We're still about a month away from the puck dropping on another NHL season, but the prospect season begins this week when Dimitri Kazionov's Ak Bars Kazan club lets the KHL regular season out of the barn. Shortly thereafter the Lightning will open camp for one of the most interesting and promise-filled seasons they've embarked upon in some time. There are still a few finishing touches that need to be put on the work, as there will likely be some key waiver decisions and possibly another trade, but now seems as good a time as any to evaluate what sophomore GM Brian Lawton did this summer.
Lawton entered the offseason with a fair amount of disdain from the Lightning fan base which bubbled over after a lackluster, salary dumping trade deadline that seemed to add little of consequence to the club other than the chance backdoor the club into some revenue-sharing dollars. True, he did acquire promising blueliner Matt Lashoff from the Bruins, who played well down the stretch of the season, but Lightning fans seemed ready to tar and feather Lawton and run him out of town. As offseason rumors started to swirl that Lawton might be tapped to be the GM to send Vincent Lecavalier out of town, the hate intensified.
Something wierd happened at the NHL draft in late June, though: Lawton suddenly looked like a pro, and the Lightning organization and scouting staff started to execute their offseason plans with laser-guided precision. The team did not trade Vincent Lecavalier, which would've undoubtedly created far too much pressure on Stevem Stamkos in his second season. They drafted the perfect player for the team's needs: Victor Hedman. Lawton traded into the bottom end of the first round to grab Carter Ashton, a first in Lightning history, while Scouting Director Jim Hammett guided his staff to snag Richard Panik, who at this time last season was thought to be a lottery caliber talent, and sleeper prospect Alex Hutchings, in what may well have been the best draft the Lightning had conducted since the once-in-a-generation 1998 NHL Entry Draft.
Fast forward to July 1st and the start of free agency: no one was expecting the Lightning to make much of a splash considering their uncertain ownership situation and Oren Koules' seeming reluctance to deviate too far from the NHL payroll median. Lawton struck without warning. He wasn't just quick, he was sudden, as 15 minutes into free agency the Lightning had signed veteran Swedish defenseman Mattias Ohlund to mentor young Hedman. Shortly thereafter, Lawton continuted to bolster the Lightning's biggest weakness from a year ago by signing former Blackhawks defenseman Matt Walker. Lightning fans then began to wonder what could be with a little luck and if Lawton could acquire one more forward to compliment the un-traded Lecavalier. Smaller deals like signing Antero Nittymaki to fill in for the KHL defection of Karri Ramo seemed patently logical and the signing of Stephane Veilleux and the acquisition of Drew Miller from Anaheim signalled that Lawton was well aware of the need to fix a toothless set of lower lines that contributed little of substance to the club last season. He even signed Kurtis Foster, recognizing that although the team was bursting at the seams with defensemen, it had none that were righty power play point shots.
Then Lawton showed he could play some poker, as rumors surfaced that the Lightning were after veteran forwards Alex Tanguay and Petr Sykora. Lawton, a successful former agent, had something incredibly attractive to offer a couple of free agents desperately wanting to redeem their value around the league after disappointing seasons: the chance to play with Vincent Lecavalier. He told them, however, he only had a one-year deal and about $2.5M to offer. He bought out Vaclav Prospal to free up the money, and then he played the waiting game. Eventually Tanguay and his agent blinked, signing a one-year deal for a tad under $2.5M, and the largest of Lawton's offseason deals was complete.
Criticisms? A few. Lawton may live to regret not holding onto Prospal for one more season before dumping him, as Vaclav is notorious for having fantastic seasons every other year. The Lightning now have an open spot on Lecavalier's line that the club is hoping can be filled by one of Lawton's acquisitions from last season, be it Steve Downie or Martins Karsums. But there's little doubt that, on the whole, Tanguay is a clear upgrade over Prospal, and Downie is fully capable, talent-wise, of being an NHL scoring-liner if he can stay out of trouble.
What's left for Lawton is to break the logjam at the defenseman positions. It seems clear the Lightning will probably have to carry eight defensemen to start the season. That means at least one established NHL defenseman is still unlikely to make the team. My guess (hope) is that defenseman will be Lukas Krajicek, who offers little offensively or physically. Hopefully Lawton can shed him and his nearly $1.5M salary for a draft pick. There will also probably be one hard decision at the forward position, where I suspect veteran Ryan Craig will be in a battle with Miller, Karsums, and Paul Szczechura for the team's twelfth forward slot, with the thirteenth reserved for enforcer Todd Fedoruk, who was acquired in the smoothly executed salary dump of disappointing 2008 offseason signing Radim Vrbata. Whatever Lawton does to finalize his roster, though, Lightning fans are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt after an excellent offseason. He has yet to prove he can win the ultimate game of poker at the trade table with other GM's, which is an important vacancy on his General Managing resume, but for now the Lightning have legitimate playoff hopes and a bright future, which is a fair sight more than the team had six months ago.
Entering camp, here is how I see the Lightning's final roster shaking out:
Alex Tanguay/Vincent Lecavalier/Steve Downie
Ryan Malone/Steven Stamkos/Martin St. Louis
Drew Miller/Jeff Halpern/Stephane Veilleux
Adam Hall/Paul Szczechura/Martin Karsums
Headed to Norfolk: LW/C Ryan Craig*, C Zenon Konopka*, RW Brandon Bochenski*, LW Radek Smolenak*, C Blair Jones*, RW Lauri Tukonen**, LW/C Dana Tyrell, C Mitch Fadden, RW Juraj Simek, RW/C Chris Lawrence
Mattias Ohlund/Andrej Meszaros
Paul Ranger/Matt Smaby
Victor Hedman/Matt Walker
Matt Lashoff/Kurtis Foster
Headed to Norfolk: D Mike Lundin*, D David Hale*, D Ty Wishart, D Vladimir Mihalik, D Kevin Quick, D Scott Jackson
Headed to Norfolk: G Riku Helenius, G Dustin Tokarski
**=Waiver Eligible w/ European Out-Clause