The Tampa Bay Lightning are closer to bringing the Stanley Cup to Florida than many people the NHL community are giving them credit for. Recently acquired General Manager Steve Yzerman will be able to resurrect an under performing franchise that has with a pair of former champions, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, whose play is being complemented by a couple of recently drafted players, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, that have proven they can produce in the NHL.
Understandably, residents of Detroit will be upset that Yzerman, a lifetime Red Wing who brought the city three Stanley Cups (1997, 1998, 2002) has left Motown for Florida. Within the last two years the sixth all-time leading scorer in NHL history was enshrined in the Hall of Fame and constructed a gold-medal-winning Canadian Olympic Team. After being named Vice President of the Red Wings following his retirement in 2006 he brought the city another Stanley Cup in 2008.
In 2004, two years before Yzerman hung up his skates for the final time, the Tampa Bay Lightning, an expansion team in 1992, won a Stanley Cup. Following their championship the NHL was locked out, but in 2006 the Lightning were second in the league in attendance, averaging 20,500 people in their building every night. More people attended hockey games in Tampa than established markets like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Toronto. Only the Montreal Canadiens had better attendance than the Lightning during this time.
Since the Tampa’s Stanley Cup season attendance numbers have been directly correlated with the Bolts’ on-ice performance. In the 2005-2006 season they barely made the playoffs and were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators, who expanded with the Lightning in 1992, in the first round of the playoffs.
The next season they vied with the Atlanta Thrashers for the Southwest Division title until the final game of the season. Adding multiple players at the trade deadline allowed the Lightning to enter into playoff contention, but they were unable to win their division and had to settle for an unfavorable seventh seed. The Atlantic Division champion Devils eliminated the Lightning in Tampa that year, marking the Bolts’ second straight first round playoff exit since the lockout.
The Lightning had the third highest attendance rating in 2007, behind only Montreal and Detroit, but were unable to capitalize on their popularity. They finished dead last in the league in 2008 and second-to-last in 2009.
In 2008 they were eighth in the league in attendance. By 2009 they were twenty-first.
This year the Lightning showed promise, climbing to sixth in the Eastern Conference at one point. But late in the season, the team completely collapsed. They remained twenty-first in attendance and were unable to take advantage of outstanding efforts from Martin St. Louis, who recorded 94 points, and Steven Stamkos, who tied Sydney Crosby for most goals in the NHL (51).
Yzerman comes to Florida with many pieces in place. Forward Ryan Malone and defenseman Mattias Ohlund bring toughness and experience to a young team, and headstrong winger Steve Downie has plenty of upside.
Tampa acquired Ryan Malone from the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. A Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh and silver medalist in Vancouver, Malone brings experience to a young team in Tampa. Like Lecavalier and St. Louis, he knows what it takes to win in the NHL. In the Stanley Cup Finals Malone broke his nose twice: one following a Niklas Kronwall check and then again when he took a Hal Gil slap shot in the face.
Ohlund was brought in to mentor an inexperienced blueline. After serving 11 years in the Canucks’ defensive system, Ohlund will bring expertise to an offensive-minded team that often has trouble keeping the puck out of its own net. The 33-year-old defenseman still has plenty left in the tank and is itching to hoist the Stanley Cup, something he was unable to do in Vancouver.
Among the many tasks Yzerman will have is finding a coach that will have control of his team, especially Downie. A mainstay on the first line with St. Louis and Stamkos, Downie has a reputation of crossing the line in his physical game. His 208 PIM will need to be reduced in order for him to see more time on the ice and increase his point total.
Additionally, Yzerman should be interested in either retaining veteran Alex Tanguay or upgrading at that position by adding a scoring forward like Patrick Marleau or Ilya Kovalchuk to their roster as well as a No. 1 goaltender like Evgeni Nabokov or Tomas Vokoun.
The former Red Wing is in the right place to succeed. He has many outstanding players to work with, a great location to bring free agents, and a large stadium that has been filled before. In 2004 the Lightning established an expectation of winning and by hiring Yzerman their prospect of winning is in the near future.