Forecasting A Storm in the NHL

It’s the summer of 2014 in Tampa and it’s hard to not get excited as a Lightning fan. While daily thunderstorms pummel the Bay area, for the first time in as long as I can remember, the Bolts are in the news as a favored team. Hell, they’re in the news, period! NHL Network and TSN are actually talking about the team positively?!? After I pinched myself a few times, the smile hasn’t wiped away. Part of that has to do with my attending Development Camp this past weekend where not only were the 2014 draft picks on display, but also prospects that are knocking on Yzerman’s door for a call-up. In particular, 19-year-old Jonathan Drouin. A storms a brewin’.

While everyone at the camp seemed to know how to play the game of hockey rather well, not one soul in the building would say that Drouin didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The poise and confidence level were far greater than his first camp invite back in 2013, and he filled out the pads a little better with added muscle. From skating, stick-handling, and play-making, Drouin did not disappoint the hundreds of Lightning fans in attendance or the ones wearing Malone, Purcell, and St. Louis jerseys.

Since being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning 3rd overall in the 2013 Entry Draft, Drouin has done nothing but get better as a player. After playing five preseason games with the big club, it was determined that there were areas he could improve before his services would be required. Like a fine wine, he needed some time to ferment to improve upon what was already pretty good.

Back at Halifax, the young Drouin was visibly discouraged from his unexpected return to the club. He just watched his best buddy and former Mooseheads linemate, Nathan MacKinnon, get the call from Colorado – why wasn’t he enjoying the same spoils? According to Yzerman and Director of Player Development, Stacy Roest, this organization is very particular on how it likes to develop its players. They saw no need to rush that with him because it never helps the player to throw them to the wolves if it can be avoided. In other words, this organization is always thinking for the future.

With players like Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson boiling over from the AHL pot, the roster only has so many spots to fill. Having those two players at their peak of development, they were awarded the slots – answering back with dual Calder Trophy nominations for finishing second and third in rookie points, respectively.

The discouraged Drouin wasn’t taxed by the decision for long. A call from Steve Yzerman was all the motivation he needed to get back into form and advance his development. He began to play for the Mooseheads, not NHL glory, and found ways to improve his team and new linemates. It was suggested that he improve his defensive game by shifting from wing to center – he made the transition well. His relatively smallish frame needed some meat packed on – he added over 15lbs of muscle. The results were an even better season than the one that rewarded him a lock as a Top-3 pick. He’s stronger, faster, smarter, and more mature than ever.

Let’s try to remember that at the time of the 2013 draft, there was much debate on who would go 1st overall. But, there was little debate on who had better hockey sense or was better at seeing the game. Unlike his friend MacKinnon who flourishes when surrounded by skilled players, Drouin was always seen as someone who makes players around him better. Case in point? Not taking anything away from Nikolaj Ehlers, but he helped show the potential of the young player – skyrocketing his player ranking. You also don’t record 79 assists in 46 games if you’re not able to capitalize on opportunities you create for other players. (Think bait and hook.) Can you imagine that tactic in play with a sneaky scorer like Stammer? This is where the added weight will help as he inevitably gets tossed around like a rag doll while embarrassing players with his Jergens hands.

So here we are a few days after the conclusion of Development Camp and unlike last year, the Lightning currently have a couple holes in the roster. These are presumably going to be filled by Drouin and maybe, HOPEFULLY Connolly as well. The coaching staff have already eluded to Jonathan playing on 3rd line to start off as he gets adjusted, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him moved up as he adjusts to the new ice time demands. (Talk about depth at forward! Stamkos, Drouin, Filppula, Callahan, Palat, Johnson, Killorn, Connolly, Kucherov, Brown and Boyle…should be interesting.)

While predicting weather may be as futile as speculating the success of a hockey prospect, it’s clear to see the recipe for a  big storm on the radar. Drouin shouldn’t be viewed as someone to score 60 goals, but dishing them out to players like Stamkos is his business, and could shake up the league. The question on everyone’s mind is “when will he be on a line with Stamkos?” Let’s hope that question is answered early in October. I’m confident that if he makes the adjustment well, the Lighting could have a new dynamic duo on its hands once again. For the next couple months, all I’ll be thinking about is their potential for on-ice chemistry. Other teams will be thinking ‘God help us, all.’

Player Value in the Cap Era

Since 2005-’06 and for the first time ever, the NHL played under a hard salary cap. Not only that, it was based on a percentage of league revenue, so it would fluctuate. Without getting into the specifics of how the cap works or why it’s there, this is how it has impacted player’s perceived value moving forward.

Originally, you could look at a player like Peter Forsberg and determine his value based purely on his demand, skill, and contribution. While these still factor in today, and with the salary cap moving upward each year as it has done, values are partially controlled by the players too.

