BT's 2008-09 NHL Season Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

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BT's 2008-09 NHL Season Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

Preface: Ok, so after needlessly berating and belittling the Atlanta Thrashers, we're moving on to higher and better things.

Um....well maybe not that much higher or better.

Then again, I guess if you spend enough money, you can win something eventually.

The Yankees tried it for a few years, and are still trying to make it work. The NHL has instituted a cap because of it. And it's what makes the Minnesota Vikings' defense so...well...damn expensive.

Who needs cap room and a balanced depth chart?

 

I'm not going to lie—I think I learned something during my Atlanta Thrashers preview.

The entire time, I needless talked smack about the Thrashers, and didn't really paint a pretty picture. Granted, the team itself doesn't paint a pretty picture—but you'd at least expect someone to stick up for the Thrash, right?

Wrong.

Maple Leafs fans used to rip anyone who would predict anything less than a Stanley Cup championship. I learned during my preview of the Northwest Division that it's impossible to keep every fan of every Western team happy.

What did I learn during my preview of the Thrashers? The Atlanta Thrashers have NO fans whatsoever. None. Or at least none that will vehemently defend their team.

Will things change in Tampa Bay? Probably. I mean they Lightning were last in the division last year, but it's not like they've been last every year.  Right, Atlanta?

 

Roster Additions: Steven Stamkos-F (Draft), Ryan Malone-F (F.A.), Adam Hall-F (F.A.), Gary Roberts-F (F.A.), Mark Recchi-F (F.A.), Matt Carle-D (Trade), Olaf Kolzig-G (F.A.), Vaclav Prospal-F (F.A.), Radim Vrbata-F (F.A.), Brandon Bochenski-F (F.A.),  Andrej Meszaros-D (Trade)

Roster Subtractions:
Tim Taylor-F (Retirement), Andreas Karlsson-F (F.A.), Brian Rolston-F (F.A.), Andre Roy-F (F.A.), Dan Boyle-D (Trade), Brad Lukowich-D (Trade), Filip Kuba-D (Trade),  Alexandre Picard-F (Trade)

How did 2007-08 go? 31-42-9, 71 points, 15th in Conference, last in Southeast Division.

2008-09 Goal:
Don’t finish last.

Let's break 'er down...

 

There’s changing your roster, and then there’s spending so gratuitously that it may have actually hindered your team more than it helped. As we look out over the roster that the Tampa Bay Lightning—one of last season’s bottom feeders—are putting forth this year, there’s been a lot of cash thrown about, and a lot of lateral movement talent-wise.

Some teams try to mask mediocrity by throwing up the “Work in Progress” sign, and think that by making moves, they’ll give off the impression that they’re better.

Personally, I think this is the strategy being employed by the Tampa Bay Lightning.



Defense? So long was we score 13 goals a game, we’ll be fine!


I guess that’s the attitude that the Lightning had this offseason, even though they weren’t terrible at scoring goals (ninth in the conference).

Granted, they could’ve used a little tinkering up front, but eight or nine new forwards? When there were already seven carry-overs? I guess Oren Koules and Len Barrie need to prove they aren’t afraid to spend cash.

The biggest wad of bills they handed out this offseason was to incumbent Vincent Lecavalier. Vinny received an 11-year contract over the summer, which is expected to keep him in Central Florida for the remainder of his career, which they Lightning hope includes a few repeats of the 2004 Stanley Cup success.

Two years ago, giving a term and dollar amount like that to Vincent Lecavalier would have been highly scrutinized. Preceding the lockout, Vincent was a mirthfully underachieving scorer, and streaky at best. While he hadn’t scored fewer than 20 goals since his rookie season of 1998, Vincent had seemed immature at times, and unable to put up the consistent numbers that a playmaker like him should have.

Post-lockout however, Lecavalier has proven to be a late bloomer—or at least a beneficiary of the new rules. Since 2004-05, Lecavalier has posted his three highest goal totals (35, 52, and 40), and has played at a point-per game average for two seasons. Including 75 points in 80 games in 2005-06, Lecavalier has 275 points in 243 games—or a 1.13 point-per game average—and he’s finally come out of his shell.

Joining Lecavalier as a carry-over from the old Lightning regime will be Martin St. Louis. Given his age (33) and his size (5'9", 185 lbs.), St. Louis may be looking at a bit of a decline in his production after spending five years in the 30-goal and 70-90 point range.

