It's October. You can stop asking.
On Saturday night, Tampa Bay Lightning hockey resumes at Times Palace with the season opener against the Atlanta Thrashers. Below, we recap last season and present changes with the Lightning this past off-season and give some thoughts about the team's season ahead.
2009-10 started off promising enough and the Bolts stayed in contention until just before the Olympic break. Yet before the wheels fell off with a massive post-Olympic losing streak, there was still the problem of being the most inconsistent they had ever been. One night, they could dominate the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins, and the next they would be pasted by the Columbus Blue Jackets or Florida Panthers. The inability to beat teams they had to beat, as well as those upper-tier teams was just one of the many aspects that led to the team's downfall.
It went further than that though. While the fans were left in awe watching Steven Stamkos chase the Rocket Richard Trophy (he ultimately notched 51 goals last season and shared the award with wunderkind Sidney Crosby), they were left aghast by the sideshow that continued to haunt the franchise: Oren Koules and Len Barrie tried to buy each other out; Brian Lawton attempted the ouster of Rick Tocchet but settled for replacing assistant Wes Waltz instead (to Tocchet's chagrin); Tocchet couldn't get scoring out of the likes of Vinny Lecavalier, Alex Tanguay, or Martin St. Louis (who instead became an assist machine to Stamkos), or secondary scoring for that matter; the defense never quite turned out to be anything more than a disappearing act... Or homage to the Keystone Kops, take your pick.
It was both a season of improvement for the Lightning, finishing 8 points out of the playoffs instead of last/next to last like the previous two seasons (respectively), and of frustrations. The team was sold during the winter of 2010 to Boston hedge fund manager Jeffrey Vinik, and fans were left to wonder just what direction would the Bolts venture under the guidance of new ownership?
The makeover of the Tampa Bay Lightning as a "world-class organization" (a phrase repeated often by Vinik) started on May 25th with the announcement of Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman as the Tampa Bay Lightning's sixth general manager. It was followed up a relatively short time later with the hiring of Guy Boucher (pronounced Ghee Boo-shay) as the Bolts new head coach.
From there, it was a steady stream of upgrades and depth moves from free agent signings and trades: Goaltender Dan Ellis (Nashville Predators); defensemen Pavel Kubina (Atlanta Thrashers), Brett Clark (Colorado Avalanche), Randy Jones (LA Kings), Mathieu Roy (Columbus) and Michael Vernace (Montreal); forwards Dominic Moore (Montreal Canadiens), Sean Bergenheim (New York Islanders), Marc-Antoine Pouliot (Edmonton Oilers), Chris Durno (Colorado Avalanche), Mike Angelidis (Carolina Hurricanes), Johan Harju (KHL) were all signed to the team to give more strength and more depth to the organization.
Via trade, the Bolts made the biggest splash of the off-season by acquiring LW Simon Gagne from the Philadelphia Flyers. They also brought in Cedrick Desjardins (Montreal), Alex Berry and Stefano Giliati (Toronto).
We can't dismiss the addition of Tod Leiweke, former head of Vulcan Sports (Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Trailblazers), as the CEO of the Lightning. Nor will we overlook Jon Cooper as the new head coach of the Norfolk Admirals, or Julien BriseBois as assistant GM to Yzerman (and GM of the Norfolk Admirals), or the fact the Lightning has an ECHL affiliate once again in the Florida Everblades.
It started at the top with the ouster of General Manager Brian Lawton, which was announced at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season. Head coach Rick Tocchet and his coaching staff (as well as AHL coach Jim Johnson, who was at the center of conflict between Lawton and Tocchet) have also left and gone away. As for roster players, free agency led to the departure of goalie Antero Niittymaki (San Jose Sharks), forwards Alex Tanguay (Calgary Flames), Brandon Bochenski (KHL), Zenon Konopka (New York Islanders), Ryan Craig (Pittsburgh Penguins), Radek Smolenak (Czech leagues), Mark Parrish (Buffalo Sabres);, defensemen Kurtis Foster (Edmonton Oilers) and David Hale (Ottawa Senators) are gone too. Stephane Veillieux is a free agent after his release by the Anaheim Ducks in preseason.
