Kukla's Korner

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Turnaround in Tampa Starts at the Top

Before a single tweak to the roster, the Tampa Bay Lightning were already poised for improvement in 2010-11. With the tumultuous era of previous ownership already behind them when the sale of the team to Jeff Vinik was completed late last season, gone in an instant were any and all off-ice concerns and the circus went back to being an annual visitor to the St. Pete Times Forum rather than a permanent resident. With the appointment of Steve Yzerman as general manager, credibility returned to the franchise and new head coach Guy Boucher was widely regarded as the hottest commodity on the off-season coaching market.

Without a solitary player move, hockey life in Tampa was good again.

But far be it from Yzerman to rest on the comfort that fans surely feel by him simply not being one of those other guys. The addition of former Flyers forward Simon Gagne headlines a list of shrewd off-season maneuvers for the rookie GM and the revamped roster could very well translate to the sort of on-ice success that will make Lightning followers quickly forgot about three non-playoff seasons gone by.

 

2009-10

At first glance, last season was another total waste for Tampa Bay, finishing below “NHL .500” and out of the playoffs for a third consecutive season. But, as bad as things were at times last year, there were several positives for the Lightning after all. Steven Stamkos, of course, set the league on fire with his 51 goals, earning a share of the “Rocket” Richard Trophy alongside Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby. An ageless Marty St. Louis put up 94 points, taking home Lady Byng honors at the year-end NHL Awards and also proved to be an invaluable mentor for Stamkos, Steve Downie (who also emerged as a viable force) and the entire Lightning locker room. Defenseman Victor Hedman wowed at times but struggled at several others, gaining precious experience all the while. And captain Vincent Lecavalier, who most would admit had yet another “down” year, still put up 70 points. (While the investment/return ratio there is rather askew and you’ll get no argument here defending the beleaguered superstar, 24-46-70 is one hell of an off-year.) The Bolts were in decent shape prior to the Olympic break before a disconnect between management and the coaching staff thwarted any and all postseason hopes. With that in mind, last year’s roster may have held it together long enough to make a run at the eighth seed without the burden of such drama. Unfortunate, but it’s all in the past now.

CHANGES IN LATITUDES, CHANGES IN ATTITUDES

The acquisition of Gagne was a surprise to some, as its appearance of a “win now” move didn’t quite fit with what most expected would be a more long-term building approach by Yzerman. But, at a bargain basement price, the opportunity to add a player with Gagne’s skill set to an already formidable list of top-six forwards was too much to pass up. If he stays healthy – and, given a history of ill-fated injuries, that is no guarantee – Simon Gagne joining the likes of Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Downie and Ryan Malone gives the Lightning a talented pair of scoring lines the likes of which only a few teams can boast.

Defense has been a consistent sore spot for Tampa Bay for several seasons now and shoring up that area was high on Yzerman’s list of priorities. Adding once-and-again Bolt Pavel Kubina and former Avalanche blueliner Brett Clark gives the Lightning significant NHL experience alongside holdover Mattias Ohlund. Randy Jones, who struggled in Los Angeles after a solid start in Philadelphia, was inked late in the summer and could boost defensive depth with any kind of turnaround.

Speaking of depth, some lower profile Yzerman transactions are noteworthy and may actually play more of an impact role in any Tampa Bay resurgence as the Lightning look to have the makings of legitimate third and fourth lines, rather than bumping unseasoned players into larger roles out of necessity, as in seasons past. Center Dominic Moore and winger Sean Bergenheim each have the potential to end up among the summer’s most valuable signings. Moore, whose well-rounded game suits a third line pivot’s role perfectly, will be a force on the Lightning penalty kill and Bergenheim, whose development tapered off on Long Island after a promising start, should benefit nicely from the change of scenery. The arrivals of Marc Pouliot and Chris Durno also bolster things from a depth perspective at forward and be on the lookout for Swedish import Niklas Persson, who posted 37 points in 55 games last season in the low-scoring KHL and who made a great first impression with a pair of goals in training camp’s first scrimmage.

