One of the more significant moves of the season took place last night, with the Tampa Bay Lightning acquiring veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders in exchange for oft-traded prospect Ty Wishart. Roloson and Tampa Bay have been linked in rumours for months now, and based on team needs this looks like one of those deals that makes a great deal of sense for all parties.
The Lightning have enjoyed a renaissance under new general manager Steve Yzerman, and as of this morning sit second in the Eastern Conference, just two points back of first-place Pittsburgh and with a game in hand to boot. It’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering where the Lightning finished last season and the goaltending they’ve struggled with so far this year.
The Lightning have alternated between a pair of goaltenders – Mike Smith and Dan Ellis – who both have looked like they could be NHL starters in the past, but have fallen down on the job this season. Of the 50 goaltenders who have played 10 or more games this season, Ellis ranks 48th with a 0.886 save percentage, and Smith sits in 49th with a 0.883 save percentage (only Martin Brodeur, with his 0.882 save percentage, is worse).
That doesn’t mean Yzerman was wrong to enter the season with the goaltending he did; both Ellis and Smith have decent NHL careers behind them, and either could plausibly have gotten the job done. It was a good plan that didn’t work out, and now Yzerman has done the sensible thing: moved on to Plan B.
Dwayne Roloson has quietly had a very successful season with the woeful Islanders. His record – 6-13-1 – doesn’t look so good, but his 0.916 SV% is an above-average number and represents a massive step forward for the Lightning. Had Ellis & Smith combined to put up that number, the Lightning would have allowed 31 fewer goals this season, down from 118 to 87.
The other positive here is that Roloson has been in this situation before. In 2005-06, the Edmonton Oilers employed a tandem with two potential starters (Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen) but saw both players struggle. The acquisition of Roloson at the 2006 trade deadline marked a turning point for the team and sparked a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where a Game One injury to the goaltender likely prevented them from winning it all.
This was a strong move for the Lightning, and I can’t help but applaud the timing: Yzerman gave both of his potential starters enough time to show something, but didn’t wait until the deadline to address an obvious hole.
For the Islanders, going nowhere in a hurry and bound for a lottery pick this summer, Roloson wasn’t an important piece. Rick DiPietro, often injured and signed forever, remains their starting goaltender, and the Islanders have no reason at this point to hang on to the much older Roloson despite his superior play.
In Ty Wishart, the Islanders get a solid defensive prospect who is very close to being ready for NHL action. Wishart was originally drafted by San Jose in 2006, and stayed in the Sharks organization for his entire junior career. The 6’4” blue-liner showed very strong two-way ability in his final junior season, putting up 67 points in 72 games and boasting an impressive plus/minus (plus-11 in 32 games with Moose Jaw, and only minus-4 in 40 games with a Prince George team that finished minus-132). He was about to turn professional when San Jose sent him to Tampa Bay in the Dan Boyle trade.
Wishart’s two-way game didn’t immediately translate to the AHL. In his first season, he played 61 gmaes with Norfolk (as well as a five game NHL cup of coffee) but put up only seven points, though he did finish plus-5 on a minus-33 team. His plus/minus dipped last season (Wishart posted a team-worst minus-18 rating) but his offence started to appear as Wishart led all Norfolk defencemen with 32 points.
This season has been Wishart’s finest. He is on pace for 48 points in the AHL, and at the time of the trade led all Norfolk defencemen in plus/minus with a plus-13 rating. Wishart remains a blue-chip prospect; he stands 6’4” tall, plays a strong two-way game at the AHL level, and is only 22 years old. It would be very surprising if he isn’t a regular member of the Islanders’ defensive unit in the near future, and it is very easy to project him into a top-four NHL role not long after that. I don’t imagine the Lightning were especially keen to trade him, and there’s absolutely no doubt that Garth Snow got full value here for Roloson.
This entire situation reflects very well on Snow. Two summers ago he signed Dwayne Roloson to a two-year deal when nobody else would (Roloson’s former team, the Oilers, refused to offer more than a single year before signing Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year pact) and the Islanders have gotten more than their money’s worth out of the 41 year-old. Whatever complaints there are about his work with the Islanders, there can’t be any question that both the initial signing and this trade were in the best interests of the organization.