Paul Ranger is still away from the team, with no indication that he will return to hockey.
On the trade front, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker were both traded in separate deals to the Philadelphia Flyers; defenseman Matt Lashoff was unloaded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Todd Fedoruk was bought out.
The top power play unit
- by Cassie McClellan
Before the season has even begun, the Lightning have the most feared power play unit in the Eastern Conference. And with good reason. It's expected that the top unit will feature Simon Gagne, Vincent Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos with Pavel Kubina as the lone defenseman.
Putting that much fire power on the ice for the first minute of the power play almost makes the idea of having a second unit seem quaint and old fashioned. If they Lightning don't score within the first minute of the man advantage, then they may not score at all. Everyone has a bad day now and then - it's human nature.
Which isn't to say that a unit made up of Steve Downie, Ryan Malone, Dominic Moore, and Teddy Purcell, the lone defenseman being Mike Lundin, should be considered mediocre. It's just that, as compared with the top unit, there's going to be something of a point drop off - which is fine. There's going to be something of a point drop off between the Lightning's first power play unit and most other power play units in the NHL. So the second Lightning power play unit shouldn't feel too bad about that.
The opposing team's goalie, on the other hand, may need therapy after the game's over if his team runs into penalty trouble.
- by John Fontana
I've said elsewhere on the internet this preseason that stability has been a myth for the Lightning. The last three years have shown us that much with regard to things always shifting, complications always arising, and things generally falling all over themselves even when you think the mess is finally cleaned up.
But it's funny what an even-keel owner, who isn't determined to re-invent the wheel while upgrading his franchise operation, can accomplish. From the top down, there just seems to be a better cohesion, a better grasp of the facts, no worries or looming skeletons that will come out of the closet. There are no inklings of knee-jerk reactions, or ego-driven moves forthcoming.
The Bolts new brain-trust has instilled confidence throughout the organization and taken away the sideshow. The focus is now on the hockey team in a natural fashion - not the impulse driven governance of the past.
- By Meredith Qualls / John Fontana
We all know that, organizationally, it's an improvement from last year's GM-Head Coach misalignment. As said repeatedly, support of Guy Boucher's coaching from Steve Yzerman is the proverbial Siskel-and-Ebert's two thumbs up. But Boucher as coach is a strength for the Lightning, and for more reasons than the fact that he isn't Rick Tocchet.
Boucher is methodical, formulated, and ready to work. Hockey pundits will be quick to point out that success at the junior and AHL level doesn't necessarily translate to the NHL, but it's just as easy to point out that these successes do happen from time to time when the right people fall into the right circumstance. That's Boucher and his assistants to a T.
Boucher's unorthodox 1-3-1 hybrid attack scheme turns what you know of traditional hockey on its head. He is not endeared to the long-established uses of forwards in their defined roles of left wing, right wing, and center. He, like his predecessor, juggles lines constantly. The system relies on the emphasis of moving forward and attacking relentlessly.
"It's obviously an adjustment...to see it on the ice in a game, from the first game till now, it feels a lot better. Visually, it feels a lot better." Team captain Vincent Lecavalier said after the preseason finale against the Florida Panthers on October 2nd. While there will likely be a continued adjustment period as the season gets underway, the players are on board with what they are doing.
To have all personnel on the same page - from the front office to the last stall in the locker room, is a huge change for the Lightning over the last few seasons. That unified direction and belief in what they are doing will prove to be a constructive change for the Bolts that compels them forward in the standings.
- by John Fontana
If here is an area that has not been attended to in a fashion that relieves fans concerns, it's between the pipes for the Lightning. Mike Smith, in his contract year, remains with the Lightning as (seemingly) the #1 netminder. Doubts linger throughout the fan base regarding Smith's abilities and how well he is coping with post concussion syndrome more than a year and a half after his injury. Add to it Mike breaking his ring finger during preseason and you have more questions than answers with Smith. He has started two games in net (both against the Panthers) but not many have had the opportunity to see how he is performing.
