2009-10 Tampa Bay Lightning season preview

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SB Nation's NHL sites have been showcasing season previews for each of the 30 NHL clubs the past few weeks, leading up to the start of the new NHL season.  James Mirtle has also reviewed each team over at From the Rink.  Today it's the Tampa Bay Lightning in the spotlight.

 

Overview:

Upheaval and volatility are the first two words that come to mind when trying to summarize what Tampa Bay Lightning fans witnessed last season. The upheaval started in the forging of the 2008-2009 team by firing John Tortorella and replacing him with Barry Melrose – who hadn’t coached a professional hockey game in well over a decade. Add to it all the additions and subtractions during the 2008 off season, plus the laissez faire preseason and too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen management of the team, and the Bolts were set up to either defy the odds or sink to the bottom of the league.

…And sink they did.

52 players suited up for the Bolts last season in a constant revolving door. Melrose was fired after 16 games and Rick Tocchet was named Interim head coach for the remainder of the season. From that point on, things only got worse as the injury bug was rampant in Tampa as a poorly conditioned squad, due to Melrose’s preseason expectations, was required to play a more physical game under Tocchet. One by one, players dropped like flies, and the only thing that was left was to wonder which of the top three picks they would receive in the June entry draft.

Looking ahead instead of behind, the Lightning’s 2009-2010 campaign is as heavy in promise as it is with caution. Optimism can be had from any number of aspects with this team, but it’s a very cautious optimism as the scars and issues that dogged the franchise last season are still present in one form or another.

Who's In?

Rookie defenseman Victor Hedman.  Photograph by JD Weakland

The off-season movement for the club started at the NHL Entry Draft where the Bolts selected Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman with the #2 overall pick. To compliment and tutor Hedman, the Lightning have also added fellow Swede and NHL veteran Mattias Ohlund to the defense. Continuing the defense revamp, the Lightning also signed free agents Matt Walker (Chicago) and Kurtis Foster (Minnesota) to further bolster the blueline.

On Offense, the big prize addition is left wing Alex Tanguay (Montreal), who will be paired with Vincent Lecavalier this season. Other offensive additions include Stephane Veilleux (Minnesota), Drew Miller (via trade with Anaheim), and Todd Fedoruk and David Hale (via trade with Phoenix). As of this writing, Brett McLean (Florida) is on the roster as a camp invitee and may be signed with the club.

In the crease, the Lightning added former Flyer goaltender Antero Niittymaki to serve as backup to Mike Smith. Niittymaki certainly brings an interesting dynamic to the Bolts: his indominable record against Southeast Division opponents (record of all clubs, last one is Atlanta). Third in the depth chart at goal is Dustin Tokarski, formerly of the WHL Spokane Chiefs. If any injuries should happen to either goaltender, he would most likely be the first option out of AHL Norfolk.

Of course the fun and games don't stop there! The Lightning hired fromer Dallas Stars associate coach Rick Wilson to their coaching staff in hopes offurther bolstering the defense from the top down.

Who's Out?

Who isn't out? After suiting up 52 different players last season, the Lightning were not going to bring everyone back for this go around. Some of the names that are gone include Evgeny Aryukhin (via trade with Anaheim), Radim Vrbata (not that he played much with the Bolts anyway -- via trade with Phoenix), Matt Pettinger (UFA), Jason Ward (Philadelphia), David Koci (Colorado), Marek Malik (UFA), Josef Melichar (overseas), Cory Murphy (New Jersey), Richard Petiot (Chicago), Mike McKenna (New Jersey) and Noah Welch (Atlanta).

One of the more controversial subtractions from the roster was the departure of left wing and fan favorite Vaclav Prospal, who was bought out by the club in order to clear budget space for the addition of Tanguay. Meanwhile, another loss was goalie Karri Ramo, who joined the KHL. The Lightning still retain his rights in the National Hockey League, however.

Behind the bench, assistant coach Mike Sullivan departed the team and joined the staff of the New York Rangers as well.

