Friday, April 24, 2015

A Quick Post on The Plight of The Second Shift Hockey Fan

This is not going to be a stat-driven,deep-dive review of the series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings.  As much as I would love to say that I’ve watched every minute of every game, I can’t.  As a matter of fact, with the exception of Game 3 and a period and a ½ of Game 2, all I’ve seen are highlights and quick recaps.  I have one of the greatest jobs in the world, but the hours aren’t conducive to playoff hockey.

That being said, I have been following the series as best as I can from a 1,000 miles away and without TV access during the games. However, I do feel a bit of a disconnect with other fans.  And, quite frankly, it sucks.  I watched Game 3 at Hattricks in Tampa and for the first time in a year remembered what it was like to watch a game with fellow fans. The Stanley Cup run of 2004 (normal working hours) and the Eastern Conference run of 2011 (unemployed) are the top two sports moments of my life.  Despite their struggles early on, this team has a bit of that feel to it and it pisses me off that I can’t enjoy it real time.

Standing at a computer and hitting refresh every five minutes on ESPN’s score page is no way to watch a playoff hockey game. Neither is coming up with excuses to wander by the bar every 10 minutes to watch 30 seconds of action.

Granted, on a list of life’s burdens this ranks somewhere between Southwest’s internet not working and a FitBit not syncing with an iPhone (two real-life complaints I’ve heard in the last week) so this entire post should be taken with the correct amount perspective. But fellow sports fans, I’m sure you feel my pain.

Yet, even though the information provided is stripped down minimum, I still get caught up with the ebbs and flows of the action.  I hit refresh and it’s 0-0 with 10 minutes to go in the first and I feel confident. I hit refresh and it’s 1-0 Bad Guys in the second and I’m worried. One more refresh and it’s 2-0 Bad Guys and a sense of despondency sets in.  After dealing with a minor crisis I hit refresh and it’s still 2-0 with 10 minutes to go in the game and anger sets in. How could this team blow it like this. They’re getting punked by a goalie who’s not even good enough to have the right amount of vowels in his last name.

So I’m a little bitter at this point and the beginnings of a horrible, not so nice post are starting to spin around in my brain while I’m working (I’m putting labels on things so not much brain power is being directed to actual work operations). I’m ready to take Ben Bishop to task, Steven Stamkos to task, Coach Cooper - in short everybody is getting blamed for this debacle.

I'm not saying it's ALL your fault, Steven, but can we see you celebrate at least one goal this series?

Then I hit refresh. It’s now 2-1 Bad Guys.  Tyler Johnson, that undrafted, unwanted dynamo of scoring has breathed life into the game. What’s that? Is that a little bit of hope growing in my brain? I spy a dirty glass in the lobby. Why surely that must be returned to the bar from whence it came post-haste. I cannot have it sullying my pristine lobby for even a moment.  Why lucky me they have the Lightning game on and they are showing a replay of a Lightning goal.

But that’s not Tyler Johnson raising his hands in celebration it’s his partner in crime Ondrej Palat.  Could it be? No…YES! The Lightning have tied the ballgame up and we’re going to overtime.  With an inappropriate woo-hoo I head back to my desk to refresh away. After about 26 refreshes I get the good news: Tyler Johnson, That Magnificent Bastard, scored in overtime to tie the series, excite fan base and swing the momentum to the home ice bound Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Why Tyler Johnnie! You Mad Cap!" #BadPhotoShop #GreatMovie

Remember all that bad stuff I was going to write? Flush that down the toilet. A new narrative is to be written. The plucky favorites overcoming a hot goaltender and suffocating defense (and horrible special teams) to grasp victory from defeat and disgrace.

I return to my labeling with a renewed hope for the series and the realization that I will be able to watch Game 5 in it’s entirety (something that I have not clued the Duchess in on yet) with a sense of hope not despair.  The Wings will be reeling with the knowledge that they let the series slip through their fingers while the Lightning know that they played their worst game but survived.  Who knows maybe a magical, fire breathing unicorn will assist on a Steven Stamkos power play goal in Game 5!

