Forty-one games down, some thoughts on the Lightning's first half

Before starting to work on a post regarding the Lightning at mid-season, I went back a year in time in the blog world to what I wrote on January 12th, 2009. Back then I summarized the Lightning at the mid-season point as Half Way Home Horrid:

41 games in and I want a do over.

41 games in and I half (pun intended) to wonder just where the Lightning would be if Rick Tocchet had been in charge of the club, starting last summer? Where would the Lightning be with a training camp that was more than a few scrimmages and a European vacation?

If 2008-09's first half made me think of what if?, the first half of the 2009-10 answers that question and leaves me with a downtrodden Oh, so that's what as an answer. The possibilities and the potential that the Lightning came into the season with have come out underdone, undercooked, half-baked.

The spotlight has shown harshly on the likes of team captain Vincent Lecavalier and left wing Alex Tanguay, whom for all their skill and contract payouts, aren't putting out at a justifiable rate of return. But there's a bigger issue with the team that's badgered them for the first 41 of the season. It's a point that's been routinely mentioned on our game threads and in some of our past posts.

It's only been two weeks since fans were wondering if Rick Tocchet was the right man for the job in Tampa. That story - the story of a coach learning on the job, is just one of the quirks that have effected the Lightning during the first half of the season.

In fact, quirky might be the best way to summarize things so far. From the quirk of the defense having nine players on the roster, to the quirk of one of those defensemen (Paul Ranger) disappearing for unspecified "personal reasons", to the quirk of one of those defensemen spending quality time as a forward (Kurtis Foster: Scoring Wing), to the quirk that one of those nine wouldn't play in an NHL game until mid-November.

Indeed, Matt Smaby had been jerked around by the Bolts - sent twice to Norfolk for conditioning stints (and returning injured both times), and forced to play left-bench in favor of Lukas Krajicek (who has since been banished from the Lightning roster) and David Hale.

Hale is another quirk worth mentioning. Summarized as just a throw-in during the Radim Vrbata trade last off-season, Hale has earned a consistent spot on defense for the effort he puts out. Another surprise on the Lightning roster is rookie James Wright, who could have been sent back to juniors but stuck around. "Killer" has become a community favorite among regulars here at Raw Charge, thanks in part to his cousin blogger Alix Wright hanging out with us in game threads from time to time.

...But then again, maybe the proper term to use is enigmatic to describe the Bolts first half? Vincent Lecavalier's lack of goal scoring is the one story that has been most dominant. Lecavalier is on a pace for 18 goals for the season, the fewest since his rookie year and just below his injury-shortened, fighting-with-the-coach 2001-02 season.

But it goes further than Vinny. Martin St. Louis is also on a pace for 18 goals in the season, his fewest since he arrived in Tampa Bay in 2000 (I am not counting his injury-shorted 2001-02 season where he scored 16 goals in 53 games -- he was on a pace for 24 goals that season). Saturday's matinee versus the Penguins looked like his best game of the year as his vintage spark propelled the team The Bolts are 5-3 when St. Louis scores a goal.

Tanguay is on a pace for 44 points, the worst total of his career (in a season not shortened by injury). This has further put him in the fan dog-house because of who he replaced, and how that player was performing for his new team early on. Of course, Vinny Prospal has only 10 more points this season than Tanguay... 2 more goals, 8 more assists.

Three deft forwards struggling to score, while the likes of Ryan Malone with his in-the-slot antics, and Steven Stamkos with his flash, have been scoring bucket loads? Something does not seem right here.

And the biggest enigma of them all is the status in net. Goaltender Mike Smith came into the season as the anointed #1 goalie for the Lightning and was downright schooled by backup Antero Niittymaki to the point that people wonder who truly is the Liightning's #1 goaltender. Mike's inconsistent, sloppy and seldom downright poor play (which has summarized team efforts in frton of both goalies far too many times this season) has helped feed speculation about his future in Tampa.

The question, with the Smith situation, that kept popping into this writers mind was just why can the Lightning send down a healthy defenseman for conditioning (Smaby), while doing the re-conditioning of their goaltender (who had not played consisten NHL hockey since December 2008) with the Lightning? The time has passed to be concerned about that one though... We'll file it in the what-if? box and move on.

Of late, things seem to be turning around... WInning does cure all ills. But the Bolts enter the second half with a very trying stretch of five games -- playing conference leaders such as the Devils, Capitals and Sabres while squaring off in another grudge-match versus the Flyers before a crucial divisional battle with the Florida Panthers.

The second half of the season and the playoffs may depend on these games. Have the Lightning turned the corner during the holidays (going 5-1-1 since December 18th)? Or is this a quirk of the season?

Tocchet's job may depend on it being a turning point.