For the first time ever, the two NHL teams that won their conferences lost in the first round last spring. In fact, they combined to win a whopping one game out of nine.
With Calgary and Tampa getting smoked by Colorado and Columbus, respectively, you knew changes would come. Those changes were always going to be limited by the former team’s poor cap management (i.e., multiple buyouts and questionable deals on the books) and the latter simply having too many star players eating up huge chunks of the salary cap.
Worth noting, too, that neither team is out of the woods on those salary limitations. Even in early September, both teams have unsigned restricted free agents who will command big AAVs, with no end in sight.
And with the Blues winning the Cup by being “big” and “heavy” — rather than attributing their success to “skill” and “depth” — you knew a lot of teams in this copycat league would be making some personnel decisions in an attempt to get bigger and stronger. In Calgary’s case, that was an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. Out goes James Neal (on a deal that was always going to turn sour, but arguably did so well ahead of schedule) and in comes Milan Lucic. For Tampa, its big add in this regard was Pat Maroon, ex of those champion Blues, even as they also replaced the hard-to-play-against Dan Girardi with another, cheaper Ranger castoff in actually-skates-the-puck Kevin Shattenkirk.
Here the two roads diverge. Maroon is big, sure, but he can also chip in offensively and is generally a good player as long as you don’t ask too much of him. Tampa has the roster depth that allows it that flexibility and then some. Maroon will be on the roster to eat minutes and provide a little bit more size to an undersized roster — there is, after all, nothing wrong with being a big hockey player as long as you can, y’know, play hockey. He’ll be a soldier and he’ll fit in well at the bottom of that lineup, which is all Tampa needs from him.
For the Flames, the Lucic decision continues to vex. Okay, yes, Neal had to go because he and the coach couldn’t stand each other, and on top of that he had a horrible debut season. That’s fair enough. Your options to get out from under that deal without yet another buyout — which would have given them three on the books this year and next, for a total of more than $3.5 million — were always going to be limited. But going up the road to bring in Lucic was the exact opposite of the right call, and it now appears the Flames are going to double down on it.
Edmonton at least had the right idea for how to handle Lucic as the season wore on: Keep him the hell away from the top half of the lineup. His minutes dropped precipitously after the deadline, as well they should have; he had just one goal in his last 31 games.
According to an interview with Bill Peters, the Flames will also choose to put him on the low end of the roster, possibly pairing him with Derek Ryan and Andrew Mangiapane, the latter of whose game is all about speed and skill, with the occasional cameo alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. He will also, apparently, front the net on the second power-play unit, and all one can say there is that it’s a good thing second power-play units are largely not impactful on team performance.
As for his 5-on-5 roles, you have to understand that Lucic was tried with fast players quite a bit in Edmonton, and the results were always the same: He was a drag because he couldn’t keep up. Granted, Lucic is in “phenomenal shape” but a high-performing cruise ship still takes a long time to maneuver and can’t keep up with even a moderately performing speed boat.
The reason he would get minutes with Gaudreau and Monahan is that “Johnny’s getting sticks broke across his hands.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but they tried that logic in pairing Lucic with Connor McDavid and it went more or less how you’d expect: McDavid still took a ton of physical punishment because of who he is, but at least he scored less.
The Flames added this guy because he brings a “dimension” they were “lacking,” but lacked basically the entire season in which they won the Western Conference. In all likelihood, they will soon find that adding big, slow wastes of money and roster space isn’t going to sort out whatever issues they think they may have.
So what’s the difference here? Tampa went out and added a big guy for next to nothing and has the ability to utilize him in exactly the way he needs to be used. He’s seen as useful to them only in part because of his size. Calgary went out and, with all its limitations acknowledged here, added a big guy who’s terrible, expensive, and signed forever — and are apparently planning to give him plenty of minutes, and opportunities to fail. He was added explicitly to do the things big guys do, which doesn’t have much utility in the NHL in 2019.
This difference only serves to highlight what separates a Lightning team that’s consistently at the top of the standings from a Calgary club that might end up being one-and-done atop the Western Conference.
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