THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
Tampa Bay faces a challenge unlike that of every other Stanley Cup champion over the past 86 years -- the Lightning will be defending their title 16 months after first hoisting the Cup.
The lag time brought on by the lockout will eliminate some of the factors that traditionally plague defending champions, such as fatigue and the immediate threat of complacency.
But the lockout might introduce other bugaboos, such as bad habits picked up through prolonged inactivity or during play in lesser leagues around the world.
GM Jay Feaster tried to work with the agents of all his top players -- Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Nikolai Khabibulin -- in hopes of locking them all in to long-term deals, but he couldn't get the agents to come together. Still, Feaster has managed to return almost his entire team intact, no small feat given the salary-cap restrictions. So the gang's all here, more or less.
Offense: Up front, Cory Stillman, who had 80 points but was a nonfactor during the playoffs with just two goals in 21 playoff games, is gone. In his place, Vaclav Prospal, who returns after a one-year hiatus in Anaheim. He had 79 points the previous season in Tampa. Having Lecavalier, the MVP of last year's World Cup of Hockey, and defending league scoring champ and MVP St. Louis locked into long-term deals is also key to eliminating distractions.
Defense: It remains a largely no-name group, although Dan Boyle is an emerging offensive star on the back end, earning an invitation to Canada's Olympic orientation camp. Having Darryl Sydor for the entire season will be a boon, and he'll eat up the minutes lost when Jassen Cullimore bolted to Chicago.
Goaltending: The most notable exception to Feaster's offseason efforts is the departure of Khabibulin, who chased the money to Chicago, where he is now -- incredibly -- the game's highest-paid goaltender.
The goaltending duties will fall to John Grahame, who at one point appeared ready to take over the starter's role during the 2003-04 season. A bit of a loose cannon, Grahame finished with respectable numbers -- 2.06 GAA, .913 save percentage in 29 games -- but will have to prove to coach John Tortorella and to his teammates that he's serious about assuming the starting role. If Grahame can't do that, Sean Burke has shown that he still has game -- he's 38 -- although the Lightning must hope they won't have to find out just how much game.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES This team is talented, speedy and surprisingly tough. There is nothing to suggest complacency among the trio of superstars -- Richards, Lecavalier and St. Louis -- and Grahame has the tools to make people forget about Khabibulin.
If they fall into the post-Cup rut many teams do, where they expect things to come easily for them, the team will slide. If Grahame doesn't mature enough into the No. 1 job, there will be questions about Burke's ability to take a team deep in the playoffs.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Ruslan Fedotenko, who went to the Bolts in a 2002 draft-day trade in that allowed Philadelphia to select defensive gem Joni Pitkanen. Feaster was roasted for the deal. Fedotenko now owns one more Stanley Cup ring than Pitkanen. Fedotenko is coming off hip surgery and likely will skate alongside Lecavalier and Prospal.
If there's a coach who isn't afraid to mix it up with his best players to get them to go the extra mile, it's Tortorella. Of course, it's not only the players who have to adapt after winning a championship, the coach also must adapt. So, Tortorella will have to know when to go to the whip and when to pull back if a repeat is in the cards.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> KEEPING THE CORE
Signing both Lecavalier (left) and St. Louis to long-term deals. Feaster might have overpaid for Lecavalier (four years, $27.5 million), but given his play, all signs point to superstardom for a player who looked early on to be a No. 1 bust. Giving St. Louis the security of a long-term deal (six years, $31 million) should help the sometimes brooding star.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> NO SAFETY NET?
It hardly seems fair to criticize Feaster for not re-signing Khabibulin, given his contract demands. But one wonders if there weren't better options than Burke. Curtis Joseph, Mike Dunham and/or Jocelyn Thibault, who was available from Chicago after Khabibulin signed there, might have provided a better safety net.
Martin St. Louis, RW
St. Louis made a name for himself in 2003-04. He finished with 38 goals and 56 assists in 82 games.
Nikolai Khabibulin, G
The Lightning are going to miss him and his 28-19-7 record from the 2003-04 season.
“I've paid my dues and it's my turn now and I want to take advantage of it.”
— John Grahame on taking over the No. 1 goalie spot