Vincent Lecavalier, Mattias Ohlund and Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning

Looking Back

The Tampa Bay Lightning were an improved team last season, but a 14 point increase over the previous year wasn’t enough to push the young team into the playoffs. Despite finishing 12th in the Eastern Conference, last season wasn’t all bad. The team secured new, stable ownership (Jeff Vinik), several young players were able to make positive strides in their development (Victor Hedman, Steve Downie) and franchise forward Steven Stamkos scored a league high 51 goals.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the middle of a franchise overhaul. One that was sorely needed and finally happening. The big question that surrounds the Lightning organization is how long will this transition take.

Key Additions

The Lightning added a number of new faces this summer including Simon Gagne, Pavel Kubina, Dominic Moore, Randy Jones and Dan Ellis (and his financial worries). But perhaps the bigger story in Tampa Bay is the off-ice additions the club made. New owner Jeff Vinik wasted no timing bringing in Steve Yzerman as the team’s General Manager. Yzerman then appointed highly touted AHL coach Guy Boucher as the team’s new head coach. Yzerman also hired former players Pat Verbeek (head of pro scouting) and Steve Thomas (consultant) to bolster the organizations front office. Yikes, that’s a lot of changes!

The addition of Jones and Kubina is certainly an upgrade over departed defencemen Andrej Meszaros and Kurtis Foster. And of course, trading virtually nothing for Simon Gagne is a huge upgrade too. These additions instantly make the Lightning a better team moving into the 2010-2011 season.

The signing of Dan Ellis is a small gamble, largely because Ellis remains relatively unproven from his three years with the Nashville Predators. The Lightning already have their doubts over Mike Smith and Ellis’ track record doesn’t exactly show him to be an upgrade.

Key Subtractions

Gone from the Lightning this year are a number of defencemen including Matt Walker, Andrej Meszaros, David Hale and Kurtis Foster. Also gone are Alex Tanguay (Yeah, he’ll be missed…) and Antero Niitymaki.

Where to start here… well, the Tanguay experiment just didn’t work in Tampa. In fact, if Gagne scores a goal in his first 10 games, I’d be willing to admit a season success in upgrades. But seriously, Gagne is a big upgrade from a quickly fading Tanguay. Good luck with that one, Iginla.

I should probably acknowledge the departure of tough guy extraordinaire Zenon Konopka. “Other Z” seems like a good guy from all the interviews I’ve seen with him.

Offence

On Paper, the Lightning boast an impressive group of forwards. In addition to Stamkos and Gagne, Tampa’s offensive group includes Vincent Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Ryan Malone and pest-turned-effective-player Steve Downie.

It’s no secret captain Vincent Lecavalier struggled for the better part of the season last year, even though he ended up with a respectable 70 points (24 goals, 46 assists). Lecavalier’s health will play a large role in whether the team can make the playoffs or not. A top performing Lecavalier would give the Lightning three 80-90 point scoring forwards, something they’ve lacked since trading Brad Richards several years ago.

Tampa Bay’s first round pick at the 2010 NHL draft, Brett Connolly, also has a good shot to make the team. According to various reports, his health hasn’t been an issue and he had a pretty solid prospect tournament. It will be interesting to see what Yzerman and co decide to do with Connolly

The Lightning’s bottom six forwards looks pretty set with reliable players like Ted Purcell, Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore.

Defence

Everything’s dandy so far. Team in rebuild, but feeling good: check. Team has a GM who seems capable of ripping off other GMs: check. Team has several high impact forwards: check. Team has defence with little to no holes: nope. Not even close.

Here’s where Tampa’s problems start. Pavel Kubina and Mattias Ohlund are the Lightning’s top defence pairing. After that, Victor Hedman slots in as the undisputed third guy. OK, not too bad. The rest of the Lightning’s defence-core looks like this: Randy Jones, Brett Clarke, Mike Lundin and Matt Smaby. Clearly Boucher and the Lightning intend on giving Kubina, Ohlund, Hedman and Jones the lion’s share of the ice time, but I’m still not sold. They are really lacking another top four defenceman, at least.

(For the record, I was a big fan of Randy Jones’ play in Los Angeles last year. And at a $1 Million cap hit, the Lightning will get great mileage from Jones).

Goaltending

Dan Ellis - Tampa Bay LightningI kind of tore the Lightning’s defence up, but largely because of their goaltending situation. The Lightning are putting an awful lot of faith in the tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. I know what you are thinking and yes, they are both backup goalies.

Smith, for those of you who don’t know, was Marty Turco’s backup for several years in Dallas. Last year he played half of Tampa’s games and registered a 3.09 goals against average. Yep… he didn’t exactly get the job done last year as hoped.

Tampa’s questionable defence is going to put a lot of pressure on Smith and Ellis. While Ellis has shown flashes of solid play in Nashville, at least more so than Smith, he’s never played more than 44 games in an NHL season. I guess you can expect each goalie to split the season load this year.

I predict goaltending to hold back the Lightning this season.

Best Case Scenario

Coach Guy Boucher turns out to be the real deal, Yzerman’s changes turn out well and the goaltending situation holds up. If all this happens, I can see the Lightning making the playoffs, likely as the sixth, seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Ultimately, this is the goal. How would they fare in the playoffs if they get there? Probably not well, but making the playoffs in itself would be a nice coup to management and the fans who’ve stuck it out in rough times over the last few years.

Worst Case Scenario

There has been a lot of change with the Tampa Bay Lightning in a very short period of time. There’s a lot that could go wrong. Goaltending, defence, coaching, unforeseen stuff like injuries etc… you name it! Any of these things could create a huge set-back for this team this season and ultimately cause them to miss the playoffs.

Also, not listed above is a Lightning collapse at some point in the season that triggers one of those seven or eight game losing streaks they seem to hit at least once per year. That would pretty much derail any playoff chances too.

Prospecting

If he doesn’t make the team this season, Brett Connolly will be Tampa’s top prospect. Connolly might be the only Tampa prospect with a reasonable chance to make this team for the 2010-2011 season. Not far behind Connolly is right winger Carter Ashton and former World Junior Canadian goalie Dustin Tokarski.

Tokarski’s development will continue in the AHL where he’ll look to build on a good season last year. Like Connolly, Ashton is also being given a serious look by the Lightning for the upcoming season. In saying that, I don’t believe he will play in the NHL this season. There’s no point in Ashton playing in the NHL with limited minutes and frankly, the offensive depth the team has will cut into Carter’s playing time. He’s better off long term playing a larger role with more minutes in the WHL for another year.

All Eyes On

Steven Stamkos - Tampa Bay Lightning

If you had any doubts, all eyes will be squarely focused on Steven Stamkos this year. While many  wonder if he can crack the 50 goal mark again, there’s little doubt he’ll receive quality attention from top defencemen, every night. The Lightning need Stamkos to continue scoring at the torrid pace he did last year.

It will be interesting to see how Stamkos performs this season, in the final year of his entry level contract. While the Lightning have until next summer to get a contract hammered out with Stamkos, it’s likely they’ll opt to complete it sooner than later. I don’t want to guess what kind of salary will be offered to last season’s Rocket Richard winner, but it has potential to put Tampa in the “big three” problem they had several years ago with Richards, St. Louis and Lecavalier.

Lyrically Speaking

It’s gone from light to grey
But I’ll move those clouds away
Letting the sun shine through
In this ode to you

Will you please accept
Please accept this ode (it’s over)
This is all for you

- Dredg, Ode To The Sun

Comments (4)

  1. Didn’t Stamkos hit an astonishing number of posts last year? 50 seems like a given.

    I think they’re a playoff team, largely due to the pile of mediocrity that is 5-12ish in the East. They should be able to score, Ellis is serviceable enough (… again, for the East…) and that’ll be enough to squeak 7th.

    I want to see them against one of the big guns (Pens, Devils, Caps) in the first round. I think that’d be a fun series.

  2. Honestly, can everyone lay off Dan Ellis. Both the Nashville and Tampa previews mention that stupid tweet. Where is Willis, he certainly wouldn’t hang onto such a stupid point.

    • Relax Chris… I barely mentioned the Ellis/Twitter thing. Whether you like it or not, his Twitter escapades are somewhat relevant to the upcoming season. This is a “put up or shut up” season for Ellis and part of that is because of his words and actions online.

      @ Stephen – I really think they are a playoff team too. I’d love to see a back-and-forth Flyers/Lightning playoff series.

  3. I thought Willis took care of all you weiners when he said he was out working on the oil patch. “Where’s Willis?”, gimme a break dude. This summer was terrible for hockey news, unfortunately Dan Ellis moronic Twitter musings were a big story. Deal with it.

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