Goaltender Dan Ellis was brought in from Nashville to team with Mike Smith in hopes of a 1/1A situation developing. The latter will have to step things up a notch from the previous two seasons for that to unfold as planned.

Further down the goaltending depth chart, Cedrick Desjardins was brought in from the Montreal organization in a trade, giving the Lightning three capable netminders beyond their NHL vets in Desjardins, Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus. One of the three will no doubt assume full-time duties at ECHL Florida and the money here is on Janus.

Finally, former Lightning forward Eric Perrin is in camp on a tryout, looking to resurrect his NHL career after a season in Russia.

GONE WITH THE WIND

Oh, where to start…

A new regime meant a significant exodus this summer for several now former Lightning players. Yzerman’s to-do list began with some house-cleaning duties and, interestingly enough, a pair of subtractions made by Yzerman might shine more than some of his acquisitions as Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker, each headed to Philadelphia in separate summer deals, had fans clamoring for the new GM’s immediate immortalization as each struggled during their time in Tampa. Walker as the lone player headed out in the Gagne deal, made that move particularly commendable.

Goaltender Antero Niittymaki bolted Tampa Bay for the San Jose Sharks, where he is now entrenched in a battle for the number one role with Blackhawks Stanley Cup hero Antti Niemi.

Tough guy and fan and locker room favorite Zenon Konopka will assume the same role this season on Long Island, signing a one-year deal with the Islanders.

Kurtis Foster’s heavy shot now calls Edmonton home and fill-in defenseman David Hale moved on to Ottawa.

And then there are those who didn’t really see things pan out in Tampa as they probably expected: Forward Alex Tanguay, who epitomized Tampa’s starvation for secondary scoring last season, has returned to the Calgary Flames. Grinding forward Stephane Veilleux did not turn pro in tennis in favor of a training camp tryout with the Anaheim Ducks, while veteran Mark Parrish looks for another shot at the NHL in Buffalo on a tryout deal of his own. Ryan Craig, who spent much of last season amid the forward ranks of the AHL Norfolk Admirals, has moved on to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. Craig was lauded for being a guiding veteran presence with the Ads and could end up in a similar role for Pittsburgh prospects in Wilkes-Barre. And defenseman Matt Lashoff was flipped to Toronto for a pair of prospects, alleviating a bit of a logjam at the back-end of Tampa’s defensive depth chart.

YOUNG GUNS

There are several promising kids in camp with the Lightning, including first round picks Carter Ashton and Brett Connolly, and there are roster spots available in theory, particularly at forward. But, with a roster that finally appears to be fleshed out with NHL talent and some serious competition at hand already, it would take some major head-turning by one of the youngsters to crack the opening day lineup. James Wright, who spent 48 games in Tampa last season before returning to junior, was a scoring machine at the recent Traverse City prospects tournament and has been solid in camp thus far. His experience from a year ago works in his favor, quite possibly making him the favorite up-and-comer to crack the lineup. Dana Tyrell’s progress has been steady at AHL Norfolk and he could be primed for his first NHL action. Johan Harju’s name has been in the mix for a while now and, having finally arrived from overseas, he will get a look in the preseason. Richard Panik had an excellent start to his camp as well, though some minor league nurturing may still be in order. A shoulder injury may cost Mitch Fadden all of training camp and he is not skating presently. Blair Jones and Paul Szczechura have each seen time with the big club in recent years but either player would need a standout performance to make the club out of camp.

On defense, the Lightning have a trio of prospects who have to be wondering when their shot will come. When things were thinner on the Tampa Bay blueline, all of Ty Wishart, Kevin Quick and Vladimir Mihalik were atop the list of injury reserves at worst and all were called upon for spot duty at one time or another. As of now, none are above ninth or so on the depth chart and with more recent draftees like Mark Barberio, Radko Gudas and other blueline prospects already pushing, some sort of breakthrough is needed by one and all.

