely unpacked in Tampa before getting shuttled off to San Jose. He had been part of a trade with Edmonton that had sent former first overall pick Roman Hamrlik to the Oilers. It was a busy year for Mr. Esposito as he managed to pull off 10 trades over the season. 

So the Lightning had the number one pick and drafted Lecavalier. So why isn't David Legwand a San Jose legend? On the day of the draft the two teams swapped positions with San Jose moving down to draft third (where they would pick up defenseman Brad Stuart and a second round pick that they used to draft Jonathon Cheechoo who would score 56 goals in 2005-06 for the Sharks, a year before Lecavalier would score 52 for the Lightning) and Nashville moving up to get their franchise center in Legwand.

All-in-all I think it ended up alright for everyone involved (maybe not Florida). Despite never developing into a scoring juggernaut Legwand had a long tenure in Nashville and still holds just about every offensive record for the team. And despite some rough going early on (and suffering the shame of having the captaincy stripped from him) Lecavalier put together a pretty decent career in Tampa before economics and nagging injuries made him a contract buyout casualty.

All three of the top picks from that year have logged more than 1,000 games in the NHL which is kind of special in itself (Kozlov ended up playing in 897 NHL games and is still kicking around in the KHL). In the last 30 years only three other drafts can boast that – the 1987, 1988 and 1997 drafts. We have a few years left to see if the 2007 and 2008 drafts can be added to the list, but the top three players in both drafts are still in the NHL so there is a chance!

One thing that began to bother me after staring at this card for the last couple of hours. Panini surely could have used better pictures/cropping. Vinny is missing part of his hand. Meanwhile they went with the LinkedIn profile practice of cropping Legwand out of a group photo – most likely this one:

They get credit for using draft year photos (and for both of them sporting the dress shirt/tie/jersey combo. However, a little more time in the Google Image search probably could have led to some better results. Despite that, still a pretty neat card to add to the Lightning collection.

Monday, January 5, 2015

It's NOT A Major Award! Mid Season Lightning Report

We’ve made it to the halfway point of the Lightning’s season and I’ve managed to write about them all of twice. But seeing how I’ve apparently only written four articles (yes I count the one at Raw Charge) since the hockey season has begun, at least the percentages are pretty good.  Really, four posts since October?  I am so sorry loyal readers (Hi Mom and Dad!).  I will resolve to write more. After all, I can’t really write less, eh? As a reward for your patience - let’s hand out some awards! Welcome to the 1st Annual Mid-Season Random Lightning Awards column.

Before we hand out the hardware let’s take a pulse on the team’s season. After 41 games they find themselves tied at the top of the Atlantic conference with Montreal. Granted the Canadiens have played in two fewer contests, but for now the only thing that matters is points and both teams have 54 of them. Which is one more than the mumps-ridden Penguins and the surprising New York Islanders.  All-in-all the Lightning are holding up to the pre-season predictions many folks had for them.

Despite my lack of writing, I have actually been following the team closer than in recent years (thank you NHL Game Center) and have even managed to get to a game or two in other cities.  Based on many, many hours of watching this team I’ve come to one conclusion - this is a fun team to watch.

As a long time Lightning fan I’ve seen teams of the past barely able to string together two successful passes, let alone any kind of coherent offensive plan, it is so delightful to watch a team that, on most nights, is decidedly better at putting the puck in the net than most of the other teams that they line up against. (Congratulations, you just made it through the first run-on sentence of 2015).

This team is an amazing team to watch on transition.  Other than the Blackhawks, I would venture that no one can switch from defense to offense more efficiently than the Bolts. And while their fondness for cross-ice passes tends to get them in trouble from time to time, when they are clicking they are one of the prettiest teams to watch play hockey. Even Link, who has spent his life watching Pittsburgh teams with the like of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, Milan Kraft and Mario Lemieux play was impressed with the Lightning’s offense.

A team has to be fun when Steven Stamkos can’t crack the top line. Almost as  fun to read/hear people wonder what’s “wrong” with Stamkos since he only has 21 goals.  Granted, his projected 42 goals would be the fewest he’s scored in an 82 games season since his rookie year, but 40+ goals is nothing to sneeze at.

