For the longest time, the Lightning have been known as a top-heavy team regardign depth. That's made abundantly clear while looking at the situation at the "center" of it's offense. There are all kind of excuses and defenses you can make about it, but quality of the center position isn't very deep, and that should be a concern moving into the 2009 off-season.
Why? Because the Lightning have six centers under contract, while only three are NHL caliber.
Vincent Lecavalier (rumors or no), Steven Stamkos and Jeff Halpern represent the top-of-the-pops for the Bolts with regard to the center position, and after that? It's a long, steep decent to three who played center for the team this past season and who remain under contract: Ryan Craig, Zenon Konopka and Paul Szczechura.
Even past that, you have prospects as depth such as Blair Jones and newly-signed prospect Mitch Fadden. It gives the very real feeling that the top is everything regarding the Bolts fortunes in the coming season. The bottom isn't much for consistency, experience or quality depth. That's the normal with lower line guys, of course, but the gap between the top and bottom is so glaringly big that it's hard to brush off, and frightens when thinking about what could happen with injuries to the top-line guys.
While Zenon Konopka has been in the pro's (mostly at the minor league level) the longest out of the three lower-tiered centers, he remains a journeyman AHL grinder at best. He's a veteran of 39 NHL games and has a total of 8 points and 118 penalty minutes in that span. His offense shows up in the minors, but that's the minors...
Paul Szczechura broke into the NHL with the Lightning this past season, his prospect analysis from Hockey's Future would indicate that there might be a future for Paul in the league as he plays with heart and effort... But does he fit on a Lightning team that plans on contending for a playoff spot next season? After reviewing his chief competition for a roster spot -- I think the chance is there that he may make the team outright...
...Because Ryan Craig has yet to play a full season in the NHL without a demotion or an injury.
Craig, who broke into the league in 2005-06 (along with Paul Ranger and Evgeny Artyukhin), quickly became a key addition to the squad and eventually replaced Dave Andreychuk on the roster after Dave's retirement. Craig could grind, he could score those junk goals and he was not afraid to either defend his team mates or park in front of the net. But after his brilliant rookie season with the Lightning, his production level decreased greatly as he played more games with the Bolts. Then injuries started to factor in and at this point it seems Craig is the perfect candidate for a fresh start somewhere else.
Of course, all of this can be turned on it's head by way of a trading the #2 pick or with Vincent Lecavalier, but how likely is it to solidify team depth at center? Not just depth, but quality, contributing depth?
And the draft? Be it if John Tavares or Matt Duchene end up being selected (both choices are unlikely but not improbable), they displace Lecavalier or more-so than add to depth for the franchise. And while the draft is deep, odds are most players selected in later rounds are not going to factor onto the depth chart any time soon.
We've talked about the issues with the defense in the past, and that (by all signs) is priority one for the Lightning this off season... but improving it's quality at the center position at all levels of the frachise also needs to be addressed.