Friday marks the end of the Southeast division.
You'll remember that the Lightning did a ton of work up front last year, adding a bunch of forwards.
It seemed that everyone bought into this and dubbed them as playoff contenders. I guess it just goes to show you that, at most, scoring alone wins 24 games.
Tampa Bay Lightning
2008/09 Record: 24-40-18, 66 points, 14th in East
Additions: Antero Niittymaki—G (one year/FA), Kurtis Foster—D (one year/FA), Stephane Veilleux—F (one year/FA), Matt Walker—D (four years/FA), Mattias Ohlund—D (seven years/FA), Alex Tanguay (one year/FA), Victor Hedman—D (2009 Draft), David Hale—D (Trade w/Phoenix), and Drew Miller—F (Trade w/Anaheim).
Subtractions: Radim Vrbata—F (Trade w/Phoenix), David Koci—F (FA), Vaclav Prospal—(Buyout), and Evgeny Artyukhin—F (Trade w/Anaheim).
Last year the emphasis was all on forwards. The Lightning went out and completely revamped the look of their lines, adding the near-equivalent of a new four-line rotation.
Unless the goal was to finish 14th in the Conference and land the second overall pick, it didn’t work out so well. Then again if the Lightning wanted the best shot at drafting Victor Hedman, then mission accomplished.
This offseason, along with the drafting of the Swedish stud defenseman, the Lightning also targeted some other needs on defense and tried to give the back end a whole new look, ignoring the forwards and goaltending (kind of) while they were at it.
Why not start there?
Are We a “Hed” of the Game Yet?
The drafting of Victor Hedman was simply a no-brainer. Although the Lightning had a handful of good defensemen, they didn’t have that future franchise guy who they could throw into any situation.
In Hedman, they’ve got a big-bodied kid who is sound in his own end and great at moving the puck. As he gets older, his physical game may develop even more, basically giving Tampa Bay the Swedish Chris Pronger.
Except without the cheap shots.
As we all know with young defensemen; however, their development isn’t immediate. They’ll show their bright spots early on, but you’re also in for a whole lot of rough patches, which is where the signing of Mattias Ohlund comes in.
Honestly, I could care less if he’s Swedish, or was a go-to offensive defenseman, or whatever reason anyone wants to come up with that Tampa Bay signed him. The fact is, the Lightning didn’t have a mentor on the roster. Not only can Ohlund provide that to Hedman, but he can also be that go-to leader for the rest of the roster.
To go along with their (presumed) all-Swedish top pairing, the Lightning have Paul Ranger and Andrej Meszaros. Although both defensemen are coming off of season-ending shoulder injuries, both are big-body presences on the back end and have 30-40 point potential in them if they can stay healthy.
With two healthy returnees and a pair of new Swedes, the 19th ranked Lightning power play from last year is already looking better by leaps and bounds.
Of course you still have the latter pairing and depth to worry about on the blueline as well. Kurtis Foster and Matt Walker were both brought in from outside the organization during the offseason and should provide great stability to a low-pairing, or suffice as a great option at No. 7. The Lightning also have a plethora of in-house options including Matt Lashoff, Lukas Krajicek, Mike Lundin, and Matt Smaby, along with the newly acquired David Hale.
Along with youngsters Ty Wishart and Kevin Quick, the Lightning have a very deep defense mixed in with some promising youth (Wishart and Quick)—something you couldn’t have said about them last year.
Vinny, Marty and Stevie—What’s It to Ya?
Everyone knows about the big three in T-Bay: despite a slow start to his rookie season where people were calling him a bust 20 games in, Steven Stamkos picked up the pace over the last half of the season and ended up with a respectable 23 goals and 46 points. Now, if Stamkos suffers a sophomore slump, the whispers will start up yet again.
Martin St. Louis, despite his small stature, is a maestro with the puck. While being so small can be seen as a hindrance, St. Louis has some of the quickest feet in the league with great vision and the ability to hit his man in stride with the pass.
