July and August have come and gone and after an unquestionably busy off-season, new Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has indicated he is probably done adding any more players to the mix. Aside from spots on the checking and energy lines as well as who will serve as the 6th, 7th and possibly 8th defensemen, the roster seems fairly easy to project barring any unforeseen (and unlikely) injuries and/or signings and/or trades. With training camp less than two weeks away, it seems appropriate to begin gauging what the Lightning have by way of offense, defense and between the pipes, which is where I believe the Lightning are most vulnerable. This is where the spotlight goes first.
For better or worse, the Bolts will feature a tandem of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith, not a truly inspiring duo but, then again, neither was Antero Niittymaki and Mike Smith heading into last season. The current duo, much like last season's was, is notable for its yet unrealized potential and upside. Yzerman inked Ellis to a 2-year, $3 million deal shortly after Niittymaki, one of last season's surprise performers, signed with the Sharks for 2 years and $4 million on July 1. Smith was retained by the new Lightning brass despite his mostly disappointing and, at times, disastrous body of work last season, probably in large part due to the difficulty in finding a taker in a glutted market for, effectively, a $2.2 million backup who's brief career has been ravaged by concussion and, more recently, Brooks Laich. That and the Lightning were probably disinclined to buyout Smith while carrying almost $1.5 million in dead cap space this season thanks to the Vinny Prospal and Todd Fedoruk buyouts. With all of that in mind, well, yeah, it does seem relatively sensible of Yzerman to gamble on Smith returning to form during a contract year. Assuming, of course, that he has hedged his bet. Which he has by acquiring Dan "The Specialist" Ellis...
The union of Dan Ellis and the Tampa Bay Lightning is all parts practical. The Lightning got an affordable stop-gap heading into the so-called "Dark Year" or CBA uncertainty, after which the Lightning would like to hand the reigns to one of their young talents (i.e. Dustin Tokarski, Jaroslav Janus) but will have the flexibility to make a move via free agency or trade. Ellis, 30, will likely get every feasible opportunity to become the primary starter for the Bolts, which would seem to be the most obvious single factor in his signing with Tampa Bay. Despite his age, Ellis has only played in 111 NHL games, of which he started 99 of them. His first NHL action came with Dallas in 2003-2004 but after lingering in the Stars system (during which he split starts in 2005-2006 with none other than Mike Smith), Ellis signed with Nashville as a free agent in 2007. In Nashville, Ellis would spend 3 seasons backing up Chris Mason (2007-2008) and Pekka Rinne (2008-2009, 2009-2010). The relative inexperience, of course, casts a pall of uncertainty over what to expect from Ellis.
Circumstances aside, consider the varying cases of Marc Denis (178 more NHL starts than Ellis currently has), Antero Niittymaki (44 more NHL starts than Ellis currently has) and Mike Smith (55 less starts than Ellis currently has) when they first arrived with the Lightning. Denis, of course, was the most heralded acquisition and, to date, the biggest flop, but Smith was also highly touted as he was promoted as the centerpiece of the Brad Richards trade. As it turned out, the least acclaimed of the three, Niittymaki with his notoriously wonky hip, made the most of the of the opportunity afforded him. Like Denis before him, Ellis comes to the Lightning from a team with a highly-effective, defense-first system and yet, there's no immediate reason to think he'll implode in net on regular basis. Most of any struggles Ellis has should parallel difficulties the team has in executing new coach Guy Boucher's system(s) in the NHL.
The real concern with Ellis is his stamina. All players battle fatigue but goalies are especially susceptible to fluid loss and Ellis has already experienced some extremes. He gained national attention for a game in March 2008 during which he lost 13 pounds. He has averaged approximately 33 starts in the three seasons he's been in the NHL full-time, but the number of his starts declined each year (37, 33, 28). Part of that, of course, was the emergence of Pekka Rinne, but the concern remains when he may very well be called upon to start upwards of 50 to 55 games for the Lightning this season. Can his body handle a 35+% increase in workload, whether it is earned or assigned by necessity? Earlier this summer, Ellis reported on his Twitter account that he has been incorporating isokinetic exercises into his off-season training regimen. "Bobsled Gainey", a regular contributor to the Lightning forum at HFBoards, reported Ellis has been training with a fitness guru in Southern California (Marv Marinovich) but that has yet to be officially confirmed or denied. Wherever he has been training, the isokinetic training and informal consultation with Dr. Lawrence Spriet of the University of Guelph represent a concerted effort to minimize fatigue via in-game weight loss, which would somewhat but not completely alleviate this concern. Also, even if his body doesn't fail him, will he succumb to mental fatigue? Hopefully the answer is no and Ellis can give the Lightning 50+ starts, the bulk of which are quality performances.
The other piece of the puzzle is Mike Smith, a good soldier and charitable, charismatic individual who just happens to be an enigma. Last season, there was ineptitude (6-3 L 10/3/2009 @ Atlanta) followed by shining examples of what could be (2-1 OTL 10/6/2009 @ Carolina). There was that brief three-game sequence before the Olympic break where Smith looked rejuvenated (12/28/09 - 1/2/10) allowing just 4 goals total and then there was the eight-game stretch after the break during which he mostly looked shattered (3/2/10 - 4/2/10) allowing at least 4 goals in three consecutive games and in five games overall (and amounting to an astonishingly bad 4.94 GAA). Yes, last season we have to write off to a certain extent--after all, his first start last season marked the return from a 7-month recovery from post-concussion syndrome, but if he wants to prolong his stay in the NHL, he's going to have to prove he is not damaged goods. If Ellis becomes the primary starter but is limited as expected, Smith should see a fair amount of action, around 30-35 starts plus mop-up duty. Of course, Smith can help himself in his contract year by making the most of every opportunity.
In summation, watching Ellis and, particularly, Smith this season with baited breath and assuming the worst is going overboard but cautious optimism is the wise fan's approach. Both are likely to be the hero on occasion and at other times, the scapegoat, so if you can content yourself with the notion that Ellis is probably going to give the team a steady if unspectacular performance on most nights and Smith is probably going to continue teasing us with scattered performances of brilliance amidst mostly mediocre or even sub-par showings, then anything beyond these modest expectations will be all the more rewarding to watch.