Ask Gary: Should the Lightning stand pat or tweak?

by Gary Shelton on May 26, 2018 · 10 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Lightning

Kucherov, Stamkos search fo the wayward puck./JEFFREY S. KING

Kucherov, Stamkos search fo the wayward puck./JEFFREY S. KING

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The Lightning have made deep runs in the playoffs in three of the last four years, which shows they are one of the top teams in hockey but still need something to push them over the top. What approach would benefit the team more this offseason? Stand pat and tweak the roster here and there? Or, make some big changes to add players with size and muscle?

Larry Beller

Larry, I wrote about this earlier in the week, and we've talked a lot. Personally, I'd make changes short of blowing the roster up, I'd try to bring in some bigger guys, even if it cost me a Tyler Johnson and a Yanni Gourde. Those guys are great regular season players, where you can find some ice, but I wonder if they're always going to create matchup problems.

You don't take a Final Four team and try to reinvent things. The sky isn't falling, but it's cracked. Odds are always greater you make a bad play than a good one. But the fact the Lightning are home now suggests that there are shortcomings. I don't think the Bolts can stand pat completely and tussle everyone's hair and wait for another 90-plus game journey.

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They've established they're pretty good. But this is all about lifting the Cup, isn't it? So what happens next year? Washington is still bigger. Boston is still bigger (but slower). The Penguins are still skilled. This should be a playoff team, of course, but in the big tournament, it would take a lot things to go just right for Tampa Bay to win it. And that's the goal, isn't it?

Look, Bolt fans should be appreciative. They really did get a nice little season as a reward. Heck, if championships didn't matter, I'd say let's take them all out for Snow Cones.

But championships do matter. So some disappointment is allowed, too. The team lost three home games in a series. It didn't score for almost eight periods at the end. There are enough things to fix that the team should be better for a while.

Getting close is better than a lot of the bad seasons the team has had. No doubt about it. But it isn' t as good as anyone wants. So I'd tweak, and I'd try to upgrade.

It's a shame that we're an all-or-nothing society, but we are. No one is going to be happy with a Final Four finish. Getting close is more frustrating, in some ways, than being lousy.

So let's fix it. Right?

Everybody is partaking in the Lightning autopsy so I might as well. Yes, they have had much success in recent years and we can't dismiss their achievements. But  a consistent observation by local "experts" for at least the past two years has been how complacency and lack of effort all too often keep this team from progressing. Too many of the highly skilled players " don't show up" much too often. Do you share this opinion? When do the players and/or coaches become accountable?
Barry McDowell
Barry, I think they are accountable. If you've seen the reviews, the letters and the comments from disappointed fans, well, the public certainly is venting its opinion. Fans don't have the ability to hire and fire -- nor should they -- but the Lightning front office would have been deaf, dumb and blind not to realize that people are not satisfied with coming close.
I agree there are a lot of nights that stars don't show up, but I think that's pretty much true of every team. It's a highly focused sport, and it's hard to maintain that focus through 82 regular-season games.
Overall, I don't think this team has reached the level of complacency. The Final Four may not be what we all want, but it's pretty good. The trouble is that "pretty good" isn't satisfying anymore. Going out with almost eight periods of being shutout isn't satisfying. And hearing someone talk about how proud he is of a team that finished second in the Eastern Conference isn't satisfying.
But Tony Dungy used to have a comment about hitting a boulder until it finally cracks.
As much as you are allowed to suggest this team didn't get all that is there this year, don't forget the past. Kokusai Green. Art Williams. Oren Koules. It is a testament to Jeff Vinik and his organization that fans are allowed to be disappointed. Goodness knows, there is enough ugliness in the team's past.
Barry, I have a rule. I never try to take away a fan's disappointment, or his glee, from a season that's past. A team earns both. But I will say that they didn't lose to the Caps because of complacency. The Caps were better. They were bigger, and they played hungrier when it counted.
This wasn't about effort. (The late season might have been). This was about a talented, but flawed team that needs to get better. Agree?

Currently, in MLB, there are 30 everyday players (non-pitchers) with $100 million or greater long-term contracts.  The average 2018 yearly salary for these players is $21 million.  Eleven of those 30 players are currently on the disabled list or completely gone from baseball (e.g. Prince Fielder).  The inactive/active player ratio for the $100 million club is 11/19 which equals 58%.

