Lightning add veteran leadership to roster on first day of free agency
There were key areas the Tampa Bay Lightning wanted to address heading into free agency and by the end of Day 1, the Bolts felt one step closer to having a team they envision as a top contender heading into next season.
Even though vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman is overly cautious assessing any move he makes until he sees it transpire on the ice, Tuesday's acquisitions were all positives in his eyes.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Yzerman said. “I like the moves we’ve been able to make.”
With an glut of forwards, the Bolts dealt three of them – B.J. Crombeen, Teddy Purcell and Nate Thompson – on Sunday giving them a little more than $10 million worth of cap space for the possibility of adding a backup goaltender and another veteran defenseman when free agency began.
Yet one-by-one, unrestricted free agent after unrestricted free agent (UFA), especially among netminders, dropped off the board and signed with other NHL clubs, while the Bolts remained quiet.
Chad Johnson, Justin Peters, Ryan Miller and Al Montoya were the first four prospective goalies to be signed by other teams and then the Lightning’s own UFA, Anders Lindback, who the Lightning had contemplated bringing back, signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Stars soon after.
The Bolts made their first acquisition of the day hours in, however, it did not involve a goaltender. Instead Tampa Bay added veteran blue-liner Anton Stralman to its defensive corps.
“We have to improve not only on goaltending, but the chances we give up,” Yzerman said. “We have to get our goals-against down and you can’t just rely on a goaltender to do that. Stralman is a good skater, stable, solid, moves the puck well, he’s responsible defensively.”
Stralman’s five-year contract, worth $22.5 million, provides a chance for the 27-year-old and his family to make Tampa their home, as he joins a team that he feels is continuing to take steps in the right direction.
“It seems like each year the Lightning make strides and I thought it would be great to be a part of that,” Stralman said. “We were looking for stability as a family and we wanted to settle down.”
Stralman also becomes part of a much-improved blue line with he, Jason Garrison, Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, Eric Brewer, Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio, adding a new dimension to the Bolts depth chart.
From there forwards Mike Angelidis and Mike Blunden were signed to give flexibility to the Bolts' AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, as movement throughout the NHL started to slow down significantly by Tuesday evening. Again, the Lightning were not quite finished.
When Thompson was traded away two days prior to free agency's start the team lost a dependable, gritty, fourth-line center, so the Bolts managed to ink former Ranger Brian Boyle to a three-year deal.
“We had a hole at center,” Yzerman said. “I like that we’re getting a little bit bigger. It’s another guy that can wear on the opponent. In a playoff series these guys are effective.”
Boyle has been teammates on the Blueshirts with Stralman since the 2011-12 season and the pair bring a combined 113 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience to Tampa Bay, including 25 games apiece during the 2013-14 postseason.
As the day seemingly came to a close a valuable piece remained missing – a backup netminder. It was a position the team considered a priority heading into free agency, but surprisingly had still not been addressed.
Then former New York Islander and long-time San Jose Shark, Evgeni Nabokov, was signed.
“We feel like we got a high character, proven veteran goaltender in Evgeni Nabokov who will really help Ben [Bishop] and will be able to mentor two young guys in Kristers [Gudlevskis] and Andrei [Vasilevskiy] that are coming up in the organization," Yzerman said.
The 38-year-old’s one-year deal helps give the pair of highly-regarding prospects more playing time in Syracuse without being stuck on the Lightning bench, which fits in with Yzerman's philosophy of developing talent from within and not rushing them to the NHL.
“We had a whole list of goalies,” Yzerman said. “We thought during the whole process he might be the best fit. It worked out and we think we got one of the top ones.”
As the first day of free agency came to a close the Lightning found themselves with a potential list of two goaltenders, eight defensemen and 12 forwards to make a lineup, but they may not be quite done. Although it is unlikely to come through free agency, the Bolts are not dismissing the idea of making another trade and they still have to come to terms with a number of restricted free agents before camp opens in September.