Friday, December 23, 2011

Preview: A Damaged Unit Approaches Colorado

Good freaking gosh, was last season a freaking outlier? Have the Lightning returned to their longtime place of being a shlub team lacking sufficient depth and push to manage anything approaching championship calibre? Were we all deceived by a team that excelled only briefly, and can no longer sustain success with its current lineup? Or has the rest of the league figured out how to punch holes in the magical system Guy Boucher employs?

These are all important questions. But instead of getting in to all of that, I would like to yank on Steve Yzerman's ear and point to our good friends the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers have had the reputation seemly forever that they are a good team that can't win because they always have bad goaltending, no matter who they stick in there.

This past year they said enough is enough, and they traded for and signed a legitimate number one goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov. Sure, he sounds crazy in interviews and on 24/7, and his save percentage is currently below .900, but he has 14 wins in 24 games.

The Lightning's bad tandem of Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson have a record of 14 wins in 33 games.

Just like the Flyers, the Lightning have more often than not had bad goaltending. Excluding a brief run by Daren Puppa and the tenure of Nikolai Khabibulin, the Lightning have never had a goaltender that could be considered a big game goalie in his prime. They have instead had wannabes and pretenders, from the collapse of Marc Denis to the bandaid shutout by Mike McKenna. The Lightning have tried near-pensioners like Olaf Kolzig and this season's fading star Dwayne Roloson, and mid-card wrestlers such as Dan Ellis, Anterro Nittimaki, and this season's good-enough-stick-him-in-there co-starter Mathieu Garon.

I'll say it one hundred times: Dwayne Roloson was good enough last year that the Lightning were able to turn around a shaky first half, make the playoffs for the first time in years, and advance within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final. That is to say, he was great.

He's no longer great, and although he isn't likely to admit it, it may be the best a 42 year old man can do. He simply does not look sharp. He still comes up with spectacular saves, but there is a desperation about the whole affair.

And Garon? He is performing at the expected level: providing goaltending worthy of a solid backup, which would normally be suitable to fill in during brief injuries or to rest the old guy. Unfortunately, the old guy has been brutal, and Garon has been doing exactly what should be expected of him: providing goaltending worthy of a job as a back up. That means a record around .500 (8-9-1) and okay stats, maybe 2.90 GAA and a .901 save percentage.

And that's fine. But if he's your starter, you're not a contender.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have only been a contender twice, and that was when they had Nikolai Khabibulin, and last season with Roloson. It would appear at this stage that Roloson's performance last year was, unfortunately, his last great charge.

And it would appear that only the inactivity of Lightning GM Steve Yzerman will prevent Roloson from getting a good long chance to pull himself out of his funk. Meanwhile, another season slips by that can only be considered a step further away from real contention.

This team needs to stop bringing in characters that are clearly just temporary measures and pay the price to get a serious big game goalie. Yzerman inherited Mike Smith, but signed Ellis, Garon, and resigned an aging Roloson. He is clearly not trying to buy the best of the best. Acquiring Roloson by trade with the Islanders was shrewd, but it's likely Roloson has now emptied his NHL tank.

Perhaps Yzerman is waiting for the prospects to gradually emerge and take over. Jaroslav Janus, Dustin Tokarski, maybe there is a real NHL contender hanging around. And maybe, many years from now, they'll be ready to carry this team to glory.

But by applying bandaids like Ellis, Roloson, and Garon instead of acquiring a stud via trade or free agency, you limit the meanwhile teams to also-ran status.

Yzerman may be trying to follow the Detroit goaltending recipe: good-enough free agents mixed with good homegrown talent with a great team in front of them, and a Stanley Cup within reach every year.

That might work for Detroit; they're already stacked. Tampa Bay isn't, and they need a goalie to hold them a little closer in games. So Yzerman, if he's listening, should get busy looking for a top-flight goaltender to lift this middling team up to a contenders level. Because with the top-level talent they have at forward, they have no right to consider these to be merely building years while we wait for the prospects to emerge.

Your move, Steve Yzerman.

So the Lightning, after taking a 7-2 shitkicking at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, limp into Colorado to face the Avalanche before the Christmas break.

How does Guy Boucher name a starting goaltender for this game? From the Lightning's website preview:

Mathieu Garon: stopped just five of eight shots before getting pulled Wednesday.

Dwayne Roloson: 0-4-0 with a 5.09 GAA in his last six appearances.

Your move, coach.

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