His new backup, Dan Ellis, is statistically more than capable of performing (110 NHL games played in 3 seasons, .911 save percentage, and a 2.69 GAA) and was also Smith's teammate in the Dallas Stars minor league system. Yet Ellis has created his own issues and distractions by toying around with the Twitter social network and sullying himself in the process. Redeeming his character through charitable work is one certainty. Redeeming himself on the ice, on the other hand...?
Ellis also has the issue of maintaining body weight. While every athlete sweats, Dan sheds a great deal of body weight with extended game play. This may limit his availability and affect the consistency of his availability to play on a regular basis.
Behind Smith and Ellis in the Lightning system, AHL veteran Cedrick Desjardins is next in line, with 2nd year professionals Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus right behind him. All three are young and unproven at the NHL level.
- by Cassie McClellan
Last season, the defense was one of the more dismal parts of the Lightning's game. It wasn't that the personnel were bad, but more that they were mismanaged and perhaps didn't have much chemistry together. For whatever reason, what they had last season on defense just didn't work. They were often out of position, and it didn't appear that they knew what their partner was doing on the ice.
There's no reason to believe that has changed. The only significant addition this season to the defense is Pavel Kubina. Otherwise, the core from last season is still there: Victor Hedman, Mike Lundin, Mattias Ohlund, and Matt Smaby. All good defensemen - with Hedman expected to get better as he goes along - but still the same guys from last season.
Perhaps the new coaches might be able to coerce them into a more cohesive unit, but at this time that's really hard to say. Ohlund will start the season on injured reserve with a bad knee, so that will give someone else the opportunity to show what they can do. Smaby's already had a concussion during the preseason, so hopefully that won't be a reoccurring injury. As with most injuries, once it's happened, it's a lot easier to do that same thing again.
Chemistry may or may not be an issue, but injuries might be. Which is another thing to look out for this season with the defense. Preseason hasn't really inspired much hope with that thus far.
- By Nolan Whyte
Although the team has gritty players-- Ryan Malone, Steve Downie, and Nate Thompson have all shown themselves to be willing fighters-- the club no longer carries a true enforcer. Zenon Konopka, who led the league in fighting majors and penalty minutes for the Lightning last year was not offered a contract by new GM Steve Yzerman, and defender Matt Walker, the team's next alternative for the bruiser role, was traded to Philadelphia for some forward guy.
Yzerman's outlook, influenced by his years in Detroit where the team played a finesse and puck control system instead of a crash and scrap system, is that a one-dimensional goon is not good use of a lineup spot. The new couch, Guy Boucher, preferences speed over scrapping, and also doesn't see the need for a single-use fighter.
But Tampa Bay has a lot of skilled-not-tough players, and those players become vulnerable when a game gets out of hand and opposing teams start to goon it up. Who will answer the bell for the Lightning to settle things down? Downie is more suited to being a pest than a fighter, and Malone is more valuable digging pucks out of the corners than trying to loosen opponents' teeth.
Conclusion: we may hear a lot from the front office about team toughness this year, but it can wear players down to always be fighting above their weight class. Remember, Derek Boogaard is in the Eastern Conference this year. Who's going to keep him in line?
While we have a picture of who is going to be on the roster, we can't give an accurate list of line combinations. We'll present the 23 man roster but this should not be looked at as definite line combos:
*-will start season on Injured Reserve
With parity being in play so strongly in the Eastern Conference, the playoff picture is a wide one that includes most every team in the conference. A total of 8 points separated the Lightning from a playoff berth last year. With the Lightning making major improvements to the team over the offseason, as a majority of others stood pat or regressed, making up those 8 points shouldn't be an issue...
Yes, the Lightning need to adjust to a new attack style under Guy Boucher, and they have issues that they must overcome with their goaltending and defense situations. With all the changes on this team that have transpired, they are in a prime position to only build upon their 80 points last season, and make the playoffs. How far they go is anyone's guess - and we'll keep ourselves grounded and suggest a 2nd place finish in the Southeast Division, while finishing 7th in the conference.