ATLANTA - OCTOBER 22: Dominic Moore #19 of the Tampa Bay Lightning controls the puck against Ron Hainsey #6 of the Atlanta Thrasher at Philips Arena on October 22 2010 in Atlanta Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
While the Lightning remain inconsistent (they're back to .500, or percentage points over it due to the glorification of overtime / shootout losses) their issues don't come with the excessive baggage of the franchise previously located in Atlanta.
A few weeks ago, Red Light District ran a great story about the identity crisis in Winnipeg; a relocated team with history and heritage of its own, suddenly becoming a reincarnation of the Phoenix Coyotes. You know, the true Winnipeg Jets franchise that was relocated in the 1990's.
RLD didn't cite the Coyotes much, that wasn't the story. The story was the fact Winnipeg hasn't embraced the fact this is a hand-me-down franchise, and not the franchise that used to reside in Winnipeg. The Canadian media has treated the former-Thrashers as an expansion team; first faceoff in franchise history, first goal, first assist, first broken stick, first ever delay-of-game-penalty! It builds up the level of excitement for a fan base that was already lusting after hockey, but it does nothing for the players who were franchise members before the team relocated.
Then you go to the fact that the Thrashers were mediocre - I'm talking competitively, not striking on the Atlanta market - and Winnipeg media seemed to have come to the conclusion that this was a market / misplaced franchise issue, not a talent issue. Winnipeg's excellence must be beaten into these former Thrashers players, and the beatings will continue until morale improves.
If Winnipeg is going to treat the former-Thrashers like they never existed before this season, then the pill that must be swallowed by every fan and media person in Canada that is rooting for them - and with the hockey-related jingoism, that's plenty of fans and media - will be excessively bitter. The city and region need to accept the fact this team isn't going to have an identity of its own for five years or more. And that means mediocrity and worse for five years... Or more.
Most every long-time Tampa Bay Lightning fan should understand this. If you endured the expansion years of the Bolts, or the brief flirting with success in 1995-1996, the abysmal years of 1997-2001 in the cellar (when markets, like Winnipeg, claimed the horribly performing Bolts would be better if they were relocated to Canada), then you know of the growing pains of a franchise. If you were like me, you didn't see the Lightning with a long-term plan (just an immediate return plan) before 1999. I used to remark that the team had never truly been built during its first seven seasons of existence. It had just retooled the expansion club over and over again.
That's what's facing Winnipeg with the former-Thrashers right now: They're fielding a team that was never truly built when it played in the Atlanta market. Blame Atlanta Spirit, blame Don Waddell... Hell, blame Ilya Kovalchuk and his greed... But don't blame the fact the franchise existed for 11 seasons in the Atlanta market. Atlanta itself has nothing to do with this. Nor does the fact that they were formerly named the Thrashers.
It's about franchise building. Relocating the Thrashers did not give Winnipeg a head start to excellence a-la the Quebec Nordiques relocating to Colorado and becoming the Avalanche. It just moved a mediocre team into a new market.
Red Light District's right, Winnipeg does lack an identity. And shoving nostalgia down players throats does not make them better players. It just arrogantly raises expectations for immediate returns on a building project that has just started.
So, the Bolts make their first of three trips to Winnipeg this season with Dwayne Roloson starting between the pipes. The local beat writers haven't been consistent in addressing Victor Hedman and Ryan Malone's injury status for the Lightning: Malone was all but certain to play Saturday (a midweek report said), and was still days away on Saturday Night. Victor Hedman was days away from returning to action before Saturday - it'd be 2 or 3 games - and yet he was a game-time decision on Saturday night. Not quite ready, but he did practice and showed himself much further along than others had expected.
If Winnipeg management truly wants to make a statement that the team is not the Thrashers any more, a win (a long overdue win) against the Lightning is mandatory. The Bolts have not lost to the franchise since opening night of the 2009-2010 season.