Part of the reason it seems like a down year for the former Sarnia Sting Sniper (first unnecessary alliteration of the year!) is that whatever line he has been playing on has constantly been overshadowed by the Triplets. Or #ThatLine. Or #ThatTripletLine. Or the #TKOLine or #TheBestLineInHockey.  Whatever you want to call them, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV (MBNK) have simply been dominant when on the ice together.

The Russian, who bounced around on a couple of different lines to begin the season, has found a home with his fellow Syracuse alumni. They each fill a specific role: Tyler - The Creator, Ondrej - The Net Front Presence and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV - the Shooter. They are all gifted with speed and a sense of knowing where the others are on the ice as evidenced by the Kucherov fake-slapshot-pass to Johnson in the Ottawa game Sunday night.

"We're The Three Best Friends Anyone Could Have"

MBNK is third on the team in shots despite averaging almost 5 minutes less than the leader Stamkos and  3 minutes less than the second place player Johnson.  So everyone in the building and everyone watching was 100% certain that when he got the puck in the slot he was going to unload a cannon on the Ottawa goalie.  Yet, despite bringing his stick back to maximum slapshot height he managed to torque it so that he sent an ankle high pass across the ice (because that’s what they do!) to Johnson, who swiftly knocked it down and into a wide open net.

Where was Palat on the play? In front of the net screening Robin Lehner, of course.  Each has their role and they’ve each played it to perfection so far.  Which leaves their opponents with a match up question. Do you stick your best defensive players out against the Lightning’s best line (Johnson, Palat, MBNK) or against their best player (Stamkos).  Because you can throw Matt Carle and a bag of pucks on Stamkos’ line and he’s still going to score 35 goals every season. Having that option is one of the reasons the Lightning can go on the road and still keep scoring.  They are not restricted to just one line.  Heck, depending on the night the so-called 3rd line is going to either have their best offensive prospect (Jonathan Drouin) or the player with the best hands/vision on the team in Valtteri Filppula.

Throw in a defense that not only is doing better at stopping pucks from going in (12th in the league in goals against), but knows how to get it on net as well (Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison all have 14 or more assists) and things are looking bright for the second half.

But I’ve droned on enough about the team, let’s get to the awards.  So without anymore accolades or delay here are The Hopeful Chase Mid-season Awards for the Tampa Bay Lightning:

The What ‘Cha Talkin’ About Sophomore Slump Award: Tyler Johnson

He narrowly beats out fellow Calder Finalist Ondrej Palat simply because he’s been healthier. One of the questions going into the season would be how the Young Guns would perform in their second season and I think the answer is - not that bad.

The It Seemed Like it Was a Good Idea at the Time Award: Evgeni Nabakov

Look, he hasn’t been as bad as Twitter would make it seem. His goals against is under 3. During the Mike Smith-era we would have built him a statue for those kind of numbers, but if Ben Bishop is ever seriously injured I don’t think Nabokov is going to be the answer. Which leads to….

The Every Time He Goes Down I Say a Little Prayer That He Gets Back Up Award: Ben Bishop

Not something we ever, ever want to see again

The big net minder beats out Ryan Callahan by the width of an ant’s hair on this one.  Let’s face it, should Bishop break himself the options are Nabokov and rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy or Vasilevskiy and Nabokov or Vasilevskiy and other rookie Kristers Gudlevskis.  While all of those options are better than Anders Lindback I don’t want to have to test them down the stretch run.

The Shouldn’t He Suck Or Be Hurt Now That He Signed a Big Contract Award: Ryan Callahan

"Whooooa I GOTS PAID!"

Hey, Ryan Callahan has played in 36 of the 41 games so far! If he plays in 10 more games then that will be the most he’s played in a season since 2011-12. Better yet, he’s been pretty good while he’s been on the ice. Twelve goals and thirty points while mostly causing havoc in front of the net on Stamkos’ line. This is the Callahan that General Manager Yzerman was looking for when he signed him to the six-year deal this off-season.

