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Free agents Dan Girardi, Chris Kunitz add grit to Lightning

-TAMPA — The Lightning didn't land the top targets on the free agent market Saturday.

General manager Steve Yzerman said he was never close on snagging defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who signed a "dream" sweetheart deal with his hometown Rangers.

Wing Justin Williams got nearly as much money ($9 million) as Nikita Kucherov will make the next two seasons with Carolina.

But Tampa Bay, with needs on the blue line and the wing, feels it is a tougher opponent after signing two gritty veterans, defenseman Dan Girardi (two years, $6 million) and wing Chris Kunitz (one year, $2 million).

"I believe we're a better defensive hockey team today," Yzerman said. "We needed to be a better defensive hockey team, not just the (defensive) core. The way we play. We need to tighten up defensively as an entire team."

Yzerman said a main reason the Lightning missed the playoffs last season wasn't injuries to Steven Stamkos & Co, but it was the amount of grade-A scoring chances it allowed. The question is, is Tampa Bay a better equipped now to return to the postseason than the group that ended last one? A lot will depend on whether Stamkos, who is expected to be ready for the season, can stay healthy. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will also have to continue his path as a true No. 1. But the now crowded blue line will be a key factor.

Yzerman effectively replaced Jason Garrison (lost to Vegas in the expansion draft) with Girardi, and Jonathan Drouin (traded to Montreal) with Kunitz, 37.

Yzerman said last week that the Lightning was "a couple players away." Are Kunitz and Girardi those guys?

"I don't think (Girardi) is a top-four player," said Rangers color analyst Joe Micheletti, a former NHL defenseman. "But he can help a team if the numbers are right and the minutes are right and the situation is right."

Yzerman took a shot at the big fish in Shattenkirk this past week, but he said with the cap situation, the Lightning wasn't able to meet its needs. Shattenkirk signed a four-year, $26.6 million deal with New York.

The Rangers had the cap space due to buying out the final three years of Girardi's contract. Girardi, a Ranger for 11 seasons, said he's excited for a "new chapter" with Tampa Bay. And it appears Girardi will play a key role, though you wonder what his presence does to the opportunities for young defensemen Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin and Mikhail Sergachev.

"I can envision (Girardi) playing anywhere," Yzerman said. "He can be a great partner for (Victor Hedman) if needed, he could play with (Braydon) Coburn if needed, and maybe a great partner for (Sergachev) as well. We're confident he can play against the best players in the league.

The analytics haven't been kind to Girardi in shot attempts against. The stay-at-home defenseman and strong shot-blocker has been banged up (2015-16, knee; last season, ankle) but says he's 100 percent now.

"We use our own analytics," Yzerman said. "And the things we were looking for improvement in he fit that criteria."

Both free agent pickups are considered great presences/examples in the dressing room, Kunitz (161), a four-time Cup champion, and Girardi (122) immediately becoming the most experienced in playoff games played. Kunitz, a former Sidney Crosby linemate, can play on any line, plus the power play.

"Their competitive work ethic and how hard they play will elevate the competitiveness of our entire group," Yzerman said.

For a team that struggled with complacency the first half of last season, having a hungry Girardi — who has not won a Cup — and Kunitz — who knows how to win one — should help. Kunitz, coming off back-to-back Cup titles with the Penguins, believes the Lightning is close.

"It goes back to having that winning mentality," Kunitz said. "Always knowing you have to earn it every single night."

Wing Ryan Callahan, a former juniors and Rangers teammate of Girardi, said he spoke to both sides on the potential fit.

"I think it's perfect," Callahan said. "I think everyone knows his style of play, laid it on the line every single night. Blocking shots. He knows how to win."

Yzerman said with eight defensemen, he won't make other moves unless there's a trade, and they'll debate if they'll add another forward (other than re-signing Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat).

"We're not going to add just to add," Yzerman said. "We've got to decide what we want to do."

Free agents Dan Girardi, Chris Kunitz add grit to Lightning 07/01/17 [Last modified: Sunday, July 2, 2017 12:14pm]
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