Have you asked yourself this offseason what, pray tell, the Tampa Bay Lightning are doing? I sure have. Forget for a moment the scent of irregularity that surrounds their new ownership group. And forget about hiring the coach who's been doing TV for the past decade-plus.
I'm thinking about their philosophy for building their team. Defense seems to have been forgotten; goaltending is an unproven gamble; money is stashed in some interesting areas. As I recall, offense was not why they finished 30th overall last year, yet they spent the summer throwing around money and term (seven years to Ryan Malone?!) around at forwards and ... offensive defensemen.
Honestly, if the Lightning do well, I think it's good for the league. It's a good market that shows up for its team, and Barry Melrose is a character who even casual, SportsCenter-watching Americans know. If he comes off looking good, feeling cocky, dropping silly or blunt quotes, it would be the kind of attention the league needs south of the border. Plus, any team that excels on the basis of offense-first will be a marketer/televiser's dream.
But I'm not sold on The Plan, such as it is.
Admittedly, when it comes to team-building, I'd trend toward the conservative, asset-accumulation model. I'd stockpile my younger assets (check) and be wary of the free-agent route to instant gratification. I'd be frightened by the exchange rate-aided rise in the salary cap (i.e. NHL revenues) and would choose very carefully before committing 2008-cap-level cash on several future years of: a) a power forward (Malone) who took a long time to peak and is likely to decline by the second half of his deal; b) a young offensive defenseman whose defense, reportedly, leaves much to be desired when not paired with Zdeno the Giant.
Not to mention shafting defensive leader Dan Boyle and replacing him with the hardly equivalent Matt Carle, plus the gratuitous addition of Gary Roberts, who appeared last season -- particularly in the playoffs -- to be running on Angry Veteran Fumes.
It's not just that Andrei Mezsaros is a somewhat questionable (if consistent) commodity; it's that the Lightning don't appear to have the kind of partner -- like Chara -- who can bring out his max value. It's not that Mezsaros is now overpaid for his potential contribution, it's that the Lightning handed him max value when he was still in his cost-conrolled, RFA years. I understand that is arguably the trend these days -- but it should only be a tactic for hanging on to your can't-lose assets (Vincent Lacavalier, Alex Ovechkin, etc.). If you're tossing away your leverage for third-year non-star RFAs, what category of player (who matters) will you ever have contract leverage over?
In goal -- and I cannot believe how any contender wannabe would scrimp on this position (yet there, too, are the Sens) -- the Lightning have Olaf Kolzig, whose career has become a Greek tragedy: all those great years loyally wasted on a subpar team, and now that the Caps are good, last season he could no longer carry them. More importantly they have Mike Smith, who is a defensible gamble -- but unproven! And should Smith falter, they have to rely on Kolzig, because they don't have the cap room to acquire someone like Nikolai Khabibulin. And of course, it was the abject neglect of this position, letting the Bulin Wall walk, that originally spiraled them from Cup winners into last season's mess.
Naturally, I may be wrong (Their season will be entertaining either way). Maybe Smith is the real deal, Mazseros just needs a stable partner, Malone continues to grow, Carle rises to a new level, and Melrose defies the critics who think he is not prepared to coach the 21st-century game. In a way, I kind of hope I am wrong.
But if I were a Lightning fan, I wouldn't bank on it.