The Maybe He Is Who We Thought He Is Award: Ben Bishop

The second award for the big guy.  There was a lot of talk at the end of last year about Bishop perhaps being a bit “lucky” or that he couldn’t sustain his play. After all the Lightning were the third team he’d played for in four seasons.  Well, it seems that if he’s riding a lucky streak it’s sustained itself for this season as well. His numbers are down a bit (2.37 GAA vs. 2.23 and .911 Save Percentage vs. .924) but it’s not like he’s fallen off of a cliff. He’s still capable of stealing a game or three and despite the occasional soft goal he’s kept the Lightning in games long enough for their offense to catch up.

The Charlie Brown You’re the Charlie Browniest Award:  Matt Carle.

Sometime this week I’m going to write a whole article about Matt Carle. I really, really do like him as a player, but man….sometimes he does boggle the mind.  Let’s play fill in the blank.   _______ fired a pass up the middle of his own zone that was picked off and led to a 2-0 against his own goalie.  _______ bounces a pass off of Radko Gudas past his own goalie from center ice.  The first name that pops into your head is Matt Carle isn’t it?  I know the second one was from last season, but still….

The Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio Award:  Radko Gudas and the Radko Gudas hipcheck

Maybe it’s a good thing.  Maybe he’s a better positional player now that he isn’t RADKO-SMASH on the ice every shift, but damn I miss a good hipcheck.*Ed Note. After writing the first draft             I've now learned that Gudas is undergoing knee surgery. Ouch. 

The Aaron Rodgers Says “RELAX” Award: Steven Stamkos/ Jonathan Drouin

A tie! I could have also called this The Setup For a Big Second Half award.  I did read
 on a YouTube video comment section that Drouin is already a bust. (Advice - don’t ever read You Tube comments. It will make you hate humanity). Stamkos is still coming back from a pretty big injury and it seems he is pacing himself at times.  Drouin, well he spent most of the season with Brian Boyle and Brandon Morrow on his line and still has 15 points. Now that he is moving up and playing with better skilled players (I think a line with him, Valtteri Filppula and Brett Connolly would make me weep with happiness) he is going to start moving up the rookie point standings.

The Next Young Forward Traded to Toronto Award: JT Brown

Following in the footsteps of Carter Ashton and Richard Panik, I see Brown as the next player dealt off simply because there isn’t a place for him on the roster. I love the energy and pace he brings when he’s in the line-up, but I just think he isn’t as talented as other forwards on the roster.  Time for the Bolts to give him a shot somewhere else.

The Hope is a Beautiful Thing Award: Andrei Vasilevskiy

I love the way the organization is handling the big Russian goalie. Getting his feet wet slowly in the NHL while making sure he still gets playing time in the AHL. One of the things I can say about this season is that I was there at his NHL debut and it looked like he had been playing for years. There was a sequence at the end of the first period against Philly wear he made two or three point blank reaction saves and wasn’t rattled at all. In fact he was in position to stop two or three more shots. This kid is going to be really, really good. As in, Mr Yzerman might play the “I Wonder What Ben Bishop Would Bring in a Trade” game this off-season.

The Man That Really Sucks Award:  CapGeek ceasing operations

On January 3rd, the most useful NHL website in the history of the internet ceased it’s operation due to owner/operator Matthew Wuest’s health issues.  I’m going to miss having that site as a resource in the off-season and during the trade deadline. Just think how many writers (both professional and blogger) have used the phrase “according to CapGeek” in a story or a Tweet.  It boggles my mind how quick and reliable Wuest’s information was and how important it was to a sport where finances matter as much as on-ice performance. If there is ever a Sports Website Hall of Fame, CapGeek and Matthew Wuest are first ballot inductees.

Welp, that wraps it up for me.  Here’s to a second half that is as much fun as the first!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tributegate - Martin St. Louis' Return To Tampa

The moment of truth is coming this Wednesday for Lightning fans. For the first time since he talked his way out of town last Spring, Marty St. Louis is playing a professional hockey game in Tampa. What will the reaction be? Will he be serenaded with boos every time he touches the puck? Will he be cheered? Will there be boos and a smattering of applause? Or will there be nothing but apathetic silence?

Chances are it will be option three.  While I’m not as emotionally invested in the saga as other fans, the fact remains that St. Louis slid his way out of town while he was captain of a playoff-bound team. The only way he could have made the exit uglier was if he kicked Joe Redner’s dog on the way out of town. It truly was a Hulk Hogan-NWO worthy heel turn.And yes I would give St. Louis $5.00 to grow a blonde handlebar mustache/5 o'clock shadow combination.

