Lightning: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
We remember walking into Lightning camp a year ago and wondering how it was all going to stick with a new owner, a rookie GM, a rookie coach and a phalanx of new players.
Well, Steve Yzerman and Guy Boucher knew what they were doing, as the Bolts enjoyed a dramatic renaissance after several seasons of chaos. Yzerman made a couple of shrewd midseason additions in the form of netminder Dwayne Roloson and defenseman Eric Brewer and got great postseason production from the lineup to advance to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
There are some changes for the coming season, but there's no reason to suggest the bloom will be off the Lightning's rose. And owner Jeff Vinik has backed up his talk by spearheading a $40 million refurbishment of the St. Pete Times Forum.
"Pretty early on, you feel we have a chance of doing something good," Martin St. Louis told ESPN.com. "Did I think we'd go that far, one game away from a Stanley Cup final? No, I didn't think so. But you know, as we got further into the season, I was like, you know what, this becomes more real, that we can exceed a lot of our expectations."
Hockey, it's safe to say, is back in Tampa.
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. The education of Steven Stamkos
For the first half of last season, Stamkos looked as though he could take a run at the scoring title before slowing down in the second half (just seven goals in 31 post-All-Star contests). He still finished second in goals with 45 and fifth in points with 91, so "slowing down" is a relative thing.
In Stamkos' first postseason appearance, he showed some jitters, but by the conference finals, he was much more comfortable. Even after taking a puck to the face in Game 7, Stamkos returned to action. This offseason, Stamkos inked a five-year deal worth $37.5 million."I just think it's his maturity level. He just keeps on getting better," St. Louis said of his linemate and protégé. "Obviously, we talk about it all the time. To be good in this league is hard. To stay good is even harder.
"You get challenged. You get new contracts. There's so many external things that might affect [you] between the ears, and I always say, 'Stay the course, play your game, don't change things now because you've done well.' He understands that. That's maturity to me."
2. Did we say 'ancient'?
Early on in the second round, we had the misfortune of linking Roloson to the term "ancient." It was a reference that did not escape the fiery netminder, even if he was more bark than bite. Roloson will have to get used to even more age references, as his stellar play for the Bolts earned him a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. Roloson will turn 42 early this season, but don't expect his productivity to drop off. After his arrival, the Bolts' goals-against average dropped 3.1 per game to 2.7. That's no coincidence, folks.
Bolts coach Boucher told ESPN.com that no one trains as hard as or is as focused as Roloson. The challenge will be in keeping Roloson ready for what the Bolts hope will be another long playoff run. The addition of Mathieu Garon was an interesting move by Yzerman given that other veteran goalies were available, but Garon has shown an ability to quietly turn in quality starts. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him play 30 or so games.
3. Blue-line blues?
The Lightning ranked 22nd in goals allowed per game last season. Part of that was the unstable goaltending situation before Roloson's arrival. But there were questions about the team's defensive depth heading into the playoffs. Those questions were answered, as the Lightning were markedly better defensively in the postseason. What was most impressive to us was the play of former No. 2 overall draft pick Victor Hedman, who is growing into a top-four defender. Marc-Andre Bergeron, long considered a defensive liability, did yeoman's work for a short-staffed line during the playoffs.
Yzerman kept Brewer, signing him to a big, four-year deal worth $15.4 million. The Lightning also picked up former Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy, who couldn't find a way into the New York Rangers' lineup. Although age and durability will remain questions with Brewer, Pavel Kubina and Mattias Ohlund, there is no reason the Bolts shouldn't be a top-10 defensive team.
4. Light it up
The Lightning should continue to be a difficult team to handle offensively even after the losses of veteran Simon Gagne (signed in Los Angeles) and playoff scoring hero Sean Bergenheim (signed with Florida). Last season, the Lightning ranked seventh in goals per game and sixth on the man advantage. Watch for Teddy Purcell, who enjoyed a breakout postseason playing mostly with Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone (coming off shoulder surgery), to get more offensive opportunities.
Never underestimate the power of putting a good product on the ice. The Lightning's recent successes and stability have translated into instant rewards for the franchise beyond points in the standings. The Bolts have seen the sale of full-season ticket packages double from 5,000 a year ago to more than 10,000 for the upcoming season, and preseason sales continue to increase that number. That kind of fan commitment makes it easier to lure free agents and sign existing players, as the Lightning did this past summer. Funny how that works out.
6. The other Steve
We got a chance to spend some time with the Two Steves last season and were impressed by the close relationship between Stamkos and Steve Downie. The latter continues to try to live down his bad-boy reputation, and last season provided its challenges; he suited up for just 57 games with injuries that included a painful high-ankle sprain. Still, Downie found instant karma playing with Bergenheim and Dominic Moore in the postseason and collected 14 points in 17 postseason games. The deceptively talented winger also has logged a lot of time playing with Stamkos and St. Louis and looks to earn even more opportunity this season.
