We just didn’t know that for their next project, the owners of the Tampa Lightning were going to butcher their own roster.
A team that was a Stanley Cup champion only five years ago has turned into a dysfunctional mess and if you believe recent newspaper reports, a potential candidate for contraction.
And now, with the possible trading of Vincent Lecavalier a mere six months after signing the star center to a massive 11-year contract extension, we could very well be approaching the climax to this nauseating script.
Moving one of the top ten talents in hockey for spare parts (which is what the rumoured Montreal package of Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges and draft picks is) would be positively frightening for any Lightning fans out there and a clear signal to every other NHL player that Tampa Bay is a certified hockey wasteland. The team will have to overpay any player it hopes to sign (Koules and Barrie already seem to have a firm grasp of this concept) because no one with a decent option is going to be interested in working under these conditions.
The chaos began when Barrie and Koules purchased the Lightning last summer and promptly lured Barry Melrose out of the broadcast booth, mothballs and all, and gave him the coaching duties, continuing their Hollywood theme. Melrose hadn’t been behind any type of bench in 15 years, and the choice was widely criticized and questioned, but it did provide many headlines and much media attention for the Lightning and their new owners.
From there, free agent winger Ryan Malone received a seven-year contract at first-line money despite the fact that he put up Alexei Ponikarovsky type numbers playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But hey, at least they got his pro-scout father, Greg Malone, as part of the deal too! Days later the Lightning added Radim Vrbata on a deal that his agent must have accepted in about 0.2 seconds. For 3 years and $9 million the Lightning got a guy who had frustrated coaches and teammates with play that was inconsistent and lacked intensity, a guy who would be joining his fifth team in seven seasons.
And on and on it went. They brought back Vaclav Prospal for $3.5 million a year when there was no obvious place for him to play at that salary, and continued the science project by inking aging veterans Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, both of whom were healthy scratches at times last year. They re-signed forward Chris Gratton, who is 33 going on 50, and spent more than twice what they pay their starting goalie to add Olaf Kolzig as a 38 year-old back-up.
To alleviate the burden of having five forwards eating up $25 million in cap space, Tampa strong-armed All-Star defenceman Dan Boyle into waiving his no-trade clause and accepting a move to San Jose that was nothing more than a salary-dump.
At this time Jay Feaster, the man who put together the Stanley Cup winning roster, was still the acting GM, but was noticeably absent during the press conferences that announced the various moves and signings. Feaster would resign from his position on July 11th after being left to blow in the wind while the new guys took hands-on ownership to Jerry Jones like levels.
To top it off, Barrie, Koules and new GM Brian Lawton dealt for Ottawa defenceman Andrej Meszaros two weeks before training camp and met his outrageous contract demands, handing over another $4 million a season to a player who peaked four years ago as a rookie.
The off-season roster reconstruction was fascinating and for the most part illogical, but that was only Act I.
Ownership forced Melrose to keep the first overall pick from the draft, Steven Stamkos, on the roster and insisted he be given minutes that he clearly wasn’t ready for. Melrose wanted to send the 18 year-old prospect back to junior hockey, but Barrie, Koules and the Tampa marketing department had already heavily featured Stamkos in team promotions and weren’t about to be told what to do.
Just 16 games into the new season, Melrose and his famously coiffed hair were kicked to the curb, replaced by Rick Tocchet, who had a starring role in ‘Operation Slapshot’. Tocchet may very well turn out to be a good or even great NHL coach, but giving him the head job only months after completing a league-mandated suspension was a curious way to calm the waters.
And on and on it has gone. Vrbata was re-assigned to my beer-league team, where he has four goals and is minus-14 in 20 games. He won’t go into the corners in our league either and we don’t even allow hitting. (I made that up, he’s actually playing but not competing in the Czech league.) Gratton was sent down to the AHL in December, and Matt Carle, the only roster player the Lightning received in the Boyle trade, has already been shipped out to Philadelphia.
The Lecavalier blockbuster, if it does go down, will no doubt be positioned in Tampa as a necessary way to re-build a struggling roster, but anyone with a reasonable outlook will see it for what it really is: another salary dump with another bit of malice mixed in. Koules and Barrie allegedly promised Lecavalier they would not trade him before his full no-trade clause kicked in following the season, but as their six month track record as NHL owners has shown, their words are as hollow as their movies.
Speaking of which, according to IMDB, Saw VI is scheduled for release in 2009, and by the looks of things in Tampa, it could be coming out any day now.