That being said he is also on the Mount Rushmore of all-time great Lightning players.  He will always have supporters in the crowd (including myself) where his past accomplishments outweigh his acrimonious exit from the organization. I’ll take a decade of exceptional/border-line hall of fame play in exchange for a forced trade that netted the Lightning a first round pick, a second round pick and a decent player in Ryan Callahan.

Fans will be fans but the more interesting aspect will be how the Lightning as an organization handle his return. If circumstances had been different, an elaborate video package would be produced chronicling his storied past with the team (and most likely fading out with the image of a bearded, scared  St. Louis raising the Stanley Cup). The Rangers produced such a package for Callahan, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman when they returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time last week.  And the Lightning put together a similar welcome for Vincent Lecavalier last season when he returned wearing the garish orange and white Flyers uniform.

Remember the good times (photo lifted from nhl.com)

However, as of press time for this post, questions still linger on if the Lightning will produce such a video. General Manager Steve Yzerman is pretty much a soulless, team-building robot (that’s a good thing!) so I’m not surprised that he isn’t going to go out of his way to welcome back a player who went out of his way to paint the organization in a negative light while demanding his trade. It is worth noting that the team celebrated the 10th anniversary of their only Stanley Cup victory a few days after St. Louis was traded and his contributions to that historic campaign were noticeably absent in the tribute video they ran during the celebration.

I don’t know Mr. Yzerman personally, but needless to say I think he’s the type of guy who knows how to hold onto a grudge. I kind of wish the Rangers were still banged up with injuries so that the skating dumpster fire that is Mike Kostka was still on their team.  I could totally see Mr. Yzerman having the team produce a 90 second video highlighting Kostka’s 19 game career with Tampa Bay and showing that instead of a tribute to St. Louis.

It wouldn’t shock me if he forbids all mention of St. Louis’ name during the game. Imagine Paul Porter announcing a New York goal, “New York goal scored by 61 Rick Nash. Assist by number 26.  Rick Nash assisted by number 26 at 14:19”. Kind of like the old NHL video games that didn’t have the rights to certain players.

There haven’t been many Lightning players that have demanded to be traded from the team. The closest example might be Brian Bradley, one of the team’s first “stars”.  Rumors of Bradley being “soft” led to some grumbling in the clubhouse about his dedication to the team and rumors that the club wanted to move him. However, he suffered an a serious concussion that would end his career before he was able to be traded.  Since then he has been welcomed back into the family and can often be seen on Lightning broadcasts.

In the overall big picture trading St. Louis was good for the team. There are the actual assets brought back in the trade. Callahan has fit in well enough to sign a long-term deal to stay in Tampa and has produced while skating on the top line with Steven Stamkos.  The draft-pick for 2014 turned into a 1st round pick when the Rangers made the Eastern Conference finals.  Mr. Yzerman then traded that pick to the Islanders for two second picks and selected defensemen Dominik Mason and Jonathan MacLeod. Still waiting to be cashed in is a 1st round pick in a stacked 2015 draft.

It has also opened up ice time for some of the younger players.  Ondrej Palat and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV (his official name from here on out) in particular have flourished with the playing time afforded by the former captain’s departure.  The Lightning offense hasn’t exactly stalled without the diminutive forward.  St. Louis has 17 points coming into the game on Wednesday.  That would put him fifth on the Lightning behind Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Valterri Filppula and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV.  It would also put him one point ahead of his trade partner Callahan.

Why yes, I do now own a MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV jersey.

Speaking of Marty St. Louis scoring points. He’s scored a lot of them in his career. Nine-hundred and ninety-eight of them to be exact. Which means there is an outside chance that he could record his 1000th point AGAINST Tampa Bay. Which would only be slightly awkward. Imagine reaching a career milestone while boos rain down on the ice like jerseys at an Oilers game.

I really hope it doesn’t happen.  First and foremost because it would mean that the Rangers have scored at least two goals and no one wants that to happen. Secondly, I think if the fans do boo him for accomplishing such a milestone in a different uniform it would be something that wouldn’t age well.  As we know, time heals all wounds and ninety-nine times out of a hundred fans will forgive a player eventually, no matter how ugly the exit was. Remember that he did score 953 of those points in a Lightning uniform.

