NHL Season Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning
Who's In: Matt Carle, D (Trade-SJ); Adam Hall, F (FA-PIT); Olaf Kolzig, G (FA-WSH); Ryan Malone, LW (Trade-PIT); Barry Melrose, Head Coach (FA-ESPN); Andrej Meszaros, D (Trade-OTT); Vaclav Prospal, LW (FA-PHI); Mark Recchi, RW (FA-ATL); Gary Roberts, LW (Trade-PIT); Steven Stamkos, C (Draft-2008); Radim Vrbata, RW (FA-PHX)
Who's Out: Dan Boyle, D (Trade-SJ); Mathieu Darche, LW (FA-BUF); Doug Janik, D (FA-CHI); Filip Kuba, D (Trade-OTT); Brad Lukowich, D (Trade-SJ); Alex Picard, D (Trade-OTT); Andre Roy, F (FA-CGY); John Tortorella, Head Coach (Fired)
What's Changed: Oh, not much. Tampa only has a new hands-on ownership group (giddy up!), a new old head coach, the number one pick from the summer's entry draft, a new mega-deal for its franchise player, a recently minted elite defenseman, the best top six forwards in the League, various other new parts and a fresh crop of ice girls. Oh, and to top it all off, the Lightning will open the regular season overseas with a pair of games in Prague.
Got all that?
But for all the changes on the ice and otherwise, this is still very much Vinny Lecavalier's team, whether or not they sew the "C" back on his sweater -- as goes Vinny, so too will go the Bolts. After 75- and 108-point seasons coming out of the lockout, Lecavalier split the difference last season with a 40-goal/92-point 2007-08 campaign. With a more balanced attack and the strength of his surgically-repaired shoulder in doubt, he'll have a tough time getting back to the century mark.
Riding shotgun on the top line will be Lecavalier's familiar running mates Martin St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal (back from a brief stint in Philly). St. Louis, now 33, had his lowest goal total (25) since 2001-02 last season, but still managed 58 helpers, while Prospal scored a personal best 33 goals, but may be headed for a down season -- Prospal's point totals over the last six campaigns have been 55, 79, 54, 80, 55 and 71. Despite the bizarre pattern, take the over on 55 points for Prospal, and this line should produce close to 100 goals on its own.
The second line will likely feature a pair of free agents coming off career years (Radim Vrbata and Ryan Malone) and freshman phenom Steven Stamkos. Of the two free agents, Malone (who is versatile enough to center a line should events warrant) is more likely to repeat or improve on last year's numbers. Vrbata ended last season on a 22-game goal-less streak and had never topped 18 goals or 27 assists in a season prior to 2007-08, while Malone has established himself as a gritty 20-plus-goal scorer whose defensive play has improved in each of his seasons in the League. As for Stamkos... I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
Rounding out the forwards are a couple of the League's elder statesmen (Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts... WWGRD? Retire to Tampa), decent role players (Adam Hall, Ryan Craig, Chris Gratton, Michel Oullet, an injured Jeff Halpern) and some potential trade bait with offensive upside (Jussi Jokinen and Evgeny Artyukin).
On the blueline, gone are Dan Boyle (who has led the Bolts in per game ice time in each of the three post-lockout seasons), Filip Kuba and Alex Picard -- three 20-plus minute men a season ago -- as well as Brad Lukowich, which leaves Paul Ranger, Andrej Meszaros and Shane O'Brien as the only three of the eight rearguards on Tampa's roster who have spent the entirety of the last two seasons on an NHL roster. It also leaves the Bolts with eight blueliners who, combined, only had seven more goals last season than Washington's Mike Green had. The bottom line on the blueline is that the lack of a true number one defenseman (or perhaps even a true number two defenseman) will force the Bolts to play each of their rearguards in roles for which they're ill-equipped, a near certain recipe for disaster...
... Unless they can be bailed out in net by an unproven Mike Smith (who was just 3-10, 2.79, .893 for Tampa last season after coming over at the trade deadline) and/or a 38-year-old Olie Kolzig (who hasn't had a GAA under 2.89 since 2002-03 and last year had his worst save percentage since the number he posted in the 18 games he played in 1995-96). Karri Ramo could end up back in the mix as well, though his rookie season in the NHL left a lot to be desired (such as a sub-3.00 GAA and a save percentage above .900).
Who's On The Hook: Without question, it's Melrose. Let's put it this way -- Daniel Snyder has owned the Washington Redskins for less than a decade, and the team has had six different head coaches; the New York Yankees had a dozen managers in George Steinbrenner's first ten years as owner... see where I'm going with this?
Barry Melrose could be the love child of Scotty Bowman and Toe Blake and he'd be on a short leash in Tampa. But throw together the money that owners Oren Koules and pals have spent on this team, the kind of control they're going to want to have, and the fact that Melrose wasn't even a terribly successful coach the first time around, and this has all the makings of a short-term relationship. Hope you're renting, Barry.
Where They'll Finish: Tampa gave up the most goals in the League last year and was in the middle of the pack in goals scored, so naturally they went out and added more offense and a bench boss who has never coached a team that finished better than fourth from the bottom of the League in goals allowed -- expect a lot of 5-4 games. That said, much of the Lightning's fortunes will rest on the health and strength of Lecavalier's shoulder surgery, which means we may know early on whether the Bolts are this year's Flyers or last year's Lightning and whether or not cowboy chemistry can ice a winner. Fourth place in the Southeast Division, however, seems more likely.
Blogs To Watch: Lightning Strikes, Bolts Report, Bolts Blog.
Gratuitous YouTube Embed: Here's your crash course on Steven Stamkos: