One of the bigger surprises of the 2010-11 regular and post-season, the Tampa Bay Lightning found a new attitude and became a threat again to the Eastern Conference. After falling one win short of a Cup final berth, the Bolts hope they can carry over that success to the 2011-12 campaign, and are out to prove last year was no fluke.
The new faces in the front office made a big difference simply in the organization’s attitude. Owner Jeff Vinik set the tone by hiring GM Steve Yzerman, who then hired Guy Boucher as bench boss. Neither Yzerman nor Boucher had ever been a GM or head coach, respectively, at the NHL level.
“It was a fresh start for us with new management and new ownership,” Steven Stamkos said. “They hired the right people and did everything they could to make us as good as possible. For us as players, they put us in a great situation.
“I think we surprised a lot of people with the success that we had, especially in the playoffs.”
As a rookie coach and new to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Boucher guided the Bolts to their first conference final since 2004. He put his own twist on the 1-3-1 'trap', frustrating the Penguins and Capitals in the process. They even took the eventual champion Bruins to a Game 7.
When asked what makes Boucher such a good coach, Hart Trophy candidate Martin St. Louis said, “He coaches 20 guys in different ways. He’s got a great background and coaches everybody differently. With his accountability, preparation, work ethic, I think he’s the total package.”
Not many expected Tