For a long while I've been laying off the Lightning in various ways -- haven't been overly critical of what's (not) been accomplished on ice, or how the team has been put together, etc. I know I pissed some people off last season with my rants against John Grahame and the goalie situation (but it was justified in the end -- he had his fans, but he didn't have his consistency).
But there's been one thing that's been haunting me all season -- and that's the team's decline and blame. Blame for poor performance, blame for the cap situation, blame for lack of foresight, etc.
First things first -- I think we can all say the Lightning are not performing as well as they should be. Yes, Marty is back. Vincent Lecavalier is scoring and contributing... Paul Ranger, Eric Perrin and Ryan Craig have fire's within them that drive them on ice. Nikita Alexeev is contributing unlike he ever did before at the NHL level...
But there is only so much you can laud in player performance before you see the teams record and them sitting in a sub-.500 position in the Southeast. The Lightning should be better than this, why aren't they?
The first place that I have heard people point to since the start of the season was John Tortorella. I was told by NHL fans and insiders about the criticism Torts was earning in Canada. There were those in Alberta calling for his dismissal because of his style of calling players out in the media and harsh attitude.
Right, and Darryl Sutter never called a player out or through a fit because of the Flames under performing (yes, Sutter is no longer coaching the Flames -- but he's still part of the franchise)? Or Craig MacTavish for that matter? I just thought it was ironic that the fans could accept the coaching style with their own teams but not with another. Only pointing out the irony - not trying to attack the fans here, just the irony. Of course, the criticism of Tortorella doesn't stop in Alberta. John Buccigross and others see him in a clear and present danger of losing his job.
Of course, there is still the label of losing the players, or having lost the players. You cannot make excuses for that -- if it indeed has happened.
When I look at coaching, though, my immediate concern has been Craig Ramsey and his focus on the game. But that's an uninformed opinion that was formed last season with the Lightning power play wallowing. I thought Rammer's health situation effected his coaching... I though his focus was off. I still question it at times, but that's just me.
The second place people focus is on the players themselves. What's going on with Brad Richards? The defense is suspect and in shambles (Dan Boyle alone does not a defense make). There are questions in goal still (I like Denis' style a lot more than John Grahame's -- just so you know ;) ) but it comes back to defense. The Lightning's cap situation prevents them from calling up prospects such as Mike Egener, Doug O'Brien or Matt Smaby from Springfield in an attempt to shake the defense up.
And there in lies the problem. No, not the cap -- it's cap management, and cap management is Jay Feaster's area.
While there are those who blame the cap for all of the Lightning's ills (or the ills of other teams in the league), the true failing is both by general managers and the NHL itself in working under the cap. GM's continue to use the old system of trying to retain players at all costs (or handing out big contracts to big-name players without seeing the consequences down the road) and it works against them. The cap continuing to go up while the cap-system has yet to truly be understood (and league attendance is down) only encourages General Managers to continue under the old system of spend first and retool later.
The Lightning letting one of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis or Brad Richards go is unimaginable to fans and around the NHL -- but in the end, it is something that should have been done for the sake of the franchise future -- cap room needs to exist. When he's needed players, Jay Feaster has been happy to trade picks for veterans... That is, when he can afford them. And while there is this insistence on veteran talent (and letting prospects grow as long as possible), it confuses this writer why a head coach who has a reputation as a teacher can't deal with rookies... even if they are healthy scratches more times than not.
The Lightning are less than $500,000 under the cap... They have little to no room to make changes on the team. I'm wondering if Feaster plans on using Phil Esposito's old adage and claim that the only thing the Lightning can do is trade contracts and hope for the best with the new bodies brought in - let alone dump salary and give a kid a shot in the system. He refused to use the waiver wire to add to the Lightning roster down the stretch last season, and has talked a big game with making trades but has yet to pull the trigger.
Of course you need to be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it... And with Jay Feaster's record at current as GM - that will be a short term solution and a long term problem.