As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
Continuing to move up the ladder of the Southeast, we have the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Key Additions: LW Simon Gagne, G Dan Ellis, D Pavel Kubina, C Dominic Moore, LW Sean Bergenheim, D Brett Clark, C Marc-Antione Pouliot, D Mathieu Roy, D Randy Jones.
Key Subtractions: D Andrej Meszaros, G Karri Ramo, D Matt Walker, LW Alex Tanguay, G Antero Niittymaki, D Kurtis Foster, D David Hale, RW Brandon Bochenski.
The past few seasons haven’t been kind to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Since winning the Stanley Cup, the Bolts have gone from first to worst and cycled coaches in a cavalcade of the bizarre.
After the Barry Melrose experiment failed miserably, Rick Tocchet was handed the reigns despite his own brushes with the law. Though Tocchet did an admirable job bringing them back to relevance, he too was shown the door after being determined to be the wrong fit. General Managers spent, traded, and bought out contracts.
And in the end, none of it seemed to be working. Tampa Bay wasn’t far off from a playoff spot last year, but the front office was still in a destructive whirlwind without much direction. Enter Steve Yzerman.
With Yzerman at the helm as general manager of operations, the Lightning are undergoing their second massive makeover in three years. But unlike the previous one, which keyed on needless spending and smoke and mirrors, there is some substance in the Lightning locker room.
Starting at the top, the Lightning boast two of the most gifted centers in the NHL. Vincent Lecavalier has been in the upper echelon for the better part of a decade, but his numbers are dipping little by little as Vinny seems to be in a perpetual funk. Perhaps he’s just bowing down to the second line with the power surge caused by Steven Stamkos.
In just his second season, Stamkos exploded with 51 goals to lead the entire NHL. His play on a line with Steve Downie and Martin St. Louis turned out to be the biggest difference, and now the Lightning can role deeper on the wing thanks to this powerful combination. Stamkos is diligent and getting ready to capitalize on the 50-goal plateau, while St. Louis is still as sneaky and fast as ever and Downie is on the cusp of his own renaissance.
If the line stays together, Lecavalier will find solace in the newly acquired Simon Gagne. Gagne has had his fair share of injury troubles over the last decade of play, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still a scary scoring threat with potential yet to be tapped. If he managed 41 goals and 35 assists this season, he’ll have 300 each in his career.
The Lightning have also brought in Dominic Moore for third line duties and will likely rely on the returning Ryan Malone to pick up the slack on the wing, too. Even with their various new toys, several up and comers will get a shot to make the squad permanently this year.
Tampa Bay restructured their defense this year just as quickly as they traded Andrej Meszaros. A team that once relied on offensive specialists like Dan Boyle now seems more focused to shut down the opposition. Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman will lead the charge on that front.
Hedman is entering his second season and appears to be gaining more confidence in his size and strength. He can create so much as he continues to draw comparisons to Zdeno Chara. Ohlund, meanwhile, isn’t aging gracefully but isn’t a liability either.
Pavel Kubina has been brought in to provide the offensive punch and will likely take what little power play time Ohlund had away. The Bolts also acquired Randy Jones and Brett Clark, creating some depth on the blue-line they hadn’t had since winning the Stanley Cup.
When it comes to goaltending, there should be an interesting discussion as to who will start the majority of games this season. While Mike Smith was originally acquired and signed with the intent to be the guy, the recent signing of Dan Ellis doesn’t bode too well for his chances.
Smith hasn’t done himself any favors as the starter, either. He’s barely completed half a season twice and is in the hole for more losses than wins. On the contrary, Dan Ellis hasn’t ever officially had the status of starter yet has excelled underneath others in Nashville. One has to believe that he signed for a small sum with the promise of finally getting his due.
Together, the two could actually prove to be a great combination able to stifle opponents when both are on top of their games.
With all the talk of young studs on the team, Ty Wishart has been lost in the shuffle. An offensive-minded defensemen, Wishart was drafted by the Sharks in 2006 and has very limited NHL experience. He’s been a long-term project that could be ready for the big time execution.
For the first time since the chaos began, the Lightning appear to be on the right track and are motoring along quietly towards the playoffs once again. They may even threaten for a position this year, but some consistency questions and a new coach could restrain the potential. Third in the Southeast, 11th in the Eastern Conference.
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