Monday, June 30, 2008

Tampa's Plan Taking Shape

The Tampa Bay Lightning have new owners in Oren Koules and Len Barrie and they are clearly not afraid of being hands on owners who make high profile moves (despite NHL history being littered with disasters from this ownership style). We are beginning to see their plan to build a new Tampa Bay Lightning team.

Of all the ways to build a team, free agency is definitely the fastest and probably the least effective method. The unrestricted free agent talent pool is not good enough to rebuild a team and the high profile players signed will usually sign large contracts that make it hard to fit many under the salary cap. However, it is the fastest method to make a change. Not being people to wait around to do things slowly (even if that means properly), Tampa ownership is agressively pursuing free agents.

In order to make sure they get the free agents they target, they are trading draft picks to get to negotiate with them in advance of the official start of free agency and when they negotiate, they offer contracts that appear larger than expected market value for the player in question. It is a great way to attract a couple unrestricted free agents. Whether you believe that Tampa would compete with another couple free agent players under contract is another question.

The first players targeted were Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tampa traded a conditional pick (that turned out to be their 2009 3rd round pick) to Pittsburgh for the right to negotiate early with these players. They then "negotiated" by making ridiculous offers to the two players.

In Ryan Malone's case, first they hired Malone's dad Greg Malone as a scout (I am not sure what working as an employee for the Tampa Bay Lightning entails when in the end ownership makes all the moves - seemingly without consultation of the front office staff) and then they signed Malone to a seven year $31.5 million contract, which will pay between $7 and $8 million a year for the first two seasons. It is entirely possible that Malone signed the biggest UFA contract among forwards this summer, which is odd considering he is the eleventh highest scoring potential UFA forward this summer. Malone spent a lot of time last season playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and that probably inflated his numbers (which in the end were not all star level), but he played a good playoff and thus became overrated. It is a move that likely will do little to improve the Lightning, but it won't hurt unless (until?) they regret the size of his contract.

Gary Roberts is 42 years old and just finished an injury filled season where he scored 3 goals. Logically, it might be a time to be retiring. Not so for Roberts. He signed to a $1.25 million base salary with incentives for staying in the lineup that could be worth in excess of $2 million next year. Far more than anyone else would have offered him.

Potentially the best signing Tampa looks to make is Brian Rolston from the Minnesota Wild. Most likely, he will outscore Malone next year (afterall he did this year playing in a defensive system while Malone played with Crosby and Malkin) and also play better defence. Tampa has traded a draft pick (exactly which pick depends on whether Rolston signs in Tampa) to get to negotiate with Rolston until free agency begins in earnest tomorrow. If they have enough money left to throw some outrageous contract above market value at him, likely he will sign.

Does this make Tampa Bay a better team? Yes, but marginally. I think they likely will not have finished last again merely by standing pat with their last season roster. They have added some parts to improve the team. They additions are at high financial price and will probably not offer good financial value. I think Tampa will likely miss the playoffs next year and could have a lottery draft pick again. They lack quality goaltending and other than Dan Boyle (who is rumored to be tradable - despite his no trade clause) lack quality defencemen. They have added some more offensive depth, but they need too much to become contenders via free agency alone.

What happens if Tampa Bay struggles next year? Will ownership continue to make "bold" moves, even if the only moves available are stupid moves? Will ownership lose interest? Can ownership afford the financial commitment that comes with their ownership? They were unable to obtain a loan by conventional methods (ie. through a bank) to buy the team and previous owner Bill Davidson extended financing himself. That draws into question how much money they really have available to them. This is particularly true in the case of Len Barrie who has made his fortune (so far) in real estate. Real estate has taken a significant down turn in most US markets, but has not in Western Canada (at least not yet). What happens if the real estate market dries up in Vancouver Island where Barrie is heavily invested? Can he afford to maintain his part in a money losing NHL franchise?

The Tampa Bay Lightning have made some bold moves adding Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts (and negotiating with Brian Rolston) in advance of the start of free agency. The team has many holes and likely will not be a winning team next year despite these additions. What happens with the new ownership when things fail next season? It will be interesting to watch, but I am not overly optimistic.

Here is TSN's story on the Tampa Bay signings.

Speaking of no-trade clauses... Some time ago I posted a comment in which I hypothesized, hoping I was wrong, that some teams might try to drive out high-profile players who have no-trade clauses.

It's totally disgusting but perhaps it might come to pass. Larry Brooks "Slap Shots" blog has a post here that discusses some tactics being employed in Toronto to that effect:

It's much more malevolent business in Toronto where supposed class act Cliff Fletcher is threatening to bury McCabe if he doesn't accede to management's demand that he take the next stagecoach out of town, no matter the destination.

Slap Shots has been told the seat-warmer of a GM was busy last week in Ottawa attempting to construct a trade for McCabe though he did not have permission to do so. It was, in the words of one informant, "a set-up designed to make McCabe look bad if he turned down the deal."

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