Also returning to the Lightning this year will be Jason Ward (a solid checking-line option), energy-guy Nick Tarnasky, fearless leader Jeff Halpern, the big and gritty Chris Gratton, Ryan Craig, shootout virtuoso Jussi Jokinen, and Evgeny Artyukhin.

So that would make for two top-line players, a borderline second liner (Jokinen), and six third- or fourth-line players—meaning that the Lightning really only needed a couple of scoring forwards, and maybe a rookie to come in and fill some skates up front, right?

Well...you’re on the right track.

The Lightning got the rookie they needed to plug that hole, as they selected Steve Stamkos with the first-overall pick this past entry draft, and promptly signed the hot-shot junior to his three-year, entry-level contract.

So you would figure the Lightning would be best to look into some second-line muscle to protect Stamkos, and maybe a scorer to sidle up alongside him to help him get his feet wet a little quicker at the NHL level.

Well, the Lightning decided that it was best not to take any chances, and got Stamkos lots of options.

He can use the gritty, ageless, and workout fiend Gary Roberts on his left wing, while Mark Recchi lines up on the right side, in hopes of forging another quality half-season like he did in Atlanta last year (40 points in 53 games). The great thing about this line is that Stamkos is less than half of the age of either one these guys, so it’s like two goats and a kid—get it? Kid? As in baby goat?—the reverse of what we saw a few years ago in Detroit.

Or Stamkos could line up with Adam Hall and Ryan Malone, and form the “two-thirds of this career mooched off Sidney Crosby’s success in some way” line—as Malone wouldn’t be getting his payday this offseason if he doesn’t play on Crosby’s wing, and Hall because, let’s face it, Crosby couldn’t be on the ice all the time.

Actually, all four of them are former Penguins, so any combination of those four could lead to the “We all came to Tampa from Pittsburgh because we wanted to meet Hulk Hogan” line.

Then you’ve got Vaclav “Call me Vinny and I only want to play in Philadelphia or Tampa Bay” Prospal who could be good for 50 to 65 points, and Brandon Bochenski, who could be good for a couple of quick goals.

But wait, I forgot about Michel Ouellet, who classifies as a carry-over from last year, and a former Penguin.

And Radim Vrbata, Wyatt Smith, and David Koci? You all may be involved in a fight to the death to determine who makes the team.

At this point in time, I’m way too confused to make a prediction on all of this. There’s too much going on.  Barry Melrose (I can’t believe I forgot about the mullet) is going to feel like he’s on "The Price is Right" with all of the different combinations of numbers he can go with this season.

I’d make a “Melrose Place” joke, and a reference to a possible reunion in light of the new "90210," but I’m not sure if I’m coherent enough any more. I’ve been trying to make sense of Tampa lineup for so long that—well, did you know that their Captaincy and General Manager positions are vacant?

Coherent thought left a long time ago when we’re talking about Tampa Bay.



Norris Trophy, anyone?


Speaking of defense—actually, no, the Lightning weren’t.

On a squad that should have been more concerned about addressing their ability to keep pucks out of the net over the offseason—they allowed the second-most goals in the NHL last season—the Lightning arguably got worse.

First of all, their stupendous decisions regarding the variety of forwards you just read about put them into cap trouble, and forced them to trade away Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich.

Sure, they signed Boyle to a contract extension in November—but this is Tampa Bay, where we’ll do anything to make room to sign more forwards! Including dumping their freshly-signed top defenseman coming off of a freak wrist injury, who would help bring stability to a very young blue line, and a guy who isn’t terrible in his own zone and could have benefited from playing two straight years in the same place for the first time post-lockout.

But don’t worry, Matt Carle will be able to replace both of them, with his still-evolving defensive game and an offensive game that was surprisingly stunted last year.

Then they traded Filip Kuba for Andrej Meszaros. The acquisition of Meszaros is all right, as it adds more offense, but we’re about to find out how well Meszaros deals with being the man, because there’s almost literally no one around him—the Lightning sent their most experienced defenseman back the other way in this deal, which hurts as much as it helps.

Both Carle and Meszaros should develop well as they extend their NHL careers—but this year? They just aren't the solution in Tampa Bay, as they need more help than just themselves to get anywhere.