7. Marty's the man
No Eastern Conference player piled up more post-All-Star break points than St. Louis (39 points in 31 games). Never mind that the "C" permanently resides on Lecavalier's jersey; St. Louis remains the heart and soul of this team. He also was nominated for the Hart Trophy for the second time in his career after winning the award in 2004.
"Every year as you get older, you get challenged mentally more than physically, just because people are expecting you to slow down maybe," he said. "I think when you let that creep into your mind, you're going to speed up the process.
"I don't feel like I should be slowing down. I feel great physically. It's just the mental aspect that you have to fight through, people's opinions. Because the reality is, I'm going to have a bad stretch like I've always had in years past. There's always a few weeks where your game is not where it needs to be. And that's when those questions get asked. 'Is he getting old?' 'Is he slowing down?' So, for me, I just have to play strong."
8. Game 7 hangover?
The Lightning may have to deal with a playoff hangover after they lost 1-0 in Game 7 of the East finals against Boston, which later hoisted the Stanley Cup. Boucher acknowledged it was difficult watching Boston celebrate the Cup win knowing the line between the Lightning and Bruins was so thin.
"It makes you think that you had a chance," he said.
St. Louis said it was difficult to think about, but it also should provide a motivation for the club.
"We gave everything we had [in Game 7]. We just fell short," he said. "It's easy to look back and say, 'I coulda, shoulda, woulda.'"
9. No transition blues
As we noted, the Lightning made a remarkably smooth transition last season given all the changes, but there should be a lot more continuity this fall, which shouldn't be confused with complacency. "We feel that we started a process last year," Boucher said.
10. Home is where the wins are
The Lightning were tied with Vancouver for most goals scored at home. We have to believe that with more enthusiastic fan support, the Lightning might be even better this season at home. (They were 25-11-5 in 2010-11, second=best in the Eastern Conference.)
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering second NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• It's hard not to appreciate Guy Boucher's unfailing passion for the game and ability to wax eloquent on what makes his team tick. OK, so he did play the "Oh, we are going to get waxed because they're so good" card a couple of times too many en route to sweeping Washington in the second round, but he's the real deal. And there is no doubt that the Lightning bought into what Boucher was selling.
Martin St. Louis joked that even when they were at the rink watching their boys playing youth hockey, Boucher was talking the game, thinking about how to make the team better.
"Obviously, he's not as intense when he's away from the rink, but hockey's always on his mind. Sometimes we'll have some discussion about how we can do things better, sometimes talking about that and trying to watch our kids play," St. Louis said with a grin. "He's very organized. Everything is thought through. He's an energy guy, and he adapts and he adjusts to things. It's not his way or the highway. He'll lean on guys and will debate stuff. That really impresses me." -- Scott Burnside
Best bet: Steven Stamkos
What do we want to see from Stamkos this season? Conditioning and consistency. Stamkos was a rocket before the All-Star break last season with 38 goals and 67 points in 51 games, but managed seven goals and 24 points in his final 31 contests. Heading into his fourth NHL season, one has to wonder whether he has the stamina for a full 82-game schedule. If he does, Stamkos could be the steal of the draft as the fourth forward off the table. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Dwayne Roloson
Re-signed for another season with the Lightning, Roloson will have a firm grasp on the starting gig from the get-go, so the wins should pile up. The unresolved aspect to Roloson's 2011-12 campaign is his workload: Will a man who turns 42 on Oct. 12 be able to handle 55-60 starts? If so, he'll be a borderline No. 1 option. -- Tim Kavanagh
Sleeper pick: Teddy Purcell
Purcell eventually started to find the scoring touch he possessed in the AHL because the Tampa Bay Lightning gave him a longer leash as the season wore on. As his ice time and confidence improved, Purcell started piling on the points. Sfter the All-Star break, he managed 21 points in 31 games and a plus-9 rating. He'll be anchoring the second line with Vincent Lecavalier and called upon for some power-play work, so he should improve his 2010-11 numbers. -- S.A.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Lightning:
• June 13: Re-signed D Mike Vernace.
• June 24: Re-signed D Eric Brewer and C Blair Jones.
• June 25: Acquired D Bruno Gervais from Islanders for future considerations.
• June 28: Re-signed D Marc-Andre Bergeron.
• June 29: Re-signed C Adam Hall.
• June 30: Re-signed G Dwayne Roloson.
• July 1: Signed G Mathieu Garon and RW Michel Ouellet.
• July 2: Signed D Matt Gilroy.
• July 6: Signed C Tom Pyatt.
• July 7: Signed RW Ryan Shannon.
• July 19: Re-signed C Steven Stamkos.
• July 20: Re-signed RW Teddy Purcell.
• LW Sean Bergenheim (unrestricted free agent, signed by Florida)
• D Randy Jones (unrestricted free agent, signed by Winnipeg)
• LW Simon Gagne (unrestricted free agent, signed by Los Angeles)
• G Mike Smith (unrestricted free agent, signed by Phoenix)
• D Mike Lundin (unrestricted free agent, signed by Minnesota)
• G Cedrick Desjardins (unrestricted free agent, signed by Colorado)
• D Matt Smaby (unrestricted free agent, signed by Anaheim)