Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Marty St. Louis deserves thanks but not for what you think

TAMPA

A lot of people in Tampa Bay are pretty hacked off at Marty St. Louis.

They feel abandoned, betrayed. They feel as if the best player in franchise history walked away from his teammates and his fans and took the Lightning's Stanley Cup hopes with him.

Be angry if you want. That's your right. But there's something else you should be. Thank­ful.

Not for all of the wonderful things St. Louis did in a Lightning uniform, but for this: St. Louis might have done the Lightning a huge favor.

This blockbuster trade that sent St. Louis to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan, a first-round pick and another high pick? I'm starting to think this has a chance to go down as one of the better deals in franchise history.

Lightning fans don't want to hear this, and no one in the front office can ever admit this, but this team is not quite ready to win the Stanley Cup. It needs a little more time in the oven. It needs another piece or two. It's hard to see it skating stride for stride in the playoffs with the Eastern Conference big boys such as the Penguins and Bruins.

So if someone offers you a couple of high draft picks and a high-character, hard-working player in his prime for a soon-to-be 39-year-old with only one more year left on his contract and a ticking clock on his career, why wouldn't you think about it?

When you throw in the fact that St. Louis, for whatever reason, no longer wanted to be here, why wouldn't you do it?

I'll say this: General manager Steve Yzerman loused up this whole St. Louis-Canadian Olympic-team snub from the start and severely misread how St. Louis would react. But he was absolutely masterful in pulling off the deal he did especially because he was talking with one team and one team only.

Even if Callahan leaves as a free agent after the season, the Lightning still has two good draft picks and plenty of cash to spend on other free agents.

Not that Thursday was all rainbows and puppies. The stench from this whole St. Louis mess lingers.

Even the return of new captain Steven Stamkos and the debut of Callahan won't make everyone forget the St. Louis soap opera. Lightning coach Jon Cooper called a meeting Thursday morning simply to acknowledge it all.

"We can sit here and debate these last few weeks to a month and if there has been a distraction or not," Cooper said. "But I think there has been probably something hanging over our team for quite some time."

There was a palpable sense of relief Thursday, but in no way should that suggest St. Louis won't be missed. Of course he will. He remains a tremendous player and, truth be told, has more skill than Callahan.

"I think Marty's play speaks for itself," Callahan admitted. "He's one of the top players in this league. By no means am I trying to come in and replace what he did here. I'm not going to try to change the way I play or how I approach the game."

Nor should he.

''My major message to him," Cooper said, "was don't come in here and be Marty St. Louis. Don't come in here and think that you have to replace him. That's not what you're here for. You're here because we really like you as a player."

There's a lot to like. He blocks shots. He kills penalties. He goes to places on the ice where you're most likely to get a bloody nose.

He sticks up for teammates and makes life miserable for the other guy.

He has been known to bump into an opposing goalie and turn somewhat violent when someone bumps into his.

"The kid plays hard," Cooper said. "That's what you're looking for in guys. You want him to go to those dirty areas. You can't have enough of those guys."

Yzerman puts it well: The Lightning might not be better today, but it is different. And maybe different will be better. Callahan brings heart. He brings courage. He brings grit. He brings leadership. He brings many of the things the Lightning can use at this time of year and some of the things, quite frankly, it has been missing.

The Lightning doesn't have many players who are hard to play against.

"Oh, he's tough to play against," Stamkos said. "He does have a lot of the same qualities as Marty. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He plays with a chip. He's not the biggest guy, but he is physical. He's fearless. We lose a leader. We get another leader. He just brings that passion."

And he brings offense. Not as much as St. Louis but enough to make him an important piece.

The next couple of months will go a long way in determining how many of us view this trade.

It will be seen as a failure if the Lightning misses the playoffs or if Callahan doesn't re-sign or if St. Louis leads the Rangers on a long playoff run. It will be a success if the Lightning does make the playoffs and Callahan becomes a cornerstone.

But that's short-sighted. To be fair, it will take a few years to truly judge this trade.

Until then, remember this: St. Louis didn't want to be here and because of that, the Lightning pulled off a trade it would not have been able to make this summer or any time next season.

Maybe because of that, you shouldn't boo St. Louis the next time you see him.

You should thank him.

Tom Jones can be reached at [email protected] and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.

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