The total number of non-pitchers on MLB rosters currently is about 375.  The average 2018 yearly salary for all of MLB is $4.5 million.  The total number of non-pitchers in MLB currently on the disabled list is 76.   If that same 58% ratio of the $100 million non-pitchers maintained for all non-pitchers MLB wide, the number of non-pitchers on the disabled list would be 58% x 375 = 218, which is 2.9 times greater than the actual number of 76.

So, in summary, the $100 million club non-pitchers whose yearly salary is 4.7 times as much as the average MLB player, are almost 3 times more likely to be on the disabled list.

Why is that?

Scott Myers

Why are they on the disabled list? Because to build a resume to get that kind of money, it takes a lot of years. I bet if you took the average age of when players hit that big dough, they'd be 33-34 years old. That's when a body gets brittle. Ten day injuries turn into four-week injuries. Four-weekers turn into half-seasons. And so forth.

Why do they make so much then? The word "greed" comes to mind. Owners become so enamored of a player that they think they can't live without him. So they pay as a suggestion they're "doing all they can" to win.

To me, baseball would be better off with a salary cap that would help teams avoid the silly-number contract. With a cap, teams would have been more careful about taking on guys at the ends of their career.

As you point out, it often doesn't help. If a team missed on, say, Prince Fielder, well, what did it really cost them? A place in the standings? A few more butts in the seats? Certainly, it didn't cost them a championship.

Scott, you are a master of this. You amaze me with your salary abuse observations. I mean that sincerely.

So, maybe the problem isn't that the Rays pay too little. It's that everyone else pays too much. (Of course, both statements could be true, now that I think about it.) Especially, teams pay too much when they get impressed with the back of a guy's baseball card. You can sign Sandy Koufax because of what he did; it just isn't going to do you much good.

I've been stunned throughout the years to find out that Mets were still paying Bobby Bonilla, who played long ago. He still makes more than $1 million a year, and will until 2035. Other players have the same deferred type of deal.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a player. Now that I'm older, I want to be an ex-player. Is that too much to ask?

 I have a 20th anniversary Rays jersey and get to have a name put on it. Of all the young players on the Rays these days, who do you think might be around the longest with the Rays – both from a productivity standpoint and the least likely to be traded?

Cecil DeBald

Cecil, if I were you, I'd put my own name on it. You're far too valuable to be traded, man. I see you as a cornerstone.

If you really want a player, though, I might go with Kevin Kiermaier. He's locked into a contract until 2023. Naturally, the Rays could move him, but there are problems with that.

Kiermaier is never going to be a thumper. He's a gazelle in center field, a guy who can make a breathtaking catch, but he's been a little brittle. Do other teams trade for brittle-outfielders who don't hit a lot? Not much.

After that, I'd look at the young players. Willie Adames, who was just up for a little while, comes to mind. I think he can be a cornerstone player. Blake Snell may grow into the type of pitcher the Rays have always envisioned Chris Archer to be. Daniel Robertson may be here for a few years.

If you don't like that idea, how about putting the name of a Rays' great on the back of the jersey. How about Carl Crawford? How about Wade Boggs? Fred McGriff? John Flaherty? Old favorites never  get traded, you know.

It's an interesting question, because it doesn't take long for your mind to wrap itself around the minor leagues. Adames. Honeywell. Bauer. It's a comment on the instability of the Rays.

Maybe you could buy one that said "Sternberg" on it.

I've never understood why every one of our sporting events has to begin with a showy display of patriotism. As a sportswriter, when I'm be on a hard deadline before a baseball game, it seems excessive that at every single game we are required to pause while someone drags out a three-minute, self-aggrandizing version of the National Anthem. What other workforce attempts to force its employees to prove their patriotism every single day they report for work? That doesn't even happen in military jobs. Does an accountant, an insurance salesperson, a plumber, a pool cleaner, a doctor getting ready to perform emergency surgery, have to pause before doing their job to engage in an act of patriotism? The NFL, not shockingly, botched this decision again, which will only keep this debate raging. I say do away with the National Anthem before sporting events altogether. It's time has come and gone. What say you?

Peter Kerasotis

Peter: One question. What deadline are you under when the anthem plays? Man, that's tough.

Seriously, I certainly agree that the NFL botched their latest decision. Every time the kneeling controversy seems ready to die down, someone (Trump, the owners) does something to keep the wounds fresh.

You're right. They don't play the anthem at concerts or a day at the beach or an art gallery. They don't play it at the Post Office or the Social Security office or your local Honda dealership. On the other hand, it isn't a tradition there, either.