A decade from now, when St. Louis is inducted into the Hall of Fame wouldn’t it be nice if the media could play a video clip of him recording his 1000th point and not have to edit out the sound of 19,000 people booing? Respect the accomplishment, if not the man doing it. Kind of like the Yankee fan begrudgingly cheering for Billy Chapel’s perfect game in “For the Love of the Game”.

It would be a little petty for the Lightning as an organization to not show a video. Hilarious, but petty. They should just man up and put a tribute together, potential booing be damned.  Besides it would provide a closure point for all of the animosity. The fans can finally direct all of their discord directly at him and then move on. The healing/welcoming back process can finally begin in earnest.

Friday, October 31, 2014

An Open Letter To Joe Maddon

Dear Joe,

Welcome to Chicago! Ever since you opted out of your contract with the Rays, rumors have run rampant that next year would be sitting on the bench in Wrigley come next spring.  Even though it hasn’t been confirmed yet, seeing how Rick Renteria is now looking for employment, it looks like those rumors are actually coming to fruition.

So I figured I’d take this chance to reach out to you, one former Tampa Bay-area resident to another, to let you know a little about your new city. Things are going to be different, way, way different now that you’re coming to the Midwest. For instance, no more “Florida residents are so weird” jokes from the late night comedians. Instead you get, “Chicago politicians are so corrupt” jokes!

You're going to need that hoodie, and a hat, and some gloves, maybe a scarf, too.

Let us get the main issue out of the way first - the weather.  Dont' forget to pack your favorite hoodie. Yeah, winters in Chicago are a bit brutal.  As a matter of fact, as I type this, it is, in fact snowing outside.  The good news is that except for April, possibly a few weeks in May, ok maybe a day or so in June, the weather is pretty sweet during the summer.  Dining al freso at a local farm-to-table restaurant, enjoying a nice glass of wine after a day game victory against the Reds on a perfect July 72 degree night is one of the underappreciated joys of living in this town.  Not something you can really do in the middle of a sweltering St. Pete summer.

Speaking of weather - how about getting a chance to manage 81 games in Wrigley Field?  Kind of an upgrade from “The Pit”, huh?  (I’m kind of bummed your nickname for Tropicana Field never caught on).  Sure the friendly confines are a bit of a mess right now with the first phase of renovations going on, but trust me, watching baseball in one of the true historic fields in the league. You appreciate the fact that it is a true neighborhood park (even if the neighbors get a bit grumpy from time to time).

As far as the neighborhood itself, it is quite different than St. Pete.  While there is no Fergs to enjoy pre-game there are plenty of other options.  I’ve read that before your wife introduced you to the wine world you were a bit of a beer and whiskey guy.  Well welcome to Beer and Whiskey town!  On those nights that Castro boots an easy ground ball and costs you a game skip all of those bro-joints right around Wrigley and join me a couple of blocks south at a couple of true dives.

Just pop into Monsignor Murphey’s and put the first round on my buddy Dan’s tab…I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t even notice. Plus you can get a Flubby special from downstairs.  With Hot Doug’s (RIP) out of business, it’s better to go with the regular Chicago style dog than a gourmet encased meat dog. Just don’t put ketchup on it.  Some guy might lose an election because he made that mistake.

If you are looking for places with a bit of a better wine list we have that covered as well. Personally I’m a fan of the Purple Pig downtown.  Great wine, food is pretty good.  If you’re looking for steak, Del Frisco’s has you covered as well.  I understand they’re saving a very special bottle of wine for that moment you’ve been brought into town for - winning a World Series (no pressure, though). If you’re looking for something more “Chicago” then Gene & Georgetti has that old-school, rat-pack vibe to it.

Kudos to you for not backing out of the Italian restaurant you’re opening in Tampa. Nothing says sound investment like a restaurant! If you need menu ideas you are in luck because every other restaurant that’s opening in this city is an Italian joint.  While I haven’t had a chance to sample them all I can say that we have everything that you could need from family-owned neighborhood joint (Volare) to sports-celebrity-themed (Harry Carry’s) to super fancy (Spiaggia). And don’t forget about Eataly - the downtown temple that worships all things Italian.