Alex Tanguay was picked up as a bargain in free agency, and can add a much-needed scoring boost if he regains his offensive touch.
And of course there’s Vincent Lecavalier. Despite all of the trade rumors, the franchise center for the Lightning will (at this point) be lining up with the Bolts come opening night, looking to bounce back into the 90-point realm after battling through (and eventually succumbing to) wrist problems last season.
In 70 games, Ryan Malone gave the Lightning everything that was advertised during free agency last year: he played gritty, with heart and nabbed a 25-28 goal/45-50 point season (26 goals, 45 points). Although Malone finished the season with a broken hand, there’s no reason why he can’t recover and continue to provide the Lightning with his normal, aggressive game.
From there, the Lightning really become limited by employing a lot of checking-level forwards. Following a knee injury to begin the season, Jeff Halpern never regained his 40-point touch and ended the season with just 16 points in 52 games. Meanwhile, Todd Fedoruk and Steve Downie really just provide that muscle and the ability to get under the oppositions skin (although Downie’s ability to do that cleanly will determine how long he stays on the ice).
Although players like Alex Killorn are starting to show real signs of maturation, Lightning GM Brian Lawton has said that he’s not prepared to start rushing kids, be it through the organization or through school. Killorn, like 2009 first round pick Carter Ashton, will be big a part of the future in Tampa Bay, and will provide the team with a lot of flexibility.
Right now the limited offensive games of Brandon Bochenski and Adam Hall are what the Lightning will have to go on, along with the unknown contributions of guys like Martins Karsums. Don’t be surprised if players like Blair Jones or even Dana Tyrell are given the opportunity to step into big-time offensive roles this season, while Drew Miller will get a chance, but if his production is limited, he’ll see his ice time follow.
Mr. Smith Goes to the…Injured Reserve
Last year Mike Smith got his chance to be a starting goalie in the NHL, and everything that could happen did happen.
First it was the fact that on more than one occasion, Smith was left out to dry by his defense. In 41 games played, the defense allowed 35 or more shots on Smith 13 times. Six of those times he was able to limit them to two goals or fewer, while he allowed four or more goals only three times. That works out to an average of 2.84 goals allowed per game (Note: this is goals per game, not goals-against average) and a record of 3-5-5.
Not overly terrible in that situation.
As the season grew longer, however, Smith seemed to be more and more exposed each night. After allowing just 13 goals in his first six games and nabbing only one win (he even lost in a shootout after battling to a 0-0 tie), Smith’s goals-against started to resemble a roller coaster.
Considering we left it at 2.11 after those six games (granted not the biggest sample size), Smith played in 10 more games where he allowed four or more goals, and watched his goals-against shoot up to 2.62 by his last game in January.
It was at that point that his season was over thanks to a concussion and post-concussion syndrome.
Due to the questionable status of head injuries and the ineffectiveness of the other Tampa Bay netminders (Smith was 14-18-9 in his 41 games, while Mike McKenna and Karri Ramo combined to go 8-18-8 with unspeakable goals-against and save percentages), the Lightning went out and nabbed Antero Niittymaki, formerly of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Although Niittymaki never displayed the killer instinct to firmly snatch the Flyers' starting job, if Smith can competently hold the starter’s position down for the Lightning, then Niittymaki should be able to handle 25-30 games this season.
So What's It All Mean
Although the defense has vastly improved, the offense seems to have gone the opposite direction. In releasing Vaclav Prospal, the Lightning now find themselves minus some secondary scoring, with the only real options being Stamkos, Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Malone.
This just in: after those four and Prospal (he was fifth with 45 points) taking the top five spots, the next in line on the team point race from last year was Lukas Krajicek with 19.
A lack of secondary scoring and the still-unanswered questions of Smith (is he healthy? Is he simply prone to a hot start or can he last a whole season?) don’t bode well for this Lightning team.
If Smith (or Niittymaki) can step up, however, Tampa can challenge Florida for fourth.
Fifth in the Southeast
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, or you can email him at email@example.com. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.