Circus in Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay Lightning, for the better part of a decade, have been the poster franchise for a successful sunbelt team. They made money (almost enough to contribute into revenue sharing), had a great attendance record, and iced a competitive team that won the Stanley Cup in 2004. They – along with Dallas and San Jose – proved that a city didn’t need to have snow to be successful.

In 2008, that all changed.

The franchise was sold to the due of Oren Koules and Len Barrie, the former a proprietor of the Saw movie franchise and the latter a real estate mogul. It started out alright – they drafted Steven Stamkos first overall, and used a 7th round pick on David Carle (who, after being considered a top defensive prospect, was told he could never play hockey again due to a heart defect). In fact, things were looking almost peachy. But then came free agency.

I’m not even going to try to analyze all their moves in the off-season, instead just present them to you here (that’s right, this is the off-season ONLY):

Acquired the rights to left wing Vaclav Prospal from the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2008 seventh-round pick and a 2009 conditional fourth-round pick; acquired the rights to left wings Gary Roberts and Ryan Malone from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a 2009 third-round pick; acquired the rights to right wing Brian Rolston from the Minnesota Wild for a conditional pick in either 2009 or 2010; acquired defenseman Janne Niskala from the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2009 sixth-round pick; signed goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who had been with the Washington Capitals, to a one-year contract; signed right wing Adam Hall, who had been with the Pittsburgh Penguins, to a three-year contract; signed right wing Radim Vrbata, who had been with the Phoenix Coyotes, to a three-year contract; signed center Wyatt Smith, who had been with the Colorado Avalanche, to a one-year contract; signed left wing David Koci, who had been with the Chicago Blackhawks, to a one-year contract; acquired defensemen Matt Carle and Ty Wishart, a 2009 first-round pick and a 2010 fourth-round pick from the San Jose Sharks for defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich; signed right wing Mark Recchi, who had been with the Atlanta Thrashers, to a one-year contract; signed right wing Brandon Bochenski, who had been with the Nashville Predators, to a two-year contract; signed right wing Evgeny Artyukin, who had been in Russia, to a multi-year contract; signed defenseman Andrew Hutchinson, who had been with the New York Rangers, to a two-year contract; signed center Zenon Konopka, who had been with the Columbus Blue Jackets, to a two-year contract; acquired defenseman Andrej Meszaros from the Ottawa Senators for defensemen Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard and a 2009 first-round pick; acquired a 2009 conditional pick from the Nashville Predators for center Nick Tarnasky; acquired the rights to defenseman Michal Sersen from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a 2009 fifth-round pick; acquired defenseman Lukas Krajicek and right wing Juraj Simek from the Vancouver Canucks for defenseman Shane O’Brien and right wing Michel Ouellet.

Source: [link]

Basically, if you don’t want to read that enormous block of text, the Lightning signed a whole bunch of forwards from free agency, and left little money to boost their defense and goaltending.

In fact, they committed probably their most egregious error of all in regards to their defense: the Dan Boyle trade. Needing to free up some cap space because of all the free agents, they turned to one of the more expensive players on their roster, Dan Boyle, after he had somewhat of an off season after a freak skate accident. Boyle had just signed a 6 year, $40 million contract extension in February with a NTC. He had also just bought some land to build a new house, where he and his pregnant wife were going to live. Of course, that didn’t matter to Koules and Barrie, and they told him to waive his NTC or else he would be put on waivers, and likely be snatched up by the Atlanta Thrashers.

Boyle agreed to a trade to the San Jose Sharks, and thus the trade was set: Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich for Matt Carle, Ty Wishart, and 2009 1st and 4th round picks. By all accounts, Tampa Bay was hosed – Carle was underperforming, Wishart was not yet ready for the NHL, and Boyle and Lukowich were established NHL defensemen. And then of course, Boyle goes on to his second-best season in the NHL, while both Carle and the 2009 1st were traded away (Carle to the Flyers, and the 1st to Ottawa, and then the Islanders).

Following the free-agent frenzy, as well as the lack of defensemen being signed, comments like these were often heard: “Is it possible they are actually planning to pioneer a totally defence-free style of hockey?” and “No word yet on if they realize teams also have defensemen.”

Ironically, despite the complaint of having no defensemen, the Lightning would go on to have 21 different defensemen playing for them throughout the season. Steve Eminger, Lukas Krajicek, Andrej Meszaros, Cory Murphy, Paul Ranger, Matt Lashoff, Marek Malik, Josef Melichar, Matt Smaby, Richard Petiot, Vladimir Mihalik, Janne Niskala, Jamie Heward, Matt Carle, Mike Lundin, Ty Wishart, Kevin Quick, Andrew Hutchinson, Shane O’Brien, and Noah Welch all suited up for the Lightning this past season.

But Koules and Barrie weren’t done yet; they hired a new head coach, a mullet-wearing Barry Melrose who hadn’t coached in 12 years, and couldn’t win the Stanley Cup with both Luc Robataille and Wayne Gretzky on his team. Needless to say, he was fired, and Rich Tocchet was hired as the interim coach; a man who was charged with financing a nationwide sports gambling ring. He led the team to #2 draft pick position, behind only the incredibly incompetent Islanders.

The season itself was rife with turmoil; Marty St. Louis remarked after a loss to the Thrashers, “Plain and simple, there’s not enough guys who want to make a difference.” He added about some teammates, “Clock killers, that’s all it is.” Added goalie Mike Smith, “I don’t know how some guys sleep at night.”

I could give a blow-by-blow of how they achieved a 24-40-18 record, but I won’t. Lightning fans have suffered enough.

But what brings this subject up now of all times is that Koules and Barrie have gone Hollywood on everyone and are itching for a divorce. Today, they met with NHL Commish Gary Bettman to see who gets to make the decisions for the franchise. To quote the St. Petersburg Times, “And so the humiliation of an ownership group reaches a new crescendo. If you thought it was bad when Dan Boyle called them liars, or John Tortorella described them as cowboys or Barry Melrose accused them of being meddlers, then this is worse.”

Koules wants to trade away Vinny Lecavalier, a franchise cornerstone and owner of a recently extended contract and NTC (sound familiar?), for prospects and draft picks to keep the franchise near the cap floor. Barrie, on the other hand, wants to build around Lecavalier to field a competitive team, keeping the spending level around $50M. Lightning fans probably want Barrie to be in control.

As what could be expected from this circus formerly known as the Lightning, Koules was ruled to have control of the decision-making.

And thus, Montreal fans rub their hands together in hopes of using their roughly $33M in cap space on Lecavalier as the mistreated Lightning fans are once again told to bend over by the incompetence that is OK Hockey. It is amazing what can happen in a year, how such a great franchise can become the laughingstock of the league with a change in ownership.