What Vincent Lecavalier is worth to the Tampa Bay Lightning

After losing 6-0 in Washington and 8-1 in Boston, many fans are questioning the talent of the current goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. And with good reason. Getting shelled like that doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Part of the problem is that the defense hasn't been consistent. A good defense can help cover up the flaws of a goaltender, making a decent goalie into a good one. The Lightning defense has been inconsistent at best, and dismal at worst. I believe that their problem is that they, as a group, don't quite understand how they fit into head coach Guy Boucher's system. But perhaps that's another blog for another time.

Between those two blowouts were a couple of good games by the Lightning. While they did lose to Florida in overtime, they also managed to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. But there's a very good reason that they won that Leafs game, and his name is Martin St. Louis.

You see, what gets lost in this periodic mediocre play is the fact that the Lightning are without their captain. People focus on the on-ice problems and point fingers, but they forget about who's not on the ice right now. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

A big part of the reason why the Lightning have become suddenly inconsistent the past couple of weeks is because they lack on-ice leadership. The reason why they won that game against the Leafs is because St. Louis gave the team direction; he led them to that win. Not just by scoring two much-needed goals, but because he took charge - which he hasn't done much without their captain in the lineup.

Before team captain Vincent Lecavalier was injured, the Lightning were 8-5-2 (0.538 winning percentage). Since his injury, and subsequent hand surgery, they've gone 6-4-1 (0.545 winning percentage) - including losing the game Vinny was injured in as well as the two immediately following. Interestingly enough, the team has improved just a touch overall, but you can still tell that there's something missing.

And just to help put things into perspective for panicking Lightning fans, the team is currently 14-9-3, which is a 0.571 winning percentage over 28 games played. The NHL lists the team as currently sitting in the fifth in the Eastern Conference, and second in the Southeast Division. So you can all step away from that ledge now.

You can point out that Simon Gagne was out for much of that time as well, and that's true, too. Gagne's last game in October was the 21st against the New York Islanders, and the Lightning went 4-1-1 with him in the lineup before that - despite Gagne not collecting a single point during that time. And the team did go 9-7-2 (0.500 winning percentage) during his absence. But I think that he's too new to the Lightning to really make much of an impact in the dressing room. It's possible, of course, but not likely. Not when the team went 4-1-0 immediately after his injury problems started.

Vinny is the stability that this team is looking for, plain and simple. He may get a lot of flak for not scoring as many goals as he used to in regards to the size of his salary, but he also certainly doesn't get enough credit for the leadership he provides. And that's obvious when he's out of the lineup.

People can point fingers at the goalies not playing well, the defense not having enough talent, or the forwards not scoring enough goals all they want. But the fact is that no one's providing on-ice leadership while Vinny's out on a consistent basis. And it's that what's causing all of the other inconsistency - as shown by Marty's one-man show the other night against the Leafs.

This exact same problem came up when former Lightning captain Tim Taylor was out during the 2006-2007 season.  No one wanted to step up and take over his leadership position on the team, and their record suffered for it. Respect is all well and good, but it can be taken too far.

It's that pack mentality that's going on. No one steps into the alpha male's spot unless they want to cause trouble. And I believe it's that kind of thinking that's hobbling the team right now. No one wants to take over for Vinny - even temporarily - because he's the captain.

Sure, Marty has at times, but he's clearly not comfortable with it. And everyone is going to defer to Marty with Vinny out since he's got seniority on the Lightning as being one of two players left from that 2004 Cup team - Lecavalier being the other one, of course. (Kubina was a part of that 2004 Cup-winning team, but he was on other teams for four seasons before coming back.) You won't see Mattias Ohlund, Pavel Kubina, or Ryan Malone - and certainly not newcomer Simon Gagne - taking over the leadership role in the locker room - even if Marty's not willing to do so.

So expect the inconsistency to continue for another couple of weeks. It probably won't end until Lecavalier is back from his injury, which will be sometime in two or three weeks. Until then, just keep in mind that things aren't quite as bleak as they may seem.