For example, a grinding player like Ryan Callahan is probably worth around 4.25-4.5-million in the 2011 marketplace. (65.3-million cap) Sure enough, his contract reflects that. Fast forward to 2014 and the cap has increased by nearly 4-million to 69-million. This doesn’t mean that teams magically have money to add another star; it means desired players can expect a pay bump. So now, a player that made 4-million on his last contract will/should expect to see a pay increase of around 1-million.

Some third and fouth line guys or lower pairing defensive players will hover around the sub 1-million area into the foreseeable future, but top guys will keep driving up exponentially. That’s the victory of the NHLPA in its latest CBA agreement.

Now you have Callahan approach his career “prime” already looking for his justified pay increase for that simple luxury, then he factors in the cap increase. Granted, he and his agent were a little fuzzy on the math when he was on Broadway. But, Tampa getting him signed under a 6-million AAV cap should be viewed as a victory.

July 1st was Free Agency Frenzy. Equivalent to sharks gathering around a school of fish – the ‘hot’ names get more fi$h. It’s easy pickin’s for players to cash in. The day starts as the first players sign deals to set the bar, agents and GMs take note, then teams ink their player to a properly adjusted contract for the given market. It has as much to do with supply and demand as it does with skill or scoring.

Something to consider? There are 30 teams all looking to improve each offseason and there are only so many players out there in free agency who are capable of making that happen. As a ‘name’ player, you can sit back and watch the deals roll through from every interested party. This starts the bidding war and you enjoy the perks of the ever-increasing cap. Free agents are a commodity, and are viewed as such. At no other point in a career can you simply add a player by offering a contract unless they go undrafted. You’re either bound to a team through contract or restriction, or you can choose your own destiny as a free agent. So throw your perceived values out the window. There are plenty of awful GMs out there making dumb deals each year – Yzerman isn’t one of them.

Yzerman not only was able ink Callahan for less money than he originally wanted, he did so before Ryan went to market on July 1st. That’s an accomplishment in itself. Speaks volumes about the condition of the franchise and the mentality of the player. There is no doubt he would have gotten more cash and term from another team out there, hell, the Caps or Oilers probably would have paid him 7-million for seven years.

So the next time you want to complain about Callahan getting overpaid, you’ll know more about how it all works in the current NHL. He’s not getting overpaid…they’re ALL getting overpaid to some degree. Sure, I’d love to have signed him for a little less money or a year shorter, but that wasn’t ever going to happen. It goes back to supply and demand. Not too many former captains (leadership) with playoff experience, great 200ft play, shot blocking, penalty killing, and excellent heart/soul attitude available out there…none, actually. Don’t for a second think his agent didn’t have that in his sales pitch holster.

Just remember what happened on July 1st where plenty of GMs made extremely stupid moves and signed much more ridiculous deals. Yzerman left the day looking like a frugal genius.

Introduction

This is a hockey blog to post my thoughts about the league – primarily, the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s going to be brutally honest, and spare no regard for player personalities off the ice. I couldn’t care less if someone is a fan favorite, I only care about the product on the ice.

I was born and raised in Tampa, but my father’s side of the family is from the Philadelphia area. My brother and I were raised on hockey. I learned to skate by four years old, and I was in my first competitive hockey league by the age of five. Growing up in the developing hockey market in Tampa, I split time between both ice and roller teams playing every position – including goalie.

My father coached hockey for a period of time, and I was given as many opportunities to play and travel that any young player could ask for. But, you reach an age where you realize you’re not going to make it to the NHL and then the game just becomes a fun hobby. It has always been my life and I still enjoy recreational play to this day.

As a fan, I’ve consistently been critical of how people play the game – not that I’m the greatest player of all time, I just hold players to their talent, expectations, and ability. I believe that I have a pretty fair judgement of these attributes. I only care about what a player puts in each night for a team, and I’m quick to isolate mistakes. Having a background as a player and dictator-of-a-coach for a dad, it was bred into me.

Can I be harsh? Sure can. Do I know what I’m talking about? Sure do.

The average hockey fan is unable to separate their personal relationships they have for players from the business end of the game. The average hockey fan doesn’t know what makes up a team and the value each player’s role provides a complete roster. The average hockey fan has no concept of the breakdown of mistakes that result in a goal – just blame the goalie! I’m not the average hockey fan.

This isn’t a website for debates or creating arguments, this is a space to share my thoughts on the game I love. Strap in and allow me to apologize ahead of time when I offend you for critiquing your favorite player. Most of all, thank you for coming by my page and reading my thoughts. I want this to be a fun space to inform fellow hockey fans and hopefully entertain people.

- Kevin DiOssi @DiOssi10

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