Tampa Bay Lightning Preview: Bolt Out of the Blue?
It's been a wild couple years for the Tampa Bay Lightning. After five straight years in the playoffs that included a Stanley Cup championship, the Lightning were sold twice, fired two coaches, traded away fan favorites for prospects, and were last and second to last in the league.
For the first time in a while, things appear to be looking up for the Lightning. Their murky ownership situation seems to be close to being resolved.
Team captain Vincent Lecavalier is healthy both in body and mind.
Goalie Mike Smith seems to be fully recovered from his severe concussion that sidelined him last season and slowly progressed through the offseason.
Head Coach Rick Tocchet has had a training camp and preseason to implement his system.
They acquired some secondary scoring to take some of the load off Martin St. Louis and Lecavalier.
Finally, the team spent some money and their second overall draft pick shoring up its greatest weakness, the blue line.
When the Lightning drop the puck Saturday night for the 2009-'10 season opener, it's going to be a different hockey team taking the ice.
Let's take a look at the Bolts.
Line 1: Ryan Malone-Steven Stamkos-Martin St. Louis
Line 2: Alex Tanguay-Vincent Lecavalier-Steve Downie
Line 3: James Wright-Jeff Halpern-Drew Miller
Line 4: Todd Fedoruk-Zeno Konopka-Stephane Veilleux
The top two lines for Tampa Bay could be called 1A and 1B for all intensive purposes. One or the other will take the first shift each night.
Steven Stamkos has been quietly sensational during training camp and preseason. He had five points in four preseason games, including three goals. He and St. Louis have clicked, as the veteran had four goals in four games.
Lecavalier tied with St. Louis for the most points in the preseason with eight (one goal).
Jeff Halpern appears to be fully recovered from the ailments that cost him most of last season, while youngsters James Wright and Drew Miller were impressive enough in camp to earn spots on the third line.
The Lightning's fourth line may have the punch to provide not only physicality, but some secondary scoring. Fedoruk and Konopka both have solid hands, while veteran Stepahne Veilleux has shown to be solid at both ends of the ice.
Tampa Bay has a lot of scoring talent, but if the blue line can't get the puck out of its own end, it's not going to matter.
Line 1: Mattais Ohlund-Victor Hedman
Line 2: Matt Walker-Paul Ranger
Line 3: Andrei Meszaros-Kurtis Foster
Reserves: Lukas Krajicek, David Hale, Matt Smaby
The Lightning kept nine defensmen on its roster and for good reason. Tampa Bay was forced to play an NHL record 22 guys during the M*A*S*H unit known as the Lightning locker room last season.
Putting essentially an AHL blue line on the ice stunted Tampa Bay's offense and forced their goaltenders to face 40 and 50 shots a night.
That shouldn't be the case for '09-'10.
Veteran Mattais Ohlund anchors the blue line with the first-round draft pick Victor Hedman as his linemate. Hedman has been the talk of the Lightning training camp, coming in and racing up the Tampa Bay depth chart.
The two Swedes played together for four games in the preseason, when Hedman was a plus three and had two points.
Fiery veteran Matt Walker and Lightning vet Paul Ranger both return from season-ending injuries to provide some strength and offensive pop.
Meszaros is another injury returnee and the Lightning hope he can work his way back into the player that was on the rookie All-Star team. Kurtis Foster was another surprise at camp, leading all defensemen in scoring during the preseason with four points.
After a severe concussion robbed him of much of the second half of the 2008-'09 season, Mike Smith is back with a vengence.
Smith has been outstanding in the preseason, posting a 1.67 GAA and a .942 save percentage in his four games.
Veteran Antero Nittymaki gives the Bolts a solid No. 2 guy to spell Smith. The former Flyer won 15 games for Philadelphia in a reserve role last season.
Rick Tocchet enters his first full season as an NHL head coach. The team responded well to Tocchet after Barry Melrose was fired and with a full offseason to retool the team and install his system, we should expect the Lightning to be vastly improved under him.
Despite all the turmoil off the ice, the Tampa Bay Lightning have done a lot to improve their hockey team. With more depth and talent along the blue line, Tampa Bay shouldn't be bottled up on its own end of the ice, allowing their offense to attack more.
With solid goaltending, an enhanced blue line, a healthy Lecavalier, Tanguay, and Halpern, the Bolts scoring should rise back to one of the top in the league.
While contending for a division title in the Southeast Division may be a lofty goal, it's more likely the Bolts can be in contention for one of the final playoff spots and return to the postseason.
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