Side note: I’ve avoiding doing these during the season previews, but just so everyone knows, YES I am aware we were just talking about Filip Kuba. But still, on a team that’s looking THIS bad in their own end—well, you know it’s bad when trading away Kuba can be seen as a negative.

On the bright side, there’s also Paul Ranger, who can eat minutes and isn’t terrible offensively, Andrew Hutchinson, a 28-year-old D-man who spent all of last season in the AHL (although he did put up some monster numbers), Shane O’Brien who still has to prove his worth at the NHL level, the big, tough Matt Smaby, the untested Ty Wishart, and Janne Niskala—another AHL stud.

I’m not going to lie—the defenseman I’m most excited to see play this season is Mike Lundin. Last season, Lundin played in 81 games and was able to post six assists and a plus-three on a porous Tampa team. I don’t really know if it’s a good thing to be looking forward to Mike Lundin, though...

 

At least we spent a little money on a goalie

Mike Smith, Olaf Kolzig, or Karri Ramo—who would you choose?

Despite a very short-lived trade rumor this summer, Mike Smith is still expected to contend for the number-one job in Tampa Bay.  As he was part of the package landed in the Brad Richards trade, Tampa Bay hopes he can be the real deal.

Smith really went back and forth last year.  In Dallas, he was a pretty admirable backup to Marty Turco, as he went 12-9 with a 2.46 GAA and a .906 save percentage. Following the trade however, Smith’s save percentage plummeted (.893), his GAA rose (2.79), and he only won three games of the thirteen he played for Tampa.

Here’s the thing, though—Smith faced more shots in Tampa then he did in Dallas, which is understandable considering that Dallas was a much better team last season. If Smith had played 21 games in both Dallas and Tampa (he played only 13 in Tampa), he would have faced 10 more shots in Tampa than in Dallas (520 to 510)—granted that's only an extra .5 shots over those 21 games, but over 40 games, that's an extra shot, and over 60 games, that's anywhere from 1-2 extra shots.

Maybe I'm over-analyzing things just a tad, but I think more shots is a bad thing. Jay Middleton just thinks I'm a lunatic.

Challenging—and mentoring—Smith will be Olaf Kolzig, who after years of tending the twine in Washington, will give the sand beaches a shot before calling it a career. The only problem is Kolzig won’t be riding off into the sunset.

The past few seasons, Kolzig had been fairly average behind a team experiencing growing pains in Washington. Although his stats have improved the past few seasons, it’s still not ideal. When a 38-year-old goalie has seen his goals-against average drop from 3.53 to 3.00 to 2.91 in three years, yet has just posted his worst save percentage (.892) in fourteen years, one has to wonder if he can even be effective as a backup in such a offense-first system.

And then to top it all off, Karri Ramo is going to be gunning for playing time too, so that he can establish himself in the North American game.

But to really top it off? They added Mike Vernon to the mix too. Well, he’s on the management side of things, not contending for a goalie job, and it doesn’t look like he’s coming out of retirement—yet.

So I really don’t know what to think anymore.

 

So what does it all mean?

All right, I guess it’s time to try to make sense of it all. With the depth of talent up front, the Lightning could easily have four 70-point guys in Prospal, Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier. Malone could hit 50 points once again, or even 60—depending if Stamkos is good for that 70 of his own or not.

Vrbata could score 30 goals and rack up 60 points, while Recchi, Roberts, Ouellet, and Jokinen could have 40 each at least. It all depends who they play with.

The defense will put up some point and move the puck, but they’re going to be weak in their own end and give up a lot of shots—which won’t bode well for Smith, Ramo, or Kolzig.

Kolzig is getting too old to consistently steal games, and I don’t think Smith or Ramo have the ability yet.

Scoring six or seven goals a game is great—but only if you’re not giving up eight or nine.



Prediction: Fourth in Southeast

 

There you have it, the most...active team in the NHL this offseason is set to begin the season with enough forwards to...um...well, the phrase 'Baker's Dozen plus five' comes to mind.

There's depth, and then there's girth. The Tampa Bay Lightning are overweight with forwards—a solution to a problem that may turn itself into a whole new problem this season.

After all, there's only so much ice time to go around.

 

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and an NHL Community Leader. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile. You can also check out his previous work in his archives.

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