We might be losing a Michelin-starred restaurant in L2O, but there is still plenty of fine dining options around.  If you put your name in now, you might get a reservation for Alinea by the time the season starts. Top Chef alums Fabio Viviani and Stephanie Izzard run pretty popular restaurants while Rick Bayless has built an empire of Mexican eateries downtown.

With the restaurant and your ties to the Tampa community I’m not sure if you’re looking to permanently relocate up here (state taxes are a bitch). If you do I hear there is some property available.  Johnny Toews has a sweet bachelor pad he’s looking to unload on the Gold Coast. If you want something a little more historic, a little fixer up that used to house Al Capone is looking for a buyer as well.  You might even be able to talk them down from their asking point.

Hipster Joe Maddon 
I know you like to bike so you might be tempted to buy a place in Wicker Park/ Bucktown and hang out with the rest of those kids.  While the greatest pizza place in the city is there (Piece) I don’t think you’ll like it.  First off - not enough tattoos, second - it looks like your bike has gears.  Not cool, man. Plus there is a 67% chance you’ll be run over by an enraged driver on Milwaukee Ave.

Lakeview wouldn’t be bad for you.  Walking distance to work, close to the lakefront trail and excellent dining options. You like your diners and Broadway has plenty of them. Melrose Diner, Stella’s, The Bagel and Yolk are all in the neighborhood.  All of them are nice places to grab a bite to eat on the way to the park.

But, hey, if you’re in town for a few years, feel free to move around and try a couple of different neighborhoods. The transit system is pretty great (when people aren’t getting attacked by machetes) and despite the occasional delay gets you from one part of the city to another in a quick fashion. I even have an extra Ventra card laying about that you can have (saves you the $5.00 sign up fee!)

As for your actual job, let me warn you, expectations are going to be a bit higher for you. While Chicago sports fans aren’t as insane as New York fans they are a bit more loyal than your typical Florida sports fan. For one thing, they pretty much all grew up here. Luckily there are approximately 164 professional sports teams in this city (165 if you include the MLS) so some of the loyalties are a bit divided.

 If you can keep the Cubs competitive from May to September you should be fine.  After that attention starts to drift to the Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks. The press is a bit more jaded than what you’re used to dealing with down south, but what would you expect if you had to cover a team that hasn’t won since Roosevelt was in office? And if you do struggle, at least the White Sox fans will like you more than whoever is coaching their team.

Your are coming into a pretty good situation. There is some considerable young talent on the team. Although it might be a bit odd for you to have young offensive talent as opposed to young pitching talent.  Pitching is a bit thin in the prospect department, but guest what - you have an ownership group that can actually spend money on high end free agents.  No more dumpster diving for players like James Loney and Roberto Hernandez!

See, they weren't always at odds with each other!

Remember how much fun you had with BJ Upton and his occasional “lack of hustle” and “mental breakdowns”? Luckily for you Starlin Castro is still a Cub.  You’ll get to bench him at least once or twice this season for not running out a ground ball or forgetting how many outs there are in an inning.  That way you can earn some street cred with the press while still being a friend to the players.

Of course, there is the outside chance that Castro is moved to some other team this off-season to help out with the pitching situation.  If that happens, Javy Baez can step in. Don’t be worried about his strike-outs.  The kid hits wherever he goes. He’ll figure it out.  Jorge Soler has the best bat speed I’ve seen since a kid named Sheffield.  Not a bid duo to build a playoff team around - and we haven’t even mentioned Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo yet.

You’ve already done what a lot of people didn’t think was possible - take a team that was a laughing stock because they had never won anything in the Tampa Bay Rays and make them respectable. Now you get to take a team that is a laughingstock because they are the Cubs and hopefully make them respectable as well.  Good luck with that.

See you at the Convention in January.

Good Luck,

Justin G.

P.S. It’s tradition that when you move to Chicago you crash on someone’s couch for 3-6 months.  If you need a couch to crash on, just hit me up.

P.P.S - If you could hook me up with tickets for the Foo Fighters when they play Wrigley this summer, that would be great!