Would I have liked to watch it live? Of course. Would I have woken the Duchess and the cats up with a wild, barbaric yelp of joy? You Betcha!  Would I have recorded myself watching the game so that I could send it in to in hopes that they would post #MyPlayoffMoments?  Hell no. However, I will take the win, no matter how I found out about it.

We live in an amazing  age of technology. Thirty years ago I would have waited for the news or a score break during the baseball game to find out who won. Heck, living in Chicago I probably wouldn’t even be a Lightning fan.  So I shouldn’t complain that I have to wait a day or so to actually watch the game, after all my life choices landed me in Chicago. But still…if you’re reading this boss man, could you maybe take a look at the upcoming NHL schedule before creating MY work schedule. You know, maybe a couple of early days when the Lightning play?  That would be cool.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What Happens When A Blogger Gets Stuck in Traffic Near a Ballpark

On Monday night I found my self stuck in traffic on US-19 in my old stomping grounds of Clearwater, FL.  I noticed that the lights were on at the stadium where the Clearwater Threshers, the Single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Philllies, play.  So instead of hanging a left back to Tampa and sitting in more traffic, I hung a right and pulled into the parking lot.

It had been a cloudy, rainy day in Tampa (which is doing nothing for my tan) so it wasn’t a 100% lock that the game would be played. Things were clearing up, but just to be safe I splurged for the highest end ticket that promised me a little bit of an overhang and, thus, protection from any rain.  The cost for the ticket - $13.  Gotta love minor league ball.

The ticket was $3.00 more than normal because I opted in for the “Feeding Frenzy” upgrade. All you can eat burgers, hot dogs, fries, pizza, peanuts and popcorn.  My friends, this is why America is the greatest country in the world.

I was planning on live-tweeting the game, just because I was alone and felt like being annoying. Unfortunately, my phone chose not to cooperate and ran out of battery life just after I snapped one photo of the ballpark.

You can see the photos of the other stuff I did on Instagram @TorchRamrod

Lucky for you, my loyal readers (Mom, Dad hope things are well for you) I did jot down my thoughts and will now present them to you, along with some extra information I’ve looked up since them.  So instead of a live-Tweet I give you a Twitter Reenactment of my thoughts during the Clearwater Thresher/ Tampa Yankees baseball game:

 - Pre-game music is a mix of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The Threshers audio guy is really catering to his demographic.

- If there are 500 people here I would be surprised. Pretty sure everyone gets a foul ball tonight.

- The Threshers lead-off hitter is Drew Stankiewicz. There is no way in hell he’s not related to former Yankee Andy Stankiewicz. (He is Andy’s son.  I now feel extremely old).

- Not to be outdone, the Yankees are starting someone named Rookie Davis. That sounds like a name the computer generates five seasons into dynasty mode on Maddon 2013.

- Speaking of Yankees, the kid in front of me has a Yankees T-Shirt and thick gold chain. They had to have come as a set, right?

- All you can eat night at the ballpark isn’t quite the value when you’ve given up meat for a year.  I guess I’ll take the peanuts…all of the peanuts.

- It’s Bingo Night at the Ballpark. Every time a Thresher comes up to hit they flash a bingo ball on the screen. If you get bingo then you win free bingo cards at some bingo parlor (1/3)

- The balls are white with yellow writing…shown on a pale yellow background. Not a great set up, guys. Which leads to… (2.3)

- the lady three seats down constantly asking which number it is.  “Is that a 53 or 56? Harold, I can’t see it”. For four innings the same thing EVERY AT BAT! Harold is either deaf or a saint.

- Rookie Davis (the Single-A rookie) is hitting 95 on the gun. Smooth wind-up. He’s officially my Michael Taylor Single A guy who looks like he’s going to be a good major league player but won’t.

- None of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects are at this game. None of his top 10 prospects for either organization are at this game. Ten years from now Justin won’t be able to say, “I saw that kid before he was a star”

- Threshers starter David Whitehead gets into some trouble in the second allowing to hitters to reach with no outs. He promptly strikes out the side. The Yankees have three hitters that have struck out a third of their at-bats so far on the season. Two of them struck out this inning.

