2014-15 Season Preview: A bolstered blue line, new veteran presence
When Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman went into the off-season, he had two things in mind. He wanted to bolster the blue line and he wanted to add a veteran presence that was lost by the departures of Vincent Lecavalier in the summer of 2013 and Martin St. Louis, both of whom had been team captains for the Bolts to go along with their long time presence and experience in the lineup.
Yzerman accomplished his goals in a big way, working his magic during the draft, the free agency period, and through multiple trades in hopes his moves would ultimately boost the competitiveness of Tampa Bay.
Let's first begin with the players who were let go from the organization:
After playing only 57 games last season in which he scored a mere five goals, Ryan Malone was the subject of the club's second compliance buyout, as allowed by the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement. It was also well known that Malone had off-ice issues, having been arrested in April, but his contract and declining production was reason enough for the move.
Another target of criticism by fans throughout the season, Teddy Purcell, was traded to the Edmonton Oilers on June 29, as part of a flurry of transactions by Steve Yzerman that lasted well into the night. Yzerman continued a salary dump by trading freshly acquired Sam Gagner and B.J. Crombeen to the Coyotes, and center Nate Thompson to the Anaheim Ducks. This epic night of deals enabled what would be a fantastic opening day of free agency for the club later in the week.
On July 1, Anders Lindback, after not receiving a qualifying offer from the club, moved on to greener pastures, signing with the Dallas Stars. After being demoted to Syracuse during the season, Pierre-Cedric Labrie also was allowed to move on, signing with the Chicago Blackhawks. Keith Aulie, Brian Lee and Sami Salo also weren't re-signed with the club, leaving space on defense, especially the starting role that had been filled by Salo. Forward Tom Pyatt was also not re-signed, and has since joined a club in Switzerland.
All the problems that plagued the Lightning last season, at least on paper, look to have been solved. Throughout the regular season, we saw moments where the team's inexperience showed, the defense struggled, and the goaltending situation was - with the exception of Ben Bishop - less than stellar. Yzerman locked up the team's 2012 1st round draft pick, hot Russian goalie prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy, ensuring talented organizational depth in the tandem of Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis in Syracuse. Those two may see stints of playing time in the NHL this season. The club also replaced Lindback on the roster with former Islanders goalie, veteran Evgeni Nabokov.
The Bolts also got tougher and more experienced, signing right wing Ryan Callahan, their acquisition from the New York Rangers in the Martin St. Louis trade, to a six-year deal just before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent. Fellow Ranger Brian Boyle was picked up during free agency as a boost to the Lightning's penalty kill and adds playoff experience, as was former St. Louis Blues forward Brenden Morrow.
Perhaps the biggest pickups during the offseason were on the blue line. The club traded a draft selection to the Vancouver Canucks during the 2014 NHL entry draft for defenseman Jason Garrison. A few days later on July 1, the club signed one of the big targets in free agency in Anton Stralman, also formerly of the Rangers. The team hadn't just filled a hole in the top four defensive pairings with these moves but upgraded as well.
Besides these additions, it's probable at this point that former 1st round picks Brett Connolly (2010) and Jonathan Drouin (2013) will crack the Lightning lineup this season. Connolly has honed his game in the AHL for most of the past two seasons while the 19 year-old Drouin has nothing left to prove in junior hockey and the club seems intent on giving him a roster spot.