2008-09 Team Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideThe Lightning weren't involved in every single transaction this offseason, it just seemed that way.
From when they acquired the rights to free agents Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, Vaclav Prospal and Brian Rolston (they ended up signing Roberts, Prospal and Malone) to the trade that saw them land young workhorse Andrej Meszaros from Ottawa and explore the possibility of acquiring Mathieu Schneider from Anaheim, the Lightning have been in constant motion.
From new ownership to new management to a new coach in Barry Melrose (he hasn't been behind an NHL bench since the end of the 1994-95 season) to a lineup that could have as many as 11 new faces, this isn't your daddy's Tampa Bay Lightning. Among the newcomers will be No. 1 draft pick Steven Stamkos, who will be looking to make an impact at age 18.
"I almost feel like an outsider, like I've just come off a trade or something," new captain Vincent Lecavalier said in an interview on the eve of training camp. "It's a lot of new players, and it's not just the players but also the coaches and management and owners. It's everything. I'm excited. I want to see how we glue together."
The Lightning were in middle of the pack in goals scored last season (16th). Even though Brad Richards and Dan Boyle are gone, the new lineup should be much more potent this season, or at least deeper. Malone (27 goals), Radim Vrbata (27 goals) and top draft pick Stamkos are here.
Defenseman Matt Carle will get a chance to restart his career after coming over from San Jose in the Boyle deal and instantly becomes one of the team's go-to players on the power play. Aging sniper Mark Recchi is here, too, although if he can't play on the top two lines, there seems little point.
Lecavalier starts the season with a new 11-year contract extension, which he signed in the offseason, taking him off next summer's free-agent market. Assuming Lecavalier's shoulder is good to go at or near the start of the season (he had offseason surgery), the Lightning should be a dynamic offensive presence and darned fun to watch. Martin St. Louis should also benefit from a change of scenery behind the bench; look for him to put up impressive numbers, too, after his point total dipped by 19 to 83 last season.
This is where it gets interesting for the Lightning. There is a lot of promise and size along the blue line, starting with Carle, Paul Ranger and Shane O'Brien, although Ranger isn't likely to be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
Meszaros, who signed a six-year deal worth a shade more than $4 million a year the day after his acquisition from Ottawa, becomes the de facto leader of the blue-line unit in terms of the minutes he'll log and the role he'll play and he's just 22. The youngsters are going to have to learn on the fly if the Lightning are going to crack the playoff bubble, but stranger things have happened. Still, expect mistakes galore early on, which is why the Lightning's goaltending situation is so crucial to the team's success.
Nothing helps the learning curve of a young defense like solid netminding. As with their blue-line corps, though, the Lightning will be trying to find out on the fly if they've got it. Those who've seen Mike Smith over the past couple of seasons believe he has the tools to be a No. 1 netminder. But the 6-foot-3 goalie is still relatively young (26) and hasn't yet shown the consistency needed to be that kind of player.
He was 15-19 with a 2.59 GAA and .901 save percentage; they are OK numbers and there is a feeling Smith needs to learn how to be more technically sound and not just rely on athleticism.
Just what role veteran Olaf Kolzig is expected to play -- mentor to Smith or veteran looking for one last starting gig -- remains uncertain. Smith's play will likely determine that role. The 38-year-old Kolzig, long the face of the Washington Capitals, lost his job last season and will be trying to prove he's got something left to bring to the party.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Tampa Bay has been the ability of the new owners to generate excitement again among the fans and the media. The buzz is back in Hockey Bay, USA.
The changes include a new GM, coaching staff, director of player personnel, chief scout, WHL, OHL and QMJHL scouts, director of team services and approximately 15 players who were not on the roster or within the organization at the end of the 2007-08 season.
Steven (don't call me Steve) Stamkos is going to become a superstar in the NHL. In the short term, he will fit in nicely as Tampa's second-line center and will have a host of talented forwards to help carry the load, including newcomers Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata, among others.
Andrej Meszaros will be given every opportunity to replace franchise defenseman Dan Boyle, and Olaf Kolzig was brought in to supplant top prospect Karri Ramo as the No. 2 goalie for the Bolts. New co-owner Len Barrie promised in July that the Lighting would win the Southeast Division; the last time the Bolts did that, they won the Stanley Cup in 2004. Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
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• Record: 31-42-9
• Division: Last in the Southeast
• Conference: Last in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• After starting the season with two games in Prague against the New York Rangers, the Lightning return home and play five straight home games. For a team trying to shore up its relationship with its fan base and prove it's headed in the right direction, this is a crucial early test and could set a trend for the season -- good or bad.
Experience: 3 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• This may be the single most important factor in whether the Lightning can get up off the mat after finishing dead last a season ago. Melrose has been distanced from the game for more than a decade despite his regular television appearances on ESPN. Can he implement a system that will capitalize on his team's strengths? Can he manage his bench after being away for so long? More importantly, can he convince his players early on that he knows what he's doing and that he's not just a guy with a weird hairdo who somehow ended up teleporting himself from their television screens to their dressing room?
"I've talked to him a few times. I'm excited to see how he's going to be behind the bench. Just having someone different is going to be kind of weird because I've had the same coach for seven years, almost my whole career," Lecavalier said. "There's going to be an adjustment for the players, but I think we'll adjust quickly.
"I think for him, it'll be like riding a bike. I think he'll be fine. And for what he used to say on ESPN, I think he knows the game. So we're excited about that."
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Vincent Lecavalier
Lecavalier helped legitimize the new ownership/management team by signing an 11-year contract extension in the offseason and remains one of the premier forwards in the NHL. His leadership will be key with so many new faces in the dressing room. Oh yeah, he'll need to register 90 to 100 points, as well.
F -- Vaclav Prospal
Prospal started last season in Tampa, warred with former coach John Tortorella and was dealt at the trade deadline to Philadelphia, and then signed a new deal with the Lightning in the offseason. Prospal has point-a-game potential, especially playing with old pals Lecavalier and St. Louis. He also has the potential to go stone cold as we saw in the playoffs when he went scoreless in the last 12 postseason games for the Flyers.
F -- Martin St. Louis
The former NHL scoring champ and league MVP saw his point totals drop to 83 last season from 102 the season before; he was minus-23 compared to plus-7 in 2006-07. One assumes he'll get back to having fun under new coach Barry Melrose and his numbers should bounce back toward triple digits.
D -- Matt Carle
Carle fell out of favor in San Jose with former Sharks coach Ron Wilson and was a healthy scratch at times last season. Carle had 42 points and was a plus-9 two years ago, leading all rookie defensemen in points. Last season, he slumped to 15 points and was minus-8. Can he regain his confidence and his scoring touch in Tampa? He will have to if the Bolts are going to sneak into the postseason.
D -- Andrej Meszaros
There is no disputing the tools the young Slovak possesses, but it's one thing to go from a team that had nice defensive depth (Chris Phillips, Wade Redden and others) to a team that has no defensive identity and on which you are expected to be a difference-maker. It's a tall order regardless of how good Meszaros might be.
Answer: Yes. Maybe. Who knows? That's what makes the Lightning such a compelling story this season. There are certainly enough moving parts, on paper, to suggest they can make it back to the playoffs or, at the very least, be playing meaningful games in March. This will be a true test of Vincent Lecavalier's leadership, and players like Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts will have to shoulder the load, as well. There will have to be some good fortune to make it happen, but those things are possible. Or not.