- Whitehead is a sinker-baller who tops out at 91mph. If he gets it down he’s effective. If he leaves it up, not so much.  Some loud foul balls so far.

- Wind is gusting in from right. No balls leaving the yard in that direction tonight.

- Devin Lohman jaws at the home plate umpire after getting called out on strikes. When you’re hitting .179 in the A League you don’t get to criticize the umpire, kid.

- Do players still call umpires “Blue” now that the umps are wearing black shirts on a regular basis?

- Davis is mixing an 82 mph overhand curve with his fastball.  The Threshers look a little overmatched.

- Thresher’s Mitch Walding’s walk-up music is “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue. That song was released in 1985. Walding was born in 1992.

- I recognize exactly zero other walk-up songs.

- Hey Rob Ducey is on the Threshers coaching staff! I remember him.

- First run scored by the Yankees when the Thresher’s catcher airmails a throw to 3rd on a stolen base attempt.  Hey I’ve done that before!

- Yankee’s 4th run scores when a wild pitch gets past the Threshers’ catcher. Not having the best night, because he’s also getting the hell beat out of him with pitches in the dirt.

- The wheels have officially come off for Threshers in the 6th. They give up 4 runs and are now down 8-0. The inning could have ended early if the 3rd baseman hadn’t whiffed on a potential double play ground ball.

- I think that foul ball just hit my rental car.

- Props to the sound guy for mixing up the foul ball sound effects.  A SPROING noise for balls bouncing off the net, crashing sound for balls off the fa├žade and a screeching tire for balls hit into the parking lot.

- Davis has given up 4 hits through 5 2/3 innings pitched and struck out 7. Three of those hits are from Willans Astudillo.  Promote that kid.

- Davis’ night is done in the sixth. He leaves with two outs, runners at the corners, up 8-0 and the next three hitters are a combined 0-7 with three strikeouts against him.  Hey coach maybe leave him in to see if he can close out the inning.

- Chad Taylor, his replacement, closes out the inning with a fly ball out to centerfield.

- 7th inning! Where did the pitch speed go?  And where are the sound effects?  I bet the same guy runs both and he’s on a bathroom break.

- and now it’s 12-0 Yankees.  Not a great day for the Threshers’ pitching staff. Or their defense.  Or their hitters.

- Kind of a hard luck inning for reliever Lino Martinez. An error by the 3rd baseman and a passed ball hurt him. He makes a great 2 strike pitch to Matt Snyder and Snyder cue balls it down the third base line for a double and 2 RBIs.

- The home team is losing 12-0 and there is a fan with a Cubs shirt on. It’s like I’m back in Wrigley!

My back started to get sore and I had enough peanuts to feed an elephant army so I decided to call it a night. According to the paper the Threshers did not mount a historic comeback and lost 12-1.  So I don’t really feel bad for leaving. Plus I got to listen to the Penguins lose Game 3 on the ride home!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Post Season Prediction Time!

Playoff Beard Circa 2010-11
The sun is out. The long johns are back in storage. I’m growing a beard. That can mean only one thing.  PLAYOFF HOCKEY!  That’s right! It’s the best time of the year (other than Christmas -Christmas is the best). For the second straight year there is late April action in Hockey Bay, USA.

After a record-setting regular season campaign, the Lightning find themselves with home ice advantage against the Detroit Red Wings, a match-up that everyone was quick to dub The Yzerman Bowl. Oddly enough, for the first time all year, Mr. Yzerman has almost no control over what happens.  The rosters are set. He can’t pull off any more trades, sign any free agents, or tinker with the roster at all.  He can only sit high in the press box and scowl down at the ice. Luckily he’s pretty good at scowling.

