by Ian Cunningham
Last night on the NHL on TSN, Pierre Lebrun mentioned that Tampa GM Steve Yzerman is looking to add a top-four defenseman in the near future. Lebrun is the latest addition to TSN’s expert panel of NHL Insiders, joining fellow Insiders Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie, along with host James Duthie. This group forms unarguably the best analytical coverage of what transpires behind the scenes in the NHL. So when Lebrun states that the Bolts are actively pursuing a top-four D-man it should be taken seriously.
Lebrun goes on to comment that a poor start in their own end, compounded by surgery to veteran blueliner Mattias Ohlund, has left Yzerman with little option but to look elsewhere for an upgrade. The problem being that there is a scarcity of top-four defensemen available and it is unknown what Yzerman and Co. would be willing to part with up-front. So for the purposes of this column we will examine available D-men and the estimated price to acquire their services. Throughout the early course of the season there are two teams that do appear somewhat willing to part with a member of the back end, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Hurricanes veteran Joni Pitkanen has had his name boundied about in the media as of late with the ‘Canes rumored to be seeking a top-six forward in return. Pitkanen would most definitely be capable of filling a void on the Bolts blueline. Pitkanen has an offensive mind an ability to advance the puck out of his own end of the ice. He has cracked the 40 point mark four times in his career and at 28 still has plenty of good hockey ahead of him. He is also capable of logging big minutes, Pitkanen is averaging almost 25 minutes per game with the ‘Canes this season. One knock on Pitkanen is that he sometimes does not use all of his 6‘3“ frame to his advantage, but when he chooses to he can use it quite effectively.
The other rumored defenseman on the block is Carl Gunnarson of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gunnarson is only in his second season but shows lots of promise. He is already handling top-four minutes in the Big Smoke and shows no signs of relinquishing his spot on the blueline. With an abundance of foot speed along with an ability to exit his own end with the puck, Gunnarson could be a prime candidate for trade considering Toronto has eight NHL calibre defensemen under contract.
The problem with Pitkanen, as well as with Gunnarson, is not his shortcomings but what it will take to acquire the defenseman. Carolina and Toronto are both seeking scoring depth, while Tampa does have some established scorers up front. So let’s take a look at the Tampa forwards. Right away you can scratch Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Ryan Malone from any trade offers. An obvious target on the Bolts roster would be youngster Brett Connolly , but both the ‘Canes and Leafs are under pressure to make the playoffs this year, and there is no guarantee Connolly will blossom in time. Plus the fact Tampa is quite reluctant to part with arguably their only blue chip prospect.
Looking down the roster you see the likes of Steve Downie, Nate Thompson, Teddy Purcell, or Dominic Moore as top six material. Although the chemistry in this group seems apparent, they would be deemed somewhat expendable players. However, for the purposes of a trade with either Carolina or Toronto, who desire a top six forward, only Dominic Moore and Teddy Purcell stand out as return for the Canes. Moore potted 18 goals last season while Purcell had 17 for the Bolts. Nate Thompson is poised to break out offensively but it seems unlikely Yzerman would want to part with the spark plug forward, capable of playing both center and wing.
It is almost certain that Brian Burke would not reacquire Moore via trade, so it looks like Purcell would be a more likely candidate for Toronto. Considering Purcell’s +/- ranking of +5 last year versus the -12 of a slighter and older Dominic Moore, one could assume that Teddy Purcell would also be more appealing to the ‘Canes when dealing with Tampa. So put on your “GM POV” caps and ask yourself if you see Carolina GM Jim Rutherford, or Brian Burke in Toronto swapping their respective D for Teddy Purcell. In my opinion, I don’t see two veteran managers going for such a switch, unless there was something sweet thrown in, say Brett Connolly. Along those lines do you see Steve Yzerman agreeing to that trade? Probably not.
With the Bolts seemingly unable to improve the blueline via trade, Yzerman always has other options available, namely free agency. There are still a few veteran blueliners up for grabs on the open market that could fill Tampa’s needs for the right price. Most namely of all is former Florida Panthers captain Bryan McCabe. McCabe was traded to the NY Rangers at last year’s deadline, but was not re-signed by the club during the off-season. The 36 year-old is not only on the back nine of his career, he’s teeing up on the 18th. However, McCabe has been keeping in shape in hopes of landing a contract and I would not be surprised if his agent, Ian Pulver, has already been in touch with Yzerman.
McCabe has the ability to play big minutes, in all situations, and has a cannon for a shot on the power play. He reportedly turned down several tryout offers, hoping to land a contract with a club in need. Tampa could very well be a good fit for the veteran, willing to take one last kick at the can, and on a club with a legitimate shot at competing for the Cup. It is fairly safe to assume that McCabe would not be signed to a contract any higher than $1.5 million, so cap compliance would not be an issue either. This is, of course, speculation of the highest degree, but worth noting that Bryan McCabe is a legitimate possibility to help a mended D-corps in the short term. Not to mention, that with the return of Mattias Ohlund in a couple of months (yes that’s how long it will be), McCabe could be a key component to the depth of the Bolts blueline as they make a push to go deep in the playoffs.
The other alternative is to ride it out, so to speak, until Ohlund returns before Christmas. I’m sure this is not an acceptable option for the Lightning, who just invested massive dollars into renovations of the St. Pete Time’s Forum, as well as a complete re-branding of the Lightning organization. Jeff Vinik and company need immediate results to capitalize on the hype surrounding this brand make-over, and faultering out of the gate could easily dissuade the casual hockey fans in the Bay Area. It would appear a move is inevitable to bolster the blueline, the question being will Yzerman risks surrendering too much of a young supporting cast up front? Or does he sign an aging veteran who could be too long in the tooth for a game that seems to speed up every time we flip the calendar on a new season? Any way you look at it, status quo will most likely be insufficient for a team carrying lofty expectations only six games into the season.