Opinion: Why Springfield Matters More Than Ever
Today the Tampa Bay Lightning completed a trifecta of sorts signing RW Martin St. Louis to a six year deal. Over the past two seasons, the core of the Tampa Bay Lightning has been, in my opinion, Dan Boyle, Nikolai Khabibulin, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. The unfortunate reality of the new CBA was that GM Jay Feaster was forced to try and re-sign 4 of his 5 core players under restrictive circumstances. Given the difficulties Feaster managed to sign Boyle, Lecavalier and St. Louis, and 3 out of 4 ain't bad. This is especially true considering the Lightning locked up one of it's two most important components (the other being Brad Richards) Vincent Lecavalier to a 4 year deal.
Lecavalier's reported $27.5 million dollar contract seemed to spark a lot of controversy within the Lightning fan base, however. Lightning fans asked how the team could be held together with Vinny making so much money. They wondered if the deal would force out St. Louis or possibly Pavel Kubina or Brad Richards next season. And, above all, they cursed teams like Boston and Calgary for raising the contracts of young superstars like Joe Thornton and Jarome Iginla to the stratospheric heights of over $6 million dollars a season. Indeed, it's sometimes hard for me to believe a penny conscious team like Bill Davidson's Tampa Bay Lightning just committed roughly $50 million dollars to two players in the span of just a week. Is this the shape of the new NHL?
Well, yes, actually. The phenomenon being witnessed here in Tampa is similar to the one that has been experienced in many NBA cities since the institution of their salary cap. The lion's share of money will be earned by the upper echelon of players squeezing out many mid level veterans and European born players back overseas to earn their money. The effect has already begun to be felt in the loss of depth the Lightning has experienced within the last week as Eric Perrin and Shane Willis have departed for Switzerland. It will become even more acute as the Lightning are forced to make tough economic decisions to lock up Brad Richards long term to a deal which will likely resemble Lecavalier's.
Should Lightning fans fear the new NHL? No. What the team is experiencing right now is actually going to become the norm in the NHL as teams attempt to figure out how to survive under the salary cap. Indeed, the Lightning are quite fortunate to have an executive like Jay Feaster who seems to understand the realities of the new CBA. In the new NHL success will depend upon two things, just as it does in the NBA:
1.) Which team has the best 2-3 core players which they can lock into long term deals?
These players will be making $5-6 million dollars a season each, subsequently eating up to half of a team's salary cap. These king's ransoms have to be paid however if a team is to hold onto elite caliber players. The Lightning are set up well in this regard in that they have two of the best young centers in the game in Lecavalier and Richards and now a locked up Hart Trophy winner in Martin St. Louis. Having Lecavalier and Richards for the next half a decade will give the Lightning one of the best, if not the best, set of core players in the NHL which will allow the team to remain a perennial Stanley Cup contender for the near future provided they can adequately achieve step 2.
2.) Which team has the ability to continuously draft and cultivate an affordable supporting cast around their core players?
And this is why the Springfield Falcons matter more than ever to the long term survival of a budding elite franchise like the Lightning. The consequence of so much money going to the top players in the league will be a depression of salaries for everyone else under the cap system. Haves and have nots are an inevitability with the new CBA and mid level veterans and many Europeans will find that playing overseas in leagues like the Russian Superleague will pay them as much if not more than the NHL. That means the NHL is about to become a whole lot younger as NHL teams look to fill gaps with prospects who in the old CBA might have spent an extra year or two in the AHL. The possibility of an opening night Lightning lineup featuring Timo Helbling, Doug O'Brien or Gerard Dicaire will stand as proof of this.
Many of the Springfield Falcons of '05-'06 could very well be the Tampa Bay Lightning of '06-'07, which is why Lightning fans should be keeping one eye on Bolt Prospects throughout the season. To be able to afford to keep Brad Richards at around $7M a season some tough choices will need to be made. Players like Fredrik Modin and Darryl Sydor may be playing their last seasons in Lightning jerseys. Their replacements, who will be making far less, will likely come from the AHL. If Darryl Sydor is traded, it might very well be players like Mike Egener or Paul Ranger who have to step up to fill the void. If Fredrik Modin departs and Dimitry Afanasenkov takes his spot on a scoring line, a place on the checking lines will have to be filled by players like Ryan Craig or Evgeny Artukhin. Indeed, nothing short of a massive transformation of the Lightning's checking lines and bottom defensive pairings should be expected in the new NHL over the next three years and perpetual turnover at these positions will be part of the game. Eventually, prospects like Adam Henrich, Alex Polushin or even Marek Kvapil will have to step up into scoring line roles as players like Vaclav Prospal and Ruslan Fedotenko are priced out of the Lightning's cap matrix.
That is why it was so important for the Lightning to escape the destructive cycle of joint affiliation agreements and finally get an AHL team to call their own in Springfield. And the team has gone a step further buying a significant portion of the ECHL's Johnstown Chiefs to insure the team has as many developmental spots in the minors as it needs to be successful in the new NHL. Now the real pressure begins for Coach Graham as he and the rest of the Lightning organization's coaches will find themselves tasked with the assignment of churning out viable NHL players on a much expedited timeline.
Because now Springfield matters more than ever.