The Tampa Bay Lightning were full of high hopes coming into the 2008-2009 NHL Season—and they had every right to be.
After being bought by high-profile owners Len Barrie and Owen Koules the team began the rebuilding process. During the 2007-08 Season, only three seasons removed from winning the Stanley Cup, the Lightning finished with a paltry 71 points. Let the renovations begin.
The new owners began to clean house and brought in a myriad of high profile free agents and coaches. They also had the first-overall selection in the 2008 Draft. They took the highly-touted Steven Stamkos, praised by many as the new Sidney Crosby.
Also brought into the Lightning organization were forwards Radim Vrbata, Ryan Malone, Adam Hall, goalie Olaf Kolzig, and defenseman Andrej Meszaros. They also acquired Mark Recchi from the Atlanta Thrashers and Gary Roberts from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Management also brought back Vaclav Prospal for his 104th tour with the team.
Along with Stamkos, these players were meant to lift the franchise up from the depths of the Eastern Conference and back into the playoffs. Along with a slew of minor leaguers, and relative no-namers, these players were going to turn things around, right?
Barrie and Koules also let go the often outspoken coach John Tortorella, and brought in the iconic Barry "The Mullet" Melrose, who had not coached a team in 13 seasons and assistant coach Rick Tocchet.
It was an experiment. Could these players come together and make a team? Could The Mullet pull them all together, veterans, rookies, and superstars alike and craft a winner?
These questions circulated around the organization as the new owners continued to sell their new, overhauled team. With all of these new additions, what could go wrong?
Well, the answer is everything.
Almost immediately, rumors began to swirl that Melrose had lost the locker room. Allegations flew fast and thick:
"Stamkos isn't ready."
"Melrose doesn't know the new NHL game."
"The veterans aren't showing up."
"Where is the offense?"
"Where is the defense?"
Taking a closer look, the breakdown in the Tampa Bay Lightning is apparent. Melrose was booted after only 16 games after going 5-7-4, fired over what the ownership called "coaching differences." Tocchet took over, but his team is only 1-6-4 since he assumed power.
Yesterday, Vrbata—a prized offseason signing—was removed from the team and sent to the Czech Republic's top hockey league.
Stamkos is not preforming (3-8, 11) in his forst 27 games. Malone (7-5 12) and Prospal (6-11, 17) have been moderate, at best. Veterans Recchi and Roberts are providing little leadership and, in Roberts case, even less offense, (1-2, 3) in 19 games. Tough guy Chris Gratton was cut.
Insert tough guy Steve Downie, acquired from the Flyers. Downie nearly decapitated Dean McAmmond of the Ottawa Senators last season with an illegal hit.
Top forwards Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier are preforming—46 points between the two—but they are not getting the help they need. There is a revolving door of lower-name players from the organization.
How can a team bond and gain some chemistry under those circumstances? They can't, plain and simple.
The ownership and players are left scratching their heads. What happened?
The answer is that the experiment failed. Any hockey insider and analyst will tell you that in most cases, save the '94 Rangers and '00 Avs, a team of mercenaries and free agents is not a team that can win the Cup.
Now, Stamkos was brought into the Lightning organization under some of the same circumstances that Sidney Crosby was brought into the Penguins organization three years before. The Penguins were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
During Crosby's rookie campaign, the team notched only 58 points. Much like the Lightning, the Pens had brought in a series of free agents in Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClaire, and (gasp!) Mark Recchi. The season did not end well for the Penguins, and of those players, only Gonchar remains with the team.
But hope prevailed. With the arrival of superstar Russian forward Evgeni Malkin and the maturing of young defensemen Ryan Whitney and Brooks Orpik, as well as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens rebuilt.
They outed lackluster coach Ed Olcyzk and brought in Michel Therrien. They signed and traded for smart, well rounded free agents. They used the cap well and built a loyal fanbase.
A mere three seasons after being the laughing stock of the league, the Pens won the Eastern Conference before falling to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals.
So what lessons can the Tampa Bay ownership learn from this? Many.
1. Draft well
Stamkos was a solid draft choice and he will have a solid future in the NHL, if he is developed and coached properly. It is a shame that during his first season, the organization has mired him in controversy.
If things continue on this path, the Lightning may have the first overall choice again in this year's draft and take phenom John Tavares, who is playing for the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. If Tavares is drafted by the Bolts, he and Stamkos will assume the roles of Crosby and Malkin as the centerpieces for the new look Lightning.
2. Don't throw away money
The Lightning poured millions of dollars into free agents this offseason, making it a true spending spree. And it didn't pay off. Get it? Pay off?
Anyhow, dumping $3 million dollars into Adam Hall (2-1 3 after 26 games) isn't going to win you the Cup. Radim Vrbata and Ryan Malone were both grossly overpaid after seasons that are proving to be flashes in the pan.
3. Find real veteran leadership
From all reports, Recchi and Roberts are not cutting it. The owners and coaches had hoped that they would fill the role of Dave Andreychuk, who left the team after winning the Cup.
Well, they didn't. This means that Stamkos is left without quality veteran leadership. It is up to players like St. Louis and Lecavalier to teach the youngster.
4. Get a defense, seriously
The Bolts traded away Dan Boyle in the offseason. Boyle is having a career season with his new team, the San Jose Sharks. The Lightning did bring in star Andrej Meszaros, but he can't do it alone.
The hope was that the overloaded offense would account for a a less-than-stellar defense. It hasn't.
The Bolts are near the bottom in goals against, and they have not received strong play from either of their top goalies, Mike Smith or free agent Olaf Kolzig, signed from Washington.
Great coaches always say that "defense wins championships." Maybe the Lightning should listen
But take comfort, Bolts fans. There is a light at the end of the tunnel—and that light may look a lot Jonathan Tavares.
If you follow the steps that the Pittsburgh Penguins did, maybe one day, if the planets align and you realize that you overpaid for almost everyone on your team, you too could win the East.