Not a scowl, but c'mon how could I not post this picture? (Photo from

It’s understandable why the focus is on Mr. Yzerman. After all, he did have a Hall-of-Fame career with the Red Wings, learned the GM trade at the foot of Detroit General Manager Ken Holland and built the Lightning in the model of the Wings.  Besides what else are we going to focus on? Drew Miller going against his old team?

How do I feel two days away from game one?  Kind of excited. This should be an entertaining match-up between two teams with skill. I think the Bolts match-up pretty well against the Red Wings, but then again I thought they matched up well against the Canadiens last year and that didn’t turn out so well.

Detroit is a good, but not great team with a bit of a goalie problem and some aging stars. If the Lightning can generate turnovers (something they failed to do against Montreal last year) I‘m cautiously optimistic that they can take the series.  Detroit is a team that doesn’t make many mistakes so the Lightning will have to take advantage when they can.

While this is the first playoff match-up against the two franchises, a lot of the players that will be taking the ice have played against each other with a championship on the line. In 2013, the Syracuse Crunch (AHL affiliate of the Lightning) lost to the Grand Rapid Giffins (AHL affiliate of the Red Wings) in the Calder Cup finals.  Six current members of the Lightning roster (Andrej Sustr, Mark Barberio, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Vlad Namestnikov, JT Brown) and nine current members of the Red Wings  (Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Landon Ferraro, Luke Glendening, Danny Dekeyser, Petr Mrazek) played in that series.

See what I mean about Mr. Yzerman copying the Red Wings philosophy? Draft well and develop your in-house talent.  I don’t have the time or inclination to see if two franchises have ever had that many players meet in a Calder Cup series and a NHL playoff series, but to me it seems highly unlikely.  Hopefully the TampaCuse boys can exact some revenge against the team that beat them two years ago.

As I was doing that research I was kind of surprised that many young players skated on the Red Wings roster. To me the Red Wings were an aging franchise relying on offense from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and questionable hits from Niklas Kronwall.  Shows you how much of the Red Wings I’ve watched this year, eh?  I’ll blame that on my work schedule.

The biggest question mark for the Red Wings is going to be in the net.  After riding out the end of the season immersed in a goaltending battle with incumbent Jimmy Howard, Mrazek emerged as the starter. He finished the season with a 35-save shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes and in his last start against the Lightning on March 28th he turned away all 23 shots he faced in the Wings only win against Tampa.  So he should have some confidence going into the series.

As for the Lightning, the status of the defense is going to keep Coach Cooper up at night. The good news is that it looks like at least two of the injured blue liners will be ready to go for Game 1. Braydon Coburn has been participating fully in practice this week while Andrej Sustr, despite wearing the red no-contact jersey in practice, is hopeful that he’ll be ready by Thursday. Unfortunately, Jason Garrison (who doesn’t have as much playoff experience as I thought - only 8 games) probably won’t return until the middle of the series at the earliest.

Detroit will be looking to exploit the lack of experience on Tampa’s defense with a viscous forecheck. Their offense, like the Lightning, is based on creating offensive chances off of turnovers.  I would expect them to pressure the defense of the Lightning and hope to force them into mistakes.  It will be imperative that Tampa’s forwards don’t break out of the zone to early leaving their teammates without multiple passing options (expect Bobby Taylor to talk about “gap control” at least 156 times during the series….I’m going to miss The Chief).

The other storyline for the Lightning is going to be Ben Bishop’s lack of experience in the playoffs. In fact, people have been talking about that for at least two months now. To me, it’s not that big of a deal.  After all, every goalie that’s ever played in the playoffs has had a “lack of experience” until he’s played his first game. Critics said that Bishop would struggle as a number one goalie because he didn’t have that experience either, and things turned out pretty ok in that regard.  I believe that good goalies will be good no matter their background. If games played in the postseason mattered, the one goalie in this series with actual playoff experience (Jimmy Howard) would be starting.  Bishop will be just fine.

Having Ben Bishop between the pipes is one of the big reasons I’m cautiously optimistic instead of cautiously pessimistic. He managed to make it through the end of the season without hurting himself diving needlessly after a puck. However, he isn’t the only one that’s healthier this time around in the post-season.

