Free Agency: As it turned out, the Lightning’s decision to open up several million dollars in cap space served them well when the free agency signing period began on July 1. The trades of Teddy Purcell, Sam Gagner, B.J. Crombeen and Nate Thompson not only created potential roster spots for some of the up-and-coming young forwards in the organization, they also allowed the Bolts to sign three free agents.
In adding those three players – defenseman Anton Stralman, center Brian Boyle and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov – the Lightning addressed three specific needs. Stralman, who entered the league with Toronto in 2007 as an offensive defenseman, has become a more solid defensive player. He has recorded a combined plus 32 rating over the past three seasons with the New York Rangers. He figures to slot in as one of Tampa Bay’s top four defenseman. He’s also a righty, which helps round out the Bolts’ projected eight-man blue line corps (Radko Gudas and Andrej Sustr are the other righties on “D”).
Boyle essentially replaces Nate Thompson as one of the bottom-six centers. At 6’7”, he’s big and plays a physical game. His addition is another example of how the Lightning are becoming a more difficult team to face. Boyle will be an asset on the penalty kill and is capable of adding some offense.
Nabokov will give the Bolts solid goaltending when Ben Bishop isn’t in net. As GM Steve Yzerman stated after the signing, the Lightning felt Nabokov was the best back-up option available. He’s been the Islanders’ number one goalie during the past three seasons, playing more than 40 games in each of those years. He is still performing at a high level.
So on paper, the Lightning seem poised to improve upon last year’s successes. Pundits around the league are taking notice. Adam Proteau of the Hockey News recently tabbed the Lightning as the Eastern Conference’s Most Dangerous Team. But the organization is taking a more measured approach. Following the three signings, Yzerman was asked during a press conference if he was “excited”. He replied that July 1 is not the time to get excited. He preferred to wait to see how the team comes together once training camp begins. Head Coach Jon Cooper also acknowledged to the media that the Stanley Cup is not won “on paper”. Cooper noted that the club will have to exhibit the same work ethic that was on display last year and that, having made the postseason last year, the Bolts may be looked at with a different expectation this season. Having said that, Cooper said that the club was looking forward to the challenge.
And that’s what this season figures to be – again – for the Lightning. One filled with challenges. But credit Yzerman and his staff for adding players that addressed the team’s needs.
Development Camp: I wrote in last week’s column that it takes time to fully assess recent draft picks. Many of them are years away from turning pro. But the annual Development Camp does provide an opportunity to see these players in person.
The three-on-three tournament at the end of the camp is always fun and it allows the youngsters to put their skill on display. Not only were first round picks Jonathan Drouin and Anthony DeAngelo impressive with their puck skills and vision during the tournament, some of the late-round draftees also stood out. One such example: 2013 sixth-round forward Henri Ikonen, who starred for Kingston (OHL) last year, netted five goals in the tournament.
The winning “Team Filppula”, which went 6-0 in the tournament, was outstanding. Joining DeAngelo on Team Filppula were 2010 sixth round forward Brendan O’Donnell, 2014 third round forward Brayden Point, forward Jeff Costello, who was a part of the Jason Garrison trade and 2012 second round defenseman Dylan Blujus. Costello and DeAngelo tied for the tournament lead with 13 points while O’Donnell led all players with eight tournament goals.
In broadcasting the three-on-three tournament for the Lightning’s website on Sunday, Bobby “The Chief” Taylor and I commented on the size of invitees Kodie Curran (defenseman) and Cam MacLise (forward). They were physical and strong on the puck. And it was terrific to see goaltending invitee (and Brandon native) Clay Witt perform so well – he narrowly lost out to 2012 first rounder Andrei Vasilevskiy for the best save percentage in the tournament and the right to play in the Championship game.
In all, my takeaway was this: the Lightning not only have some good, young, skilled prospects, they’ve also added size, toughness and “sandpaper” to the organization. And many other NHL teams would love to have the Lightning’s goaltending depth. It’ll be interesting to watch all of these young men develop in the coming years.