Steve Yzerman was a heck of a player, and early returns are that he is an even better general manager. Two years ago, this team was terrible—12th of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. Then Yzerman took over, made a few changes, and that changed the attitude of the team dramatically.
Last season they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champs in Game 7 of the Conference Finals. It was one of the more dramatic improvements in recent history.
Of course, it’s easier to turn things around when you have perhaps the most natural goal scorer in the league in Steven Stamkos. The question now is whether the team can maintain their momentum for another year, or if they fall back to earth slightly. Stamkos will be around now and for the long haul—he signed a new five-year deal in the offseason.
Tampa Bay Lightning Offseason Moves
It was far from a dramatic offseason for the Lightning. They said goodbye to some players—notably Simon Gagne—and picked up a few, but it was more a juggling of role players than an investment in impact players. By far the most significant move was tying up Stamkos for half a decade of his prime.
2011-12 Tampa Bay Lightning NHL Outlook
As good as Stamkos is, he can be better. No player has more than his 96 goals in the last two seasons, but he was a shadow of himself down the stretch last season after a torrid start. He’s only 21 years old, though, so he will continue to mature and grow. I expect a more complete season from him this year and a further exploration of what he is capable of. My advice—prepare to be awed.
You can’t mention Stamkos without mentioning Victor Hedman. Those are the two jewels of consecutive drafts that the Lightning have been able to build around so quickly.
The Swedish defenseman was much better last year than he was as a rookie. While he still has not put his game together into an elite package, he is a physical force and is the player most poised to break out on this team.
It often takes defensemen a while to get things going, so the fact that Hedman has only been good and not great so far is not a concern. He should also start to see more power play time this year, and that will help his point totals and his confidence. He is part of a defensive corps that is talented and deep without being flashy.
With Stamkos, Hedman, St. Louis, Lecavalier and others on board, there is no shortage of talent already on the team. There is more where that came from as well, because there are several exciting young players in the pipeline.
Brett Connolly was the sixth overall pick two years ago. While he has had injury issues, the center has a good chance of playing at the top level this year, and the team is very high on him. 2009 pick Carter Ashton is another guy who could get a chance this year. They drafted a couple of talented Russians in the first two rounds this year—Namestnikov and Kucherov—but more patience is likely required with them.
The team is again gambling that the ageless Dwayne Roloson will be ready for primetime. The 41-year-old was absolutely spectacular in the playoffs last year after having been acquired from the Islanders in January.
While his age is a concern, there are so many older goalies in the league right now that it’s hard to get too worried about it. He certainly has the confidence of the team. Mathieu Garon, a comparative youngster at 33, was signed from Columbus as a free agent to provide support to Roloson. It’s not the best one-two punch in the league, but it could certainly be worse.
2011-12 Tampa Bay Lightning Schedule
Tampa lost the Conference Finals to Boston by one goal in the seventh game in a truly thrilling series. On Oct. 8 they renew that budding rivalry. Emotions should be high, and it should be fun to watch.
Tampa Bay Lightning NHL Futures Odds (from Bodog)
The Lightning have been assigned 18/1 odds to win the Stanley Cup—higher than nine other teams in the league. There is no question in my mind that that is a comparative bargain. They are also an attractive 9/1 to win the Eastern Conference.
2011-12 Tampa Bay Lightning Predictions
I like this team. A lot. I think that they are a step behind the Capitals and the Penguins (if Crosby is healthy), but there is no other team in the East, and really no more than one in the West, that is better.
I expect very big things from Stamkos and consistent production from their other pieces. This is a well-built and obviously well-managed team, and they are on the right track. I am slightly nervous about the goaltending, but it would be easy for Roloson and Garon to ease those concerns with a solid start.
Overall, this team is very much in the mix in their conference. At the very least, they are well positioned to host their first playoff series, and less than two series wins this year would be a disappointment.
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