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Numbers Game: Major Moves in Tampa Bay

Scott Cullen
7/1/2008 7:19:43 PM
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Tampa Bay's new ownership, led by Oren Koules and Len Barries, hit the ground running to say the least.

Numbers Game attempts to catch up on the new regime's first free agent signings.

The Lightning Get: LW Ryan Malone, LW Gary Roberts, LW Vaclav Prospal, RW Radim Vrbata and G Olaf Kolzig.
 
Malone, 28, is coming off the best season of his four-year NHL career and, admittedly, it came while playing much of the time alongside Evgeni Malkin.  A physical winger who isn't afraid to drop the gloves, and has terrific size at 6-foot-4, 224 pounds, Malone also earned major points for courage by playing in the Stanley Cup final only minutes after having his nose busted by an incoming slapshot when he was parked in front of the Red Wings net.

While Malone isn't going to find the same level of exceptional talent in Tampa Bay, he could fit in nicely beside first overall draft pick Steven Stamkos, helping to create some space and depositing the loose pucks he can corral in front of the opposing goal.

So, while all this sounds very complimentary to Malone, it's still hard to justify handing him a seven-year deal that will pay him $31.5-million.  A good player, just perhaps a tad expensive for a guy who has only surpassed 50 points once in four NHL seasons.

Coming along for the ride from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay, 42-year-old left winger Gary Roberts is in for an incentive-laden contract ($1.25-million base,plus $10,000 per game played).

After Roberts played just 38 games last year, it's fair to wonder how much he can contribute, but he was an energetic presence in the playoffs and his leadership and work ethic will likely be of greater impact than his scoring exploits. 

At the same time, prior to last season (when he scored 15 points) Roberts had put up 40 points in three straight campaigns, so he might be productive enough if he's needed to chip in offensively.

For their part, the Penguins will need to get active in the free agent market to find at least one scoring winger to complement their elite centres.

Vaclav Prospal thrived beside Vincent Lecavalier last season, before getting dealt to Philadelphia at the deadline, so it's no surprise that the Bolts want the 33-year-old to return, especially now that John Tortorella isn't behind the bench. 

At the very least, it should keep Lecavalier happy, as the Lightning's franchise player was minus-20 in 19 games down the stretch after Prospal was traded.

Now, next season would figure to be a down year on Prospal's up-and-down roller-coaster career, but he's coming off a career-high 33 goals, so it's not a bad investment to sign him up for the reported four-year, $14-million contract.

While Philadelphia might have been interested in keeping Prospal, they have more than enough depth up front that they should be able to handle the loss.

Not satisfied with their offensive upgrades, the Lightning hit the free agent market and brought in Radim Vrbata from Phoenix, signing the 27-year-old to a three-year, $9-million contract.

Vrbata's career has been marked by inconsistency, and there is some measure of risk in "buying high" when a player comes off his career-best season, but Vrbata's point totals have increased in each of the last three seasons, so it's certainly reasonable to expect him to fulfill a complementary scoring role in Tampa Bay.

If Vrbata is skating with Malone and Stamkos, for example, he should be good for at least 20 goals, maybe even 30.

Phoenix has a lot of quality young forwards on the way up, but there could be some short-term pain as Shane Doan was the only Coyote to score more goals than Vrbata's 27 last season.
 
All these signing could present ice-time issues for a couple of last season's acquisitions -- Michel Ouellet and Jussi Jokinen -- both of whom figure to be worthy of complementary scoring roles that aren't available to them in Tampa Bay.  Perhaps they will either play in lesser roles or could be used as trade bait in an attempt to shore up a defence core that still needs work.

Tampa Bay eventually addressed the defensive side of the team by signing 38-year-old goaltender Olaf Kolzig

Kolzig's numbers have declined in recent seasons, with his .892 save percentage last season representing his lowest mark since 1995-1996.  That decline prompted the Caps to deal for Cristobal Huet last season, then turn around and sign Jose Theodore to be the starter for 2008-2009.

Kolzig signed a one-year, $1.5-million deal, and Olie the Goalie may still have designs on playing a starter's role.  He should at least have the opportunity to compete for the spot with Mike Smith, who was picked up from Dallas in the Brad Richards trade last year. 

Of course, this presumes that the Lightning won't make any further acquisitions, a presumption that is awfully dangerous given the all-out nature of the makeover this team has undergone since Koules and Barrie took the reins.

At the end of the first day of free agency, it is undeniable that the Lightning are going to be much better next season than they were this past year, but there are still definite needs on the blueline that need to be addressed if Tampa Bay is going to have legitimate hopes of making a Flyers-like rapid rise in the standings.
 
Scott Cullen can be reached at scullen@tsn.ca



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