Back when the flag didn't incite such feelings, I remember asking the same question: Why do they play it? A lot of the fans were trying to order a beer at the time, or they were lost in conversations. Somehow, however, the National Anthem has become a tradition, and NFL owners see profit in placating the fans.

Me? I stand for every anthem. When a Canadian team is in town, I stand. When I was at the Olympics, I remember how beautiful the Israeli anthem was on the night it won its first gold medal as a nation. I stand for Russia and for China and for Norway. Not because I embrace any of their policies -- I'm an American -- but out of respect for those who love their anthem.

But the NFL's protestors, really, didn't bother me. They were just trying to draw attention to a cause. I thought fans really over-reacted. I was never a Colin Kaepernick guy -- he won three games his final two seasons -- but he had the right to protest. I wouldn't want him quarterbacking my team, because I thought he was closer to Josh Freeman than he was to Joe Montana. But his protests didn't bother me.

So why do we play the anthem? Turns out, it started being played daily in World War I. A lot of men had died during the war, and a bomb had gone off in Chicago, and things felt grim. Then, during a seventh-inning stretch of a game between Boston and Chicago, the Anthem was played. An infielder named Fred Thomas saluted the flag, and the crowd applauded wildly. Soon, it was played everywhere.

I don't see the owners of any sport surrendering and stopping its play at this point. I've suggested this: Play it 20 minutes before the game, before the players are out. If you really care about the anthem, what do you care if the players aren't there. Or play it at halftime. There are enough minutes in a game to satisfy both sides.

The NFL -- and other leagues -- want to stand with the Armed Forces, and with the police, and with the veterans. That makes it part of the establishment, and what gets protested in hard times but the establishment?

Let me ask you this, Peter: When a fan hears the anthem, is he really thinking of Washington crossing the Delaware and Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address or the flag-raising at Iwo Jima? Probably not. He's wondering if his team is going to be able to run the ball.

Again, in the midst of controversy, I don't see the owners saying "well, we just won't play it again." But there are certainly better compromises than the one the NFL came to, aren't there?

Do you think that we will start to hear Dungy-like rumors about Jon Cooper? Too calm...Cant win the big one...Need someone else to get the team over the hump?
 
Jim Willson

Of course we will. There is nothing more vicious than a disappointed fan, and the more they believe in their players, the more likely they are to blame the coaching staff. It doesn't mean it's fair, or it's right. But it's convenient.<

The one thing that might save Cooper is that hockey's beauty is that it's a free-flow, ad-lib game. Most other sports have a period where play stops and the coach thinks of a strategy (a bootleg, a reverse, a hit-and-run, a pick-and-roll). Often they are the decisions that drive fans crazy.<

I defended Dungy against those who suggested "he can't win the big one." And he did win (with Indianapolis). You can argue he should have won more, but if fans are going to dissect a man's character and decide that he can't win the big one, he did win one.

But fans cheered for this team for a full season, and for some of its players for longer. Are they likely to be more angry at Nikita Kucherov or Cooper? Steven Stamkos or Cooper? Victor Hedman or Cooper?

So it'll start. You can plan on it. Is it correct? No. I think Cooper is the best coach the Bolts have had. He's calm, and he's smart, and he cares.

The problem? He didn't win. Darn him.

Do you think Steven Stamkos’ reputation has taken a hit with his mundane performances in the playoffs over the years? I mean hockey writers were saying before this year’s playoffs started it was up to Stamkos to carry this team to the Stanley Cup. He didn’t come close to doing that. Has his history of injuries taken a toll on him?

 Larry Beller

Yes, I think it's taken a bit of a knock. I don't think people see Stamkos as the threat he once was, whether that's because of injuries or being more pass-happy than he used to be.

I know,I know. Stamkos scored four goals in the final series against the Caps. A lot of players -- most of them -- did worse. But Stammer didn't score in the final three games, when the team could have used him. He seems a bit slower than he did, and he's always had trouble manufacturing his own shot.

Personally, I think it's unfair at this stage to expect Stamkos to carry the Lightning. I think he can still be of use -- that one-timer is blistering -- but there was a time you couldn't take your eyes off of him when he was on the ice. I don't think that's true anymore.

I think the injuries have had some toll. Next season will be interesting when his knee has had more time. But if he doesn't score at least 30, I wouldn't be surprised if the Bolts change the way they look at him.