Team Strengths:

It's really hard not to look at the Lightning's top lines and be wonderstruck at the possibilities offensively. Team captain Vincent Lecavalier paired with fellow QMJHL alumnus Alex Tanguay leaves one excited. The trio of Ryan Malone, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis will be paired again on the second line and is equally, if not more, formidable than the Tanguay/Lecavalier line (as of this writing, the role of right wing on the top line was still in question). To round this out, they have a solid 3rd line in Stephane Veilleux, Jeff Halpern and Drew Miller. So now it’s an offense that is capable of hitting you on three of its four lines. That's an aspect the Lightning have been suspect with for the past four seasons, as the Bolts have remained top heavy. Too top heavy, in fact.

Meanwhile, a new found strength is potentially the Lightning defense. With a versed crew of veterans and youngsters rounded out by defensive specialist Rick Wilson on the bench, the Lightning blueline looks to rebound from the troubles it had in 2008-2009 into something much more formidable this time around. The team's depth on the blueline is also an asset – especially for a position that is normally subjected to the bumps and bruises of the season. The Bolts plan on carrying eight defensemen and employing a regular rotation between starters and reserves, with the intention of keeping the lineup fresh.

Between the pipes, goaltender Mike Smith is back, healthy, and now backed up by the very capable Antero Niittymaki. While this may seem pretty ho-hum to many, Smith’s stats (2.68 GAA and a 0.916 save percentage) were great behind a porous defense decimated by trades and injury. Meanwhile Niitymaki’s record versus the Southeast Division (27-6-4 lifetime, including a 13 game winning streak against Atlanta) is quite formidable to say the least. The addition of Niittymaki could prove to be the most overlooked signing in the division this year, particularly if he can keep up his dominance against divisional foes Washington, Carolina, Florida and Atlanta.

For all of the sideshow antics of the ownership fight, General Manager Brian Lawton getting sole say in calling most of the shots for the makeup of the team is paying off. Lawton has shown this off-season that he may be an executive who knows what he is doing. And as long as he continues to be unhindered by too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen ownership meddling, the Bolts are likely to appear to be a much more stable and sane team regarding player personnel moves than they have in the immediate past.

Lastly, let me quote a former Tampa Bay athlete with thus: "I plan to become great, but how can you become great without experiencing the worst?" He’s got a point there, and those still with the club from last two seasons, the nucleus of this club, are well versed in the worst right now. The adversity of the recent past hasn’t killed or ruined talent on the Lightning’s roster, and odds are it could likely prove to be a motivating factor in the season ahead.

Team Weaknesses

The ownership circus is far from being settled. And, in fact, it has transitioned into a new phase as two potential billionaire investors – backed by separate bickering owners – are exploring the idea of buying into the club. What this means for the team when the dust settles is unclear, and should be looked at warily for a franchise that wants to return to respectability and competitiveness.

For all the talent that the Lightning have amassed on forward lines, there is a gaping hole at right wing that has not been sorted out so far this the preseason, and likely will not be settled by the start of the season. Add to the fact that none of the right wingers have really stood out during the preseason, and one has to wonder just how shallow the talent pool for the Lightning is past Martin St. Louis and Adam Hall? While Carter Ashton has stood out at times and impressed coaching, and while Dana Tyrell looks to be a future star – neither are ready to make the jump to the NHL at this time. In fact, Ashton was back to juniors on Friday night. And while Steve Downie had a very productive off-season while also maintaining some very good discipline thus far in the preseason, one has to wonder if he can keep it up all season long? Can he keep up with the likes of Vincent Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay on the top line, and not let his emotions and impulsiveness get the better of him?

Mike Smith has not played a regular season NHL game since January 30th, 2009, due to the lingering effects of post concussion syndrome. Antero Niittymaki also has had several hip surgeries in the past 41 months. Both players are said to be healthy and feeling fine at this point, but it’s still a point of concern as it’s a long NHL season. The Lightning’s most experienced netminder in the system, Riku Helenius, has all of 7 NHL minutes to his name. That’s not an inspiring statistic when questioning durability of the top two goalies with the Lightning. While Dustin Tokarski has done very well this preseason, he is still a prospect directly out of junior.

With all the positive additions on the defensive corps, negatives linger. Defenseman Paul Ranger did not play until Friday night in a scrimmage against their AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals. That makes one wonder if Ranger is too brittle to contribute to this Lightning team. Add to it that Andrej Meszaros is also recovering from a shoulder injury that ended his season prematurely, and you have two liabilities as integral parts of the blueline for the Bolts. And while defensive depth for the Bolts is something that can be crowed about, it’s also very easy to label it a liability as well. With so many warm bodies, there are still only so many roster spots. The team is likely to leave one talent or another off the NHL roster come the start of the season and not have the luxury of recalling said player with thanks to the likelihood someone would snatch him up through recall waivers. Mike Lundin was a victim of that midway through last season.

Then there’s the burden of proof regarding Head Coach Rick Tocchet in Tampa. Despite being more involved with his team and being well liked by his players, he produced a lower winning percentage than Barry Melrose in 66 games. This is his first Head Coaching job in the NHL, so it’s still open for speculation if Tocchet himself has the skill to coach and succeed – particularly with the implosion of the squad under his full control last season. In his favor is the fact he’s in charge of a healthy roster from the very beginning this time around, and instituted a conditioning program at the end of last season to prepare the players for this season. He was the one handing out conditioning assignments for the summer, was in charge of the training camp regimen, and is the one who will ultimately be making decisions regarding the opening night roster. He didn’t have that luxury when he came into the job last November. How much of a difference this makes, however, remains to be seen.

 

Vancouver-olympic_202010_20logo_mediumAnd in a round about way, one of the worst weaknesses that will follow the Lightning around this season is the Olympics. The hype leading up to the Games in Vancouver this February will become a distraction as the season progresses and national rosters are evened out.  The Lightning have already had a good contingent of players attending their camps for their respective countries during the summer.  Who does or doesn’t make Olympic rosters has all the makings of a grand distraction, especially with Vincent Lecavalier on the bubble to make Team Canada’s squad.  Then there are the actual Olympics and the ceasing of league actions for two weeks that could ruin the momentum the Lightning might have going into the final stretch of the season.  Which may be a blessing in disguise, depending on the injury situation at that point of the season due to a condensed NHL schedule.

Depth Chart (estimated):

FORWARDS

Alex Tanguay - Vincent Lecavalier - Steve Downie
Ryan Malone - Steven Stamkos - Martin St. Louis
Stephane Veilleux - Jeff Halpern - Drew Miller
Todd Fedoruk - Ryan Craig - Adam Hall
Zenon Konopka OR Brett McLean (reserve)

DEFENSE

Mattias Ohlund | Andrej Meszaros
Kurtis Foster | Victor Hedman
Paul Ranger | Matt Walker
Matt Smaby | Lukas Krajicek (reserves)

GOALTENDERS

Mike Smith
Antero Niittymaki

Predictions

Other Predictions and Previews:

After finishing 30th and 29th the past two seasons respectively, the Lightning should be in store for a rebound this upcoming season... Yet, there is a lingering wait-and-see approach with the team. Fans and media are skeptical because of the sideshow of ownership and the hype of the 2008 off-season was much like the hype of acquisitions from this very off-season.

But is it justified? Specifically the Bolts being looked at firstly for ownership drama when trying to gauge just what the team will do on ice. It’s may be a mistake to overlook the retrofit of this team and the difference from the beginning of last season and this season.

Assuming the injury bug does not decimate the roster (with a total of 305 man games lost), rising in the Southeast Division should be a given. While fairly certain that the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes will be the ones battling for the division title, this Lightning roster could very well be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Things need to jell and distractions need to take a hike... But the team is capable of rising in the East and contending.

(special thanks JD Weakland, who took the Victor Hedman photo used on this preview.  View more of his team photography here.)

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