This last season saw an adjustment in the Tampa Bay Lightning's offensive system. With the 4-month duration of center Steven Stamkos missing due to injury as well as the departure of right wing Martin St. Louis, the Lightning was put to the test when it came to crafting an offense that was capable of competing against other teams with more depth and putting up numbers to secure wins. Nevertheless, many of Tampa Bay's wingers, some more than others, were able to provide a caliber offense to give the Lightning one of its more recently better seasons to date. Here is a look at the first group of wingers in alphabetical order.
J.T. Brown - Right Wing
What we thought would happen: After playing in 5 games at the tail end of the 2011-12 Lightning season, Brown spent the succeeding year improving in Syracuse, finishing with the Crunch as runner-up in the Calder Cup Finals. Brown's 9 points in 18 playoff games with Syracuse secured him to a 1-year contract with the Lightning last summer as a restricted free agent. Both his experience at the college (University of Minnesota-Duluth) level and AHL were considered a positive indication that Brown's style of play would fit well into the Lightning's offense. It was expected that this last season would be another stepping stone for him to improve and develop his technique.
What really happened: Brown began the season with a strong start in Syracuse. Like other young Bolts, the injury of Steven Stamkos allowed for him to find a long-term stay with the Lightning and move around from line to line. While his time on ice did vary, Brown finished 3rd among Lightning rookie forwards for most points (19). His 15 assists prove he played smart offense at a consistent pace. Brown's skillful skating helped him keep up at the professional level for a longer period of time last season, however, it was apparent his size could be a factor that could hold him back unless he continues to grow stronger this offseason.
What might happen next season: After proving he could very well take on a permanent role for the Lightning when needed, Brown was re-signed to a 2-year, $1.9-million contract this offseason. His adaptable play showed he was able to compete for the Lightning organization at both the NHL and AHL level. Even though his numbers were not the highest, he still had promising stats that indicate his skill can increase. Brown's young age is also a promising characteristic that will carry over for the next few seasons as he continues to improve his game.
B.J. Crombeen - Right Wing
What we thought would happen: B.J. Crombeen's size has always been one of his most appealing assets. In his minimal time with the Lightning after being acquired in a trade from the St. Louis Blues in the 2012 offseason, Crombeen has been trying to find a way to fit in smoothly with the Lightning's offense. His 1 goal and 7 assists in the 20
12-13 season did not create too high of expectations before last season. But his ability to check and drop the gloves did give him a physical edge that the Lightning hoped would translate over into his second season.
What really happened: Overall, Crombeen barely showed any improvement throughout last year. Although he only skated in 55 games, his 10 points from 3 goals and 7 assists were below average at best. He did not score his first goal until January. Crombeen's biggest fault came from the amount of bad penalties he took, ending up with 79 minutes in the box, 2nd most on the team behind defenseman Radko Gudas. Crombeen's time on ice also decreased at an inconsistent rate throughout the year. His plus-minus of -2 also did not help his case to be labeled as one of the Lightning's more important forwards.
What might happen next season: With a year left on his current contract, Crombeen's days with the Lightning may be numbered. At this juncture, the Lightning will have this offseason and training camp to evaluate Crombeen for the upcoming season. Of course, any player can have a turnaround performance, which could happen for Crombeen, but given his prior course of play, do not expect him to be a long-term face on the team. Even though his age (28) is around average for an NHL player, his increasing number in years is not likely to help improve his play.
Ryan Malone - Left Wing
What we thought would happen: It is no secret Ryan Malone's performance has declined throughout the last few years. Various injuries have prevented the 34-year-old from reaching his prior ability to have 20+ goal seasons. While a lower-body injury held Malone back over a month in early 2013, his aggressive style of play has always made him a fan-favorite among the Lightning. This also includes the instigator role he fully took on after Steve Downie was traded in 2012. Even though his play was limited the season prior, Malone was anticipated to be a top winger for the Bolts, both through scoring and physicality.
