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|Oren Koules, left, and Len Barrie predict the Lightning will return to the playoffs in 2008-09.|
Last season, it was the Washington Capitals. After a rocky start, the Caps turned into one of the most compelling stories of the season as they surged to the top of the Southeast Division under coach of the year Bruce Boudreau.This season, we stayed in the Southeast for the third pick in our "A Team Can Dream" series: the Tampa Bay Lightning. Once Stanley Cup champs in 2004; last season, dead last in the NHL. And so we start overseas; where it ends, remains to be seen.
The pair are the front men for a group of owners that took over the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier this year and systematically began clearing away the old and replacing it with the new. Tom Kurvers came over from Phoenix as the assistant GM, while former agent Brian Lawton, once upon a time the first American to be selected with the first pick in the NHL draft, became head of hockey operations. Barry Melrose was coaxed out of the broadcast booth at ESPN to return to coaching for the first time since late in the 1994-95 season.These moves, more so than the bold lineup moves that followed, created a ripple of skepticism throughout the NHL. Part of it is understandable. The NHL is in many ways a small town. When strangers come in and do things differently, they are bound to set tongues wagging. The fact that well-respected hockey men like GM Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella were casualties of the restructuring instantly got the hackles up from the hockey fraternity. Then, Barrie and Koules got going on the lineup. The emotional highlights: Dan Boyle was angered at the way he was treated prior to the team's trading him to San Jose. There were arched eyebrows at the aggressive tack ownership took in acquiring defenseman Andrej Meszaros from Ottawa, where GM Bryan Murray couldn't bring the emerging defenseman under contract.
|Rookie Steven Stamkos will likely start the season on Tampa Bay's second line.|
"For all their wheeling and dealing, there are as many question marks as there are answers with their moves."One positive is none of the key elements are in the dressing room reluctantly. Sure, they're here because the money was good, but, at least on some level, players like Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata, Olaf Kolzig, Roberts and Recchi are here because they believe this is going to work. Others are here because the team aggressively sought them out, like defensemen Meszaros and Matt Carle and netminder Mike Smith. This is a team built on players who should be motivated not just to defy skeptics of their team, but skeptics of themselves as individuals. If, as we believe, this is a team that can dream, the Lightning are a confederacy of dreamers. Start with arguably the most important player on the team, Vincent Lecavalier. The silky smooth center could have become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the coming season and departed for a more traditional hockey market for top dollar. Instead, he signed on for 11 years. Lecavalier was named captain at age 19, then the youngest captain in league history. But he was stripped of the captaincy a few months later, when he missed the start of the 2001-02 season in a contract dispute. Lecavalier said at the time he understood he was too young, but the sting of disappointment lingered long after. Now, the captaincy has been restored and he seems eager to establish himself as the leader people have been expecting him to be since he entered the league as the first overall pick a decade ago. "I didn't want to go anywhere else -- it's as simple as that," Lecavalier recently told ESPN.com. "Of course, there's a lot of places to play in the NHL. Montreal is one of them, Toronto, New York, Dallas -- they're all great organizations and great places to play, but I feel like my home is Tampa. I've never hidden that. I've always said I like Tampa and I like the people there. When you're in a place for 10 years, you feel like it's home. So, it was an easy choice for me and I got it done. I'm happy about that." Lecavalier's decision was crucial for ownership in establishing credibility and stabilizing the dressing room, which has undergone a seismic shift in personnel in the offseason. "His game will go to another level as his leadership goes to another level," Barrie said. If Lecavalier seems set to be the perfect role model for another first overall pick in Stamkos (he will center the Lightning's second line), then Olaf Kolzig seems like the perfect fit for Smith, a young netminder trying to prove himself. Both Kolzig and Smith will be looking to prove they're in the right place at the right time in their careers on a team that was tied for dead last in the league in goals allowed last season.
|Mike Smith is looking to take on more responsibility in his first full season in Tampa Bay after being brought over at last season's trade deadline.|
It's likely the opening-day roster will feature seven defensemen, all 28 or younger. Ranger said they're aware of the questions, but doesn't think it will affect how they play. "It's not a question for us. I think our defense is going to work together," Ranger said. "Personally, I don't think about it too much. We're going to play our best regardless." The common theory is the Lightning will light it up offensively and struggle to keep pucks out of their own net. Even among the forwards, though, there are plenty more folks under the gun. Malone signed a seven-year, $31.5 million deal after a breakout season in Pittsburgh, where he scored 27 goals and became a solid two-way player. The Pittsburgh native will play with Stamkos and has spent most of the preseason pounding anyone who looks sideways at the talented rookie center. As for Stamkos, Kolzig said he sees a little of Alexander Ovechkin in the rookie, not necessarily in his style of play, but in his confidence and outgoing personality. Veteran players are quietly suggesting Stamkos is special. In the end, though, it is veteran Martin St. Louis who seems to sum up things best in the land of the Lightning. A former NHL scoring champ and league MVP, St. Louis was on the Bolts' Cup-winning team and played in the World Cup of Hockey and the Olympics for Canada. Yet he said he feels very much like he's starting from scratch one more time. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. "When there are changes, you have to re-prove yourself," he said. "Every season, you start expecting big things. You think big things. I definitely feel that way this year. It's definitely exciting." Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.