While hopes for the current season may be dimming in Tampa, the future is starting to look extraordinarily bright. With two goals against the struggling Boston Bruins Steven Stamkos eclipsed the fifty-goal mark for the second time in his young career. He joins five other players (Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Joe Nieuwendyk and Alex Ovechkin) as the only forwards in NHL history to have multiple 50-goal seasons before their 25th birthday. That wasn’t the only good news for the Lightning.
Earlier in the day the club announced that they had signed Vladislav Namestnikov to a 3-year entry level contract. The Lightning’s 2011 number one pick (27th overall) in 2011, Namestnikov has spent the last two seasons playing for London of the Ontario Hockey League where he has racked up 52 goals and 138 points in 128 games played.
At 19-years-old, the Russian-born winger will most likely start next season back in London, however, his age does give the organization some flexibility. With a strong camp he could make the club outright, as Brett Connolly did this season, or he could be sent to the Lightning’s AHL affiliate for more seasoning.
Currently ranked 5th on Bolt Prospects Top 20 Prospects list, Namestnikov is a slightly-undersized pest of a forward who likes to work in high-traffic areas and get under his opponents skin. Scouting reports make him sound like a player out of the Steve Downie/Darcy Tucker school of agitators who also have enough skill to be dangerous offensively. Listed at 6’0” and 166 lbs. he will have to work on his size if he wants to be as effective when going against some of the mammoth-sized defenseman in the NHL.
His signing continues the recent trend by Lightning management to develop and retain young talent. Earlier this saw the team lock up Cory Conacher to an entry-level deal as well. Conacher has been the surprise of the season; brought in as an undrafted free agent the forward surprised everyone by almost playing his way onto the Lightning. After being demoted to Norfolk as one of the final cuts in camp he responded by scoring a team-leading 31 goals and playing well enough that General Manager Steve Yzerman felt comfortable in trading prospect Carter Ashton to Toronto.
Mr. Yzerman’s moves at the deadline also showed his dedication to youth. He traded away older, experienced players such as Dominic Moore and Pavel Kubina to bring in younger (and cheaper) skaters. With the exception of Mike Commodore, the players brought into the organization were all under 25-years-old.
The organization has struggled for years in developing their own prospects on a consistent basis. Their teams mostly consisted of free agents, extremely high draft picks or players brought in via trade. There was little to no development of second tier or depth players. In recent years the only forwards who skated on a regular basis for the Lightning that had any significant time in the lower levels of the organization were Dana Tyrell and Blair Jones. Mr. Yzerman is looking to change that.
According to CapGeek, Tampa Bay will have four unrestricted free agents when this season ends. The team would like to stay around the current $60 million payroll that they have now, but have several needs to fill. Most likely they would like to get a top-four defenseman and a top-six forward as well as fill out the bottom two lines should Adam Hall or Tim Wallace leave. They could also still be in play for a young, starting goaltender, but a successful close of the season by Dustin Tokarski could squash that need.
Clearing Dwayne Roloson’s $3.5 million salary will help bring in at least one of the free agents they seek, but if they can fill out their roster with home-grown players it will help keep their costs under control and prevent them from having to trade away any other assets such as draft picks for costly, proven players.
While some of their better known players such as Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis might be over 30, the vast majority of the team is still relatively young. There is a strong chance that Eric Brewer may be the only blueliner on the roster next year on the wrong side of 30. Meanwhile, the possible core of the next generation of Lightning stars are all under 25-years-old. Stamkos is only 22 as is Tokarski and Keith Aulie. Aulie’s occasional defensive partner Victor Hedman just turned 21 while Brett Connolly won’t be allowed into U.S. bars for more than a year.
Having young, controlled talent is going to be the key to being successful no matter how the labor negotiations progress over the summer. After the last work stoppage the Lightning were handcuffed because they had no depth in their system to off-set the high salaries their top players were making. They needed to fill holes in their roster with free agents, and free agents cost more money than internal prospects. Therefore, Nikolai Khabibulin was allowed to leave as a free agent and Brad Richards was traded off for pennies on the dollar.
Signing players like Conacher and Namestnikov show that the organization is committed to building the depth needed to be a team that is constantly contending. The next step is having the proper coaching in the system to actually develop these young players to make sure the investment isn’t wasted.