Last year, Ondrej Palat played in 3 of the 4 games, but he wasn’t the same Palat that garnered rookie of the year votes. Valtteri Filppula was also banged up a bit. Having those two players at near full strength does so much to round out the roster. Filppula might have the best hands on the team (although Jo Drouin is rising to the challenge) and his ability to set up his teammates gives the Lightning a 3rd line that is just as dangerous as the top two.

While the Triplets have been successful when Palat has missed time this year, they are simply deadly when he is healthy. Despite having all-world goal-scorer Steven Stamkos on the roster, they are the top line on the Lightning. As they go, so does the team.

Special teams will be an interesting sub plot. The Lightning have stumbled around with the extra man all year finishing 14th in the league. For whatever reason (cough..cough.. trouble getting the puck in the zone) they struggle despite the offensive talent they have. The Red Wings, not so much, as they have cruised to a robust 23% success rate with the man advantage.

While less penalties are called in the playoffs it means that each power play has a little more importance. The Lightning have to find a way to at least generate chances when they have the opportunity. I think that the series will be won based on 5-on-5 play (and overtime), but if the Lightning waste their power play chances it could come back to haunt them.

Will any former Tampa Bay Lightning members come back to haunt them in this series?  There are two possibilities - Drew Miller and Kyle Quincy.  Miller is a defensive forward who played with the Lightning for 14 games in 2009-10. He isn’t on the ice to score goals, which, based on last season’s playoffs means he is going to score 4 times against the Lightning (see Weise, Dale)

Wait, you say, Kyle Quincey? He never wore the uniform.  That’s true, but for the briefest of moments he was a member of the Lightning.  Back in 2012 the Lightning weren’t very good. They did have a couple of bright spots. One of them was a hellion on skates named Steve Downie. The Lightning, wanting young Downie to be a success traded him to the Colorado Avalanche for Kyle Quincey. Mr. Yzerman, knowing his old team needed some help on defense, quickly swapped Quincy for a first round pick and something called a Sebastien Piche.  With that first round pick Mr. Yzerman selected a young goaltender from Tyumen, Russia with a pain-in-the-ass name to spell. That man will be backing up Ben Bishop - Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Was this digression included so that I could post a photo of Downie? You betcha! (Photo from

That moment in Lightning history is brought to you by the good folks at Argo Tea.  Argo Tea - where bloggers blog and old people argue about the Super Flu (seriously, as I type this four old people behind me are almost ready to fight each other about the flu. I’m scared to turn around)

Quincey has been a steady defensemen for  the Wings averaging about 19 minutes per game and chipping in 18 points this season. While his work won’t show up on the score sheet he will be instrumental in shutting down the Lightning attack. If he can disrupt the passing lanes (the Lightning do love them some cross-ice passes) then their offense will stall and things will get dicey.

After all of this typing what do I think is going to happen?  The high-power offense sputters a bit, but the Triplets end up being too much for the Wings. I say the Lightning win in six games. I’m apparently not alone in predicting a Lightning win, which kind of makes me nervous.  But sometimes you just have to believe that the best team will win.


Top Goal Scorer - Stamkos
Top Point Getter - Johnson
Number of OT games - 2
Games I watch in Real Time - 2
Most Penalty Minutes - Mark Barberio
Dumbest Penalty - Nikita Kucherov
Odd Man Rushes for Detroit - 6
Goals off Odd Man Rushes - 2

Bonus Prediction - there will be no picture as great as this picture.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Lightning Beat Up on the Blueline

The Tampa Bay Lightning have two games left in their season. As the season grinds to a close they have an outside chance of cracking the 50-win barrier for the first time in franchise history.  They also have a chance at cracking the 50 defensemen used barrier. At one point, around the time that it was announced that Andrej Sustr was hurt, I made a Twitter joke about the Bolts needing to look up Sergei Gusev to see if wanted some ice time. I was 90% joking, 10% serious.

