The Lightning already has scorers, so what did it really want with Joe Pavelski?

Tampa Bay made a strong pitch for the All-Star forward who signed with Dallas on Monday, and the reasons might have gone beyond the obvious.
San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski (8) against the Chicago Blackhawks during an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Sunday, March 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski (8) against the Chicago Blackhawks during an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Sunday, March 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Published July 1

TAMPA – Let’s talk about the guy the Lightning did not sign on Monday.

To me, he is the most fascinating of all the players Tampa Bay was chasing on the first day of free agency. Not just because Joe Pavelski was the biggest name and the most expensive player on the Lightning’s radar, but because of what it says about the team’s concerns.

Tampa Bay had the most explosive offense in the NHL last season, and is struggling to fit all of its current players under the salary cap. Which leads to an obvious question:

Why chase another goal-scorer?

[ MORE LIGHTNING: Bolts add a third goalie in Curtis McElhinney ]

Clearly, Pavelski would make Tampa Bay a better team. He was a three-time All-Star in San Jose and averaged 34 goals over the past half-dozen seasons. And, had he signed with Tampa Bay instead of going to Dallas for a three-year, $21-million contract, the Lightning probably could have cleared some extra cap space with another trade or two.

Yet statistics, and logic, suggest the Lightning could use more help on the defensive end of the ice.

So why would a team with three younger, 40-goal scorers be willing to make such a costly commitment to a soon-to-turn 35-year-old forward?

Here are three possible reasons:

1. Pavelski is a different species compared to Tampa Bay’s twin superstars, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Over the past two seasons, Stamkos is second in the NHL in goals scored via the slap shot. When it comes to wrist shots, Kucherov is fifth and Brayden Point is eighth.

In other words, these are supremely skilled shooters. The kind of players who end up leading SportsCenter’s NHL roundup because of the beauty of their games.

Pavelski, on the other hand, is first in the NHL the past two seasons in deflected goals. He’s 10th in tipped goals. He’s a guy who plants himself in front of the net, and endures the hits, shoves and slashes required to score the dirty goals.

Last season, 11 of Pavelski’s 38 goals were on tips and deflections. Of the 127 combined goals for Stamkos, Kucherov and Point, only eight were on tips and deflections.

Might a player with more net presence have made a difference when Columbus clogged up the neutral zone and took away Tampa Bay’s offensive speed in the first round of the NHL playoffs?

2. Stamkos is the Lightning captain, and the conduit between the players and coach Jon Cooper. He is beloved in the community and respected in the locker room.

But is it possible the Lightning would like another veteran voice? A player with the resume and the presence to speak up before a playoff bump becomes a playoff collapse?

Something was lost when Ryan Callahan effectively retired last month, and it wasn’t the handful of goals he scored the past few seasons. Callahan could set an example for younger players, but that gets harder to do the less you play.

And now, three of the four oldest players in the locker room will not be back with Callahan walking away, and Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi heading elsewhere. Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said the signing of 36-year-old goaltender Curtis McElhinney on Monday was done with that in mind.

Still, Pavelski would have been an important voice.

“It was an opportunity to bring in a premier player who also has a lot of leadership. It was part and parcel as to why we had interest in him,’’ BriseBois said. “But ... I don’t feel that we’re short leadership-wise. We have a lot of leaders.’’

3. You don’t see too many guys in their late 30s near the top of the NHL scoring list, and yet the Lightning was willing to pay Pavelski serious money for several seasons. And if you think Tampa Bay’s salary cap is being stretched for 2019-20, just wait until the following season.

It almost makes you wonder if the Lightning is so cognizant of its window possibly closing due to salary cap restraints that it’s willing to risk future seasons by getting the one player Tampa Bay feels could put the team over the top in next season’s Stanley Cup chase.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.

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