Tampa Bay Lightning's Biggest Takeaways from the Start of 2014 Free Agency
Just over a week into NHL free agency, the Tampa Bay Lightning have made a significant impact in an attempt to return to the playoffs. General manager Steve Yzerman signed five players outside the Tampa Bay organization as well as re-signed seven restricted free agents and two unrestricted free agents to bolster excitement around the franchise.
After finishing second in the Atlantic Division and with the slew of players set to improve the Lightning this season, this team won't be flying under the radar in 2014-15. Even with the excitement, coach Jon Cooper is trying to keep things calm, according to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times.
"Every single year things change," Cooper said. "We were the 28th team picked to be a bottom feeder and we came out to be third in the East. Well you've got to be leery because there's teams that are picked at the top that don’t live up to expectations."
After exceeding expectations last year, this (still) young group will face a new challenge in 2014-15. It will need to meet the lofty goals set by the team's big offseason.
With the free-agent frenzy winding down, here are the biggest things to take away from the Lightning's start to the 2014 offseason.
People Want to Play in Tampa Bay
There are a variety of possible factors in the appeal of playing for the Lightning. Inside the organization, fingers could be pointed to Steven Stamkos, a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, young talent, a strong ownership group and a variety of other pieces. But there are also factors outside the organization.
Maybe Los Angeles' success in recent years has quashed the stigma of the "non-traditional" hockey markets. Whatever the factors, the Lightning used them all to their advantage this offseason.
Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Evgeni Nabokov and Ryan Callahan all chose to play in Tampa Bay. Big-name free agents wanted to play for Tampa Bay. That is a welcomed reward for a passionate fanbase in the Sunshine State.
Overkill Is Underrated
When the Lightning traded for defenseman Jason Garrison, that move could have been good enough for the front office. Instead, the Bolts went on a defense-oriented spending spree.
Tampa Bay brought in Anton Stralman and Matt Corrente, re-signed Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr and drafted a defenseman-heavy class in 2014. Stralman continued to echo the fact that players want to come to Tampa Bay, per Erik Erlendsson of The Tampa Tribune.
"We were looking for stability and a deal with security," said Stralman. "And Tampa was the first team willing to give that, and Tampa is a real exciting group of guys right now. They are taking strides and is going to be a real interesting team to be a part of. I'm really happy and excited to be a part of it."
Things are awfully crowded on the blue line now. Stralman, Garrison, Corrente, Barberio and Sustr join Eric Brewer, Matt Carle, Victor Hedman, Radko Gudas and Slater Koekkoek for the seven defenseman spots.
That doesn't even include the notable depth picked up during the draft.
The Physical Edge
The Lightning's brief appearance in the 2014 playoffs showcased the next-level game that the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup brings out in teams. Physical play is crucial to a deep postseason run. Just look at the Los Angeles Kings' brutal style of play.
Improving that physical edge came in the form of signing bigger defensemen and adding another gritty forward in Brian Boyle. Boyle will join his former New York Rangers teammate in Tampa Bay, as they will look to plant a few bruises on opponents.
Boyle mentioned to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times that he embraces his role on the penalty kill while making it hard for opponents to play against him.
The additional physical edge can't hurt the Bolts if they return to the playoffs.
With all the hype and excitement surrounding the Lightning, it would be easy to forget recent history. Tampa Bay has heard this story before. Young coach comes in and exceeds expectations early, only to come crashing down soon after.
That was the plot of the 2011 and 2012 Lightning under Guy Boucher. After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, the Lightning were picking early in the first round of the draft for the next couple of seasons. Now, coach Jon Cooper has the team back near the top.
Is it sustainable? After all of the moves the Lightning have made this offseason and the development of their prospects, all eyes will fall squarely on the coaching staff to make sure this team continues its course.
The Bolts have catapulted from nothing to lose to having a target on their backs. It's up to Cooper and his staff to make sure the team doesn't get hit by too many arrows along the way.