In goal, the Lightning are fortunate to have not one or two prospects of note, but four. Tokarski, Janus, the newly acquired Desjardins and Riku Helenius, who will spend the upcoming season playing in Sweden, are all in the pipeline. It’s a crowded bunch and one that will only be called upon at the NHL level in the event of an injury to Ellis or Smith (the latter, by the way, hurt a finger during training camp today) but this is most definitely one of those good problem to have-type situations.

STRENGTHS

For a team that struggled mightily for scoring from anyone not playing on the first line for much of last season, that should not be a problem this year. Last year’s statistics, actually, show five 20+ goal-scorers and there’s no reason to believe Gagne won’t make it six. The top power play unit, shaping up to consist of Gagne, Lecavalier, Stamkos, St. Louis and Kubina, appears deadly. And a second unit that should include the likes of Malone and Downie shouldn’t be half-bad either. (Teddy Purcell has enough offensive upside to warrant a look with the man-advantage as well.) With two scoring lines in place, the third and fourth lines can focus on playing more of a two-way game with Moore and workhorse Nate Thompson pestering opposition forwards as they please.

WEAKNESSES

When Smith was acquired from Dallas in the deal that saw 2004 Conn Smythe winner and fan favorite Brad Richards leave town, he was marked as the Lightning’s goaltender of the future. Early on in the 2008-09 season, he appeared to be just that, keeping a Bolts squad struggling for offense in several early season games they otherwise had no business in. Unfortunately for Smith, concussion issues derailed things that year and he hasn’t regained a consistent effective form since. In Ellis, the Lightning have added a player that has long made for a nice number two but has yet to establish himself as capable of holding things down long-term. Smith and Ellis are a tandem for the second time in their careers, having played together in the Dallas system early on, and are looking to push each other during the preseason. But both have much to prove. And, all due respect to the current crop but, after the last few years of consistent inconsistency in this area, the Lightning goaltending is a weakness until proven otherwise. In an ideal situation, each netminder finds their ‘A’ game early and hangs onto it for the long haul. Waiting around for one or the other to rise to the top for any length of time is no recipe for success.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Victor Hedman: With early flashes of brilliance, the second overall pick in the 2009 Entry Draft earned tons of ice time early last season and looked to be right at home in the NHL from the start. Unfortunately for Hedman, the Lightning’s reliance on him early and often soon caught up and growing pains showed in is game. Having played no more than 53 games in a season, the wear and tear of an NHL campaign (as well as the physical and mental strain of being thrown into 20+ minutes of action – and sometimes 25+ – on a nightly basis, out of necessity for a weak Tampa defense) caught up quickly and by season’s end, he looked burnt and had also lost a handful of games to injury, as well as one as a healthy scratch. With last year’s experience in his pocket and what looks to be a stronger defense around him, the swift-skating Hedman should be poised for a breakout and is capable of both an increase on the 4-16-20 stat line he mustered last season as well as a greater defensive presence. The mean streak he showed last year, which many did not expect out of the young Swede, is also something that the Lightning blueline has sorely lacked in recent years. Hedman’s size, speed and impressive skill set, along with a season of NHL experience, makes him a player to watch in 2010-11.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION OUTLOOK

Are the Lightning in position to take down the Washington Capitals as Southeast Division champs? Maybe not just yet. But they have the guns to hang with the Caps, in terms of goal-scoring and the defense appears improved as well. If the goaltending holds up and that desired 1/1A situation becomes a reality, Tampa Bay could very well hang with Washington for much of the upcoming season.

They’ll push the Capitals far more than in recent seasons but aren’t quite ready to reclaim the division crown. Second in the Southeast for the Bolts – good enough for seventh or eighth in the conference and a return to the post-season for the first time since 2006-07.

OTHER SE DIVISION PREVIEWS FROM JJ

Florida: Facing a Decade Without the Playoffs, Florida’s Rebuild Goes On and On
Atlanta: Post-Kovalchuk Thrashers Deep on ‘D’, Look to New Faces and Young Guns for Offense
Carolina: Carolina’s Push Toward Youth is Both Promising and Perilous
Washington: Coming Tuesday!

JJ
jj@kuklaskorner.com
JJ on Twitter
The Bolts Beat podcast archive

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

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