We're barreling down the stretch now with our season previews as camps are establishing their rosters. Jobs will be won, hearts will be broken, and some interesting developments can occur out of injury and necessity. Before you know it, the puck will drop on regular season hockey and we'll see how close to the mark (or how far off) we were with our predictions.
And now, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Team M.O.: A once dominant team before the lockout (and in this case, we mean the 2004 Stanley Cup Champions), they didn't weather the post-lockout NHL so well. Unlike the Blues however, these guys ended up sold to a "rogue" group of NHL owners who were so dysfunctional that they were out of the equation not even two seasons later. Can't say it didn't bring better things though, as the team's ever-revolving ties to Detroit keep bringing it into a positive direction.
Last Season: Twelfth in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs. This was better than two performances that saw them draft first (Steve Stamkos) and second (Victor Hedman) for the two seasons prior, but once Jeff Vinik was secured as the team's owner, the plan was to take Tampa Bay's immense amount of talent and actually make it go back to being the Stanley Cup winning club that they can be.
Offense: Though critics were tough on Stamkos for "only" getting 45 points in his rookie season, he exploded to put up 95 points on the club, silencing his critics, and winning the Rocket Richard Trophy (co-held with the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby) as the highest goal scorer in the league. That was in no large part to playing with Martin St. Louis, who amassed one less point than Stamkos despite the fact he's 35! The team hopes that some of that will rub off on Vincent Lecavalier, he hasn't been his usual point-per-game self despite an abundance of ability (maybe some of their forward depth will let him play a bit more, er, passionately this season.) Simon Gagne's coming over in a contract season and though prone to injury, he's a very gifted point-producer who can secure a spot on their scoring lines. Ryan Malone is also adept at scoring goals and gives the team a quality power forward. Steve Downie broke 200 penalty minutes last season but also scored 46 points; he's good at being an agitator because he's got the skills and toughness to back it up. Scorer Teddy Purcell looks poised to play either a reserve role as a scorer or make their fourth-lune unit if they need him to provide energy.
Going to the checking forwards, the team brought on Sean Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, Marc Pouliot, and Chris Durno through free agency to provide a defensive presence and will fill roles that need to be filled (Bergenheim, Moore, and Pouliot will factor into penalty killing while Durno will probably be asked to enforce despite not having taken on the heavies.) Nate Thompson may not be a prototypical enforcer, but he can fight and kill penalties without issue. Adam Hall, Dana Tyrell, and Johan Harju are battling for the depth spots at camp and considering how they've done so far, the final call's still too close to tell.
I'd love to see a genuine enforcer on this team but they'll get by as long as the role players know their role. I would say that another veteran checker couldn't hurt, but since there isn't anyone capable and still in the cupboard, giving a prospect a shot sounds like a logical idea.
Defense: Mattias Ohlund's production wasn't astounding during his first season with the Lighting but gives the team a solid leader who comes to play every night his body lets him. Victor Hedman managed to get 20 points in his rookie season and looks equally poised to experience a productive year much like Stamkos had last season. The team managed to bring Pavel Kubina back, who gives the team a solid and proven top-level defender; something this team needed horribly for the past few seasons. Brett Clark was acquired in the off-season to give the team someone who knows how to use the body when it comes to defense. Randy Jones was acquired in the off-season too but to provide a different role; while he's not the best defender he is a capable point-producer from the blue line and should factor into the power play. Mike Lundin provides the team with a solid defensive defender while Matt Smaby would make a solid book-end as the physical Number 7 defender.
It would be nice for Paul Ranger to announce his triumphant return but that sounds like it may never happen (which is extremely unfortunate.) Regardless, I think their defensive corp is intriguing this season and if they can remain healthy, they'll be surprisingly effective.
Goaltending: Kinda like the good vibes I'm feeling here. You've got Mike Smith, who was dealt away from the Dallas Stars organization, played as a starter, but seemed to be bogged down by inconsistency and health issues. Nevertheless, he's got a glut of all world talent who just needs another goaltender who's as capable as he is to successfully platoon with. So what happened? The team was able to get Dan Ellis through free agency, bringing on a 1A goaltender who's friends with Smith from their days in the Dallas Stars organization. Good for both of them and the team should hope that they can push each other the right way to be both competitive and cooperative. Cedrick Desjardins will be their replacement should one be injured.
Management: Vinik was committed to success and hired Steve Yzerman as his new GM. Though he'll always be regarded as a Red Wing, he's done everything right to push the team in a more competitive direction this season. He's brought on coach Guy Boucher, who plays an innovative 1-3-1 system that's enjoyed success in the AHL. If he can get that to translate to the NHL level then the team will be golden.
Prediction: Second in the Southeast Division and in the playoffs.
Their goaltending's legit, their defense is above-average, their checking forwards are capable and their scoring forwards are flat out awesome. Put us down for thinking that Steve Yzerman's Lighting will restore respectability back to Tampa Bay as a hockey market; the rest of the Southwest Division's got their work cut out for them when they face these guys.