All of that said, I like Stamkos. He's got a great perspective in the locker room, and he cares about this team. But if you were to honestly evaluate him, no, he isn't the player he was. Do you think?

Attendance of 10,000 for the Rays and Red Sox.  They used to be a big draw. What happened?

Jim Willson

They used to be a big draw because Red Sox fans filled the Trop. That isn't happening as much. It has happened recently with Yankees' fans.

I don't think a team gets rich -- and stays rich -- off of the strength of the opposing team. Especially not at premium prices. Tampa Bay fans often have been content to watch the games on TV -- or not at all -- and not bother going to the park. Until recent seasons, that can be said of the Sox, too.

The low point of the series against Boston was Wednesday night when they drew 10.194. But that's the night the Lightning played in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, so that's understandable. But on Tuesday night when there was no hockey, they drew 10,642. On Thursday night, when there was no hockey, they drew 12.468.

Look, we know that Tampa Bay fans don't come out -- especially on school nights -- to watch their team. We can rehash all of the excuses if we want. But to draw 32,000 for three games against Boston. That doesn't make you want to drive to Ybor and start laying brick, does it?

It's now been eight games since the team drew at least 20,000. Not since their opener have they drawn 30,000. I don't know about you, but I'm never surprised at a small crowd anymore.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick May 31, 2018 at 12:18 am

My three stars of the playoffs were Vasy, Callihan, and Point. Too many of the rest of the team was not playing at playoff speed or intensity. One thing is obvious Steve Yzerman knows how to get talent here. It will take more of his magic this off season, to work around some of the salary problems we have as a team, the Tampa fans got close again and we want the cup. Good news we freed up some dead money as we made the last installment on Lecaviliers contract last year put 1.5 million back in the cap.

Name on a Rays Jersey? How about a city, although that might not be very stable either? As of now it seems like St. Pete, Tampa, or Montreal.

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Gary Shelton May 31, 2018 at 12:34 am

I like it. I think Sternberg would want Tampa in all caps.

My three stars would be Hedman, Point and maybe Vasy.

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Bill MYERS May 27, 2018 at 8:47 am

So are big guys in the NHL such a rare commodity? If not, why are the Lightning lacking in that area? Whose fault is that? Everybody seems to agree that the Bolts don’t have enough muscle on skates! So how did the bolts even get in the playoffs without help from the big guys? So let’s beef up and maybe they go all the way in 2019!

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Gary Shelton May 27, 2018 at 10:25 am

The Lightning fell into with Tyler Johnson, who was very good early, but small. Gourde was a find for a regular season. A good big man is harder to find than a good little man.

Simple as that.

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Cecil DeBald May 26, 2018 at 10:49 am

Thanks, Gary, I have a Longo & Boggs jersey, will go with one of the youngsters, or maybe Span… Otherwise, I think if you’re going to have a ceiling in MLB for salary, you need a floor, too. I don’t see that happening without revenue sharing, and I don’t see that happening at all… I am of the opinion that MLB at the very top (Commissioner & Owners) wants, every year, for the majority of the big city teams to be in the race. The occasional small-market team that makes it in for a year or two is “nice”, gives the illusion of parity. They don’t want parity…but the illusion is nice…

Cecil

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Gary Shelton May 26, 2018 at 4:12 pm

Makes sense to me. The ratings are better when the Yankees are competing.

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Larry May 26, 2018 at 7:57 am

I don’t know if we will ever see Stamkos play like he did the years he scored all those goals. He doesn’t have the speed he used to and injuries are responsible for that no doubt.

But it’s in the playoffs is where the declining level of his play shows up the most. When the checking gets tight, and the physical play is ramped up he becomes just another player. He’s good on the power play because of his blistering shot but not a guy who is going will lead his team to a Cup. He has to rely on others to do the heavy lifting. And that’s a problem for the Lightning because he has a big, long term contract.

He’s a great caption and is still effective in the regular season. But not so good when you need him the most in the playoffs.

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Gary Shelton May 26, 2018 at 4:13 pm

Personally, I think he’s a secondary player. Those can still help, but it’s hard to ask them to lead.

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Bill MYERS May 27, 2018 at 12:12 pm

Thanks for the insight. I do hope they can beef up some next season!

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Gary Shelton May 27, 2018 at 7:17 pm

Yeah, all of us do. They don’t have to be monsters, but a respectable force would be good.

Reply

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