In their last game, a 4-0 victory over the Florida Panthers, rookie Nikita Nesterov logged 21 minutes of ice time. Fellow rookie Luke Witkowski was on the ice for 15 minutes and uber-rookie Slater Koekkoek skated for 16. For a team fighting for the overall number one seed in the Eastern Conference that asking a lot out players with a combined 41 NHL games played. It’s also not sustainable.

Currently Victor Hedman, Jason Garrison, dark horse team-MVP candidate Andrej Sustr and deadline pick-up Brayden Coburn are all currently on the sidelines with various injuries (deadlocked at 2 upper body injuries and 2 lower body injuries). While the forwards have battled through some injuries as well (Alex Killorn is the latest member of the walking wounded) it’s the blue line that has suffered the most this season.

There was a concerted effort in the off-season to buoy the defense corps, mostly based on the fact that last year they had to trade for Michael Kostka in order to have enough defensemen on the roster.. It was a good thing that General Manager Steve Yzerman worked quickly to trade for Garrison and then back the free agent truck up to Anton Stralman’s house. The new imports haven’t necessarily turned the team into a clone of the mid-90s New Jersey Devils teams  and shut other team‘s offenses down (the team’s goals against this season is 2.51 as compared to 2.55 last season), but they have provided a bit of stability in front of the net.

Stralman is one of those defensemen that excels at both the old-fashioned “eye test” but also has the backing of the statistics crowd. He never displays panic when he has the puck and always seems to make the right pass.  When he is on the ice good things tend to happen - good things like more shots by the Lightning as evidenced by his 52.8 CF% (I think I did that right.  I’m still getting used to these advanced stats.)

Heading into the playoffs the Lightning will most likely get at least two of their big guns back.’s Bryan Burns reported that Coburn skated with the team (although in a red no-contact jersey) and Hedman participated fully in the practice. It bodes well that he will join the team for at least one of the last two games while Coburn is shooting for the first playoff game.

Having Hedman back will be instrumental in the team’s success in the post-season. It’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy this year as he was putting together a season that would have had him in the Norris Trophy conversation. Over the last two seasons the big Swede has shown the talent that made him a top draft pick in 2009.

Hedman’s return will most likely mean that Koekkoek will find himself back in Syracuse for their playoff run. The former number one draft pick acquitted himself fairly well during his two games with the big club. There were moments where you could see his potential, especially when he got the puck in open ice and was able to use his skating skill to weave past opponents in the neutral zone. There were also times when he looked a little lost on the ice.

In all likelihood he will spend next season in  Syracuse since this is his first season of professional hockey.  The Lightning have six other defensemen already under contract with Sustr and Mark Barberio likely to have their restricted free agent options picked up by the club (and I would expect Sustr to turn his excellent play into a longer term deal). Koekkoek could use a little more experience in the AHL and will probably play the Witkowski role of first call up should injuries occur.

Compared to where the team stood last season (Ben Bishop hurt, Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Filppula banged up) the Lightning aren’t in that bad of shape.  Hedman and Coburn coming back will be a big boost and allow Coach Cooper to control the minutes of his younger players.  With home ice advantage locked up for the first round he’ll also be able to control the match ups.  

At this point should the Lightning even rush their injured players back? While it would be nice to be able to hand an Atlantic Division banner from the rafters, in the long run it doesn’t really matter that much. They have wrapped up home ice advantage in the first round which is the most important thing, but it’s not like they can dictate getting an easier opponent by winning the division. Most likely they will be facing Detroit, but there is also the chance that they will play the Bruins, the Penguins or even the Washington Capitals. Nothing is going to be sorted until the last day, so it would be better to rest the players an extra week then bring them back too soon and risk them re-injuring their upper or lower bodies.

 The good news for Lightning fans is that the team’s philosophy isn’t affected by who they play;  Coach Cooper and his staff believe that the Lightning, when healthy and clicking on all cylinders, can dictate their style of play no matter who is on the other side of the puck.

Hopefully whoever they play, they will play them with a full roster and Mr. Gusev can watch from his couch in Yekaterinburg.

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.