What really happened: Excluding the most recent lower-body injury he suffered last November, Malone's on-ice performance was sub-par. His 15 points in total made him virtually nonexistent at times. Malone started the season on the 1st line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis before falling to the 4th line as a healthy scratch. He was only able to acquire a career low of 5 goals throughout the entire season. Although it is important to note that he only dressed for 57 games, more puzzling was Malone's ability to still accumulate the 3rd most penalty minutes on the team. Likewise, his off-ice antics provided bad and unwanted publicity for both himself and the Lightning, making his credibility among fans less stable.
What might happen next season: Malone is awaiting a trial date after pleading not guilty to his legal charges last month. The Lightning has already announced that Malone will no longer be a part of the team after using its final compliance buyout on him, meaning that his entire cap hit ($4.5M) will be removed from the books. Malone, who entered a substance abuse program provided by the NHL, was most likely targeted to be bought out before his legal troubles. It could be a while until Malone is fully ready to compete at the professional level again, as he needs to focus on improving himself off the ice first.
Ondrej Palat - Left Wing
What we thought would happen: After getting called up to the team midway through the 20
12-13 season from a decent performance in Syracuse, Palat's 2 goals in 14 games was a promising indication he would continually improve. Palat nearly doubled his AHL career points after his 2nd season in the minors. Starting out on the 3rd line with Tom Pyatt and Nate Thompson, Palat was originally intended to add depth to a growing Lightning offense. Despite being selected 4th to dead last in the 2011 NHL Draft, Palat's smart puck control in his first few games with the Lightning gave strong hope he would continue his rookie career at a higher level.
What really happened: Without a doubt, Palat exceeded everyone's expectations. Regardless of his breakout performance not being as apparent until the later half of the season, the 23-year-old was a major contributor that helped the Lightning make it back to the postseason for the first time in 3 seasons. During the absence of Steven Stamkos, Palat was crucial in stepping up to fill a much needed scoring role for the Bolts. This resulted in him finishing out the season on the 1st line and racking up the most points (59) in the regular season on the team. Palat's exceptional play also earned him a nomination for the Calder Memorial Trophy, the NHL's rookie of the year.
What might happen next season: Recently signed to a 3-year, $10-million contract this offseason, Palat is assured to be a fixture of the Lightning for many seasons to come. His ability to play relentlessly on the penalty kill as well as defense in general, not to mention his scoring capability, is a valuable asset he can bring to the team for the next several years. Expect Palat to continue his upward performance into next season.
Teddy Purcell - Right Wing
What we though would happen: Since coming to the Lightning in 2010, Purcell has been one of the Bolts' hardiest and overall consistent players. In each full season he had played in Tampa, he only missed on average 1 game. His 36 points in all 48 games the season prior gave no worry that Purcell was slowing down. He has always played consciously with the puck when it comes to setting up linemates with passes. Purcell's frame has also been an additional quality that has made him a well-rounded player.
What really happened: Once again, Purcell was only absent from 1 game this last season, registering 42 points from 12 goals and 30 assists. Playing alongside new teammate Valtteri Filppula was a game-changer in Purcell's offensive play, although the end of the season saw him spend some time in the bottom six with Nate Thompson and Richard Panik. Despite his numbers being slightly lower than seasons past, Purcell has still regularly achieved 35+ point seasons in a Lightning uniform. The 28-year-old certainly did not disappoint this year.
What might happen next season: Purcell has 2 years remaining on an extension he signed with Tampa Bay in the 2012 offseason. Given Ryan Malone's recent exit from the team, Purcell could very well step up to fill the void that Malone was originally intended to fill for the Lightning. Of course this would require Purcell to add more of a physical element to his game, as his defensive play has typically been more on the weaker side. As previously stated, Purcell has had a consistent career so far, but his consistency from game to game has been somewhat shaky at times. On the other hand, he could potentially serve as the centerpiece of a trade package, if the Lightning choose to make a move for anyone this offseason. As of now, no deals seem likely in the immediate future, indicating Purcell should be staying put for the time being.