Since the 2010-11 season when the Tampa Bay Lightning were one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final, poor goaltending decisions have prevented the team from reaching the playoffs.
Going into the 2011-12 season, the Lightning decided to let backup goaltender Mike Smith leave as an unrestricted free agent to join the Phoenix Coyotes. General manager Steve Yzerman gave 42-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson, who led the team on a remarkable playoff run the prior season, another chance to be the team's No. 1 netminder.
It proved to be the wrong decision because Smith had the best season of his career with the Coyotes, posting a 38-18-10 record and a .930 save percentage, while Roloson had one of his worst seasons with a 13-16-3 record, a .886 save percentage and a 3.66 GAA.
With the Lightning finishing 30th in GAA last season, Yzerman made a trade to fix the situation. He acquired young backup Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators in a deal that involved four draft picks and a total of three players.
Lindback has been a disappointment this season, and his struggles are one of the primary reasons why Tampa Bay has failed to win three straight games since the team started 6-1. Here are some notable stats which reflect the poor goaltending that has burdened the Lightning this season.
|Stat||GAA||GA Road||3rd Period GA||5v5 GA||1GG Win %|
With his team's goaltending situation still needing a massive improvement, Yzerman needs to make another trade for the Lightning to contend in the Eastern Conference.
One player he could target is Buffalo Sabres star Ryan Miller, who has been the subject of trade speculation since his team has struggled this season and could be headed for a rebuild in the near future.
Sportsnet's Daren Millard recently tweeted an interesting rumor about trade discussions between Buffalo and Tampa Bay.
An established goaltender in the prime of his career such as Ryan Miller would be the perfect acquisition for the Lightning because they are in a stage where the team needs to win now.
Aside from superstar center Steven Stamkos, defenseman Victor Hedman and rookie sensation Cory Conacher, the core of the Lightning is not young.
For example, Martin St. Louis is 37 years old, and even though he's still a very good player (ranked fourth in scoring with 42 points), the veteran winger will not be an elite offensive threat for much longer. Team captain and star center Vincent Lecavalier is 32 years old, but constant battles with injuries have taken away a lot of the speed and skating ability he had in his younger days.
Top-six winger Ryan Malone is 33 years old and has played in more than 70 games in a season just once since 2005-06 due to injuries. The blue line also has a lot of older players, with Sami Salo (38), Eric Brewer (33) and Mattias Ohlund (36) past the prime of their careers.
With an elite goaltender, the Lightning could be a very tough team to beat in the playoffs because only the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks have more offensive firepower. Miller is also the type of goalie who can win games even if his defensemen in front of him don't play well, which Lindback is rarely able to do.
According to Sports Club Stats, the Lightning have a 15.8 percent chance of making the playoffs this season and only six of their final 15 games are against teams currently in a playoff spot in the East. Tampa Bay still has a chance to make the playoffs, especially since the teams ahead of them, such as the New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes have struggled recently.
However, the only way for this team to make the postseason in 2013 is to upgrade its goaltending in a major way, and adding Miller to the roster would satisfy this requirement. He won the 2010 Vezina Trophy, a silver medal with Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics and entering this season he had seven straight years of 30-plus wins.
His contract has one more year left on it with a $6.25 million salary cap hit, and at just 32 years of age, Miller still has at least another three or four great seasons left in him.
The Lightning also have the prospects to make a deal work with Buffalo. The Sabres need skilled forwards with speed, which Tampa Bay has plenty of, including top prospect Vladislav Namestnikov. If the Sabres want a goaltender in return if they decide to trade Miller, then Lightning prospects Andrey Vasilevskiy and Jaroslav Janus could be involved. Both goalies project to be NHL regulars and Vasilevskiy has star potential.
One interesting aspect of a potential trade between the Lightning and Sabres is the fact that they will be in the same division next year with the new realignment plan, and teams rarely trade star players within their own division.
Although, that shouldn't prevent the Sabres from getting the best offer for Miller. If Tampa Bay makes an offer and it satisfies Sabres general manager Darcy Regier, he should make the deal regardless of how many times Miller will play in Buffalo.
Giving up on Lindback this early is a risk, but anytime you can acquire a goaltender of Miller's caliber, it must be strongly considered.
The Lightning are a top-tier goaltender away from being a dangerous playoff team, which is why Miller is the perfect trade target for Yzerman to pursue for this season and for his team to be competitive over the next five years.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All salary information courtesy of Cap Geek.