The Tampa Bay Lightning obtained the best player – defenseman Andrej Meszaros – in its recent trade with the Ottawa Senators.
And that’s obviously a significant factor to consider.
The Bolts surrendered a solid prospect in blueliner Alexandre Picard, 23, and a capable D-man in 31-year-old veteran Filip Kuba. Not to mention, the Bolts sent San Jose’s 2009 first round pick – acquired in a previous deal – to the Sens, too. That’s a steep price for a solid, if unspectacular player in Meszaros.
And, in simple mathematical terms, the Lightning traded away two NHL-caliber defensemen while getting back just one in return. Yes, Tampa got the best defender, but for a team that struggled last season in large part due to its inexperienced and sub-par defense corps, the departure of two of its top-six defensemen is a blow.
It’s not as though Tampa had a lot of blueline depth to begin with. Meszaros (22 years old, 246 NHL games) vaults to the top of Tampa’s depth chart on defense, followed by Matt Carle (24 years old, 151 NHL games), Paul Ranger (24 years old, 220 NHL games), Shane O’Brien (25 years old, 157 NHL games), Andrew Hutchinson (28 years old, 95 NHL games) and Mike Lundin (24 years old, 81 NHL games).
It might be a decent group in a couple of years, but Tampa’s top six won’t scare anybody this season.
Meszaros, remember, had the benefit of easing into a defensive juggernaut in the Senators, back when Ottawa’s blueline boasted Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden. Now, Meszaros has to be the shutdown guy on a new team while also keying the attack from the back end. He’s going to play 25-plus minutes a night, against opponents’ best players. That’s a big load to carry.
Carle was a frequent healthy scratch in San Jose the past two seasons; he has loads of offensive potential, but his performance in the defensive zone – where Tampa undoubtedly needs the most help – requires improvement.
Ranger was a pleasant rookie surprise a couple years ago and will get all the minutes he can handle. But like Carle, he should probably be on the third pairing playing 12-15 minutes per game rather than taking on top-four responsibility and 20-25 minutes a night.
O’Brien provided brawn and bravado as a sophomore, but regular duty on the top two pairings is asking too much.
As for Hutchinson…well, he’s 28 and hasn’t played 100 NHL games yet, so the “journeyman” tag is fair.
Lundin, after four years at Maine, played 81 games as a rookie last season. He surely would’ve benefited from some ice time in the American League – and you could probably say the same thing about him this season. Lundin might be a bona fide NHLer one day, but Tampa is asking too much, too soon, from too many defensemen who are too young.
Behind Lundin are Janne Niskala and Ty Wishart, Matt Smaby and Vladimir Mihalik – a bunch of barely 20-year-old prospects with varying amounts of promise. All of them should be seasoned in the minors in 2008-09, not bouncing up and down between the AHL and spot duty in the NHL. Look for Niskala and Smaby, in particular, to play more in the NHL than in the AHL this year.
One potential bright light is the fact the Bolts boast about 18 NHL-caliber forwards – perhaps the plan is to make some in-season trades for defensive help.
For Tampa’s sake, let’s hope that’s the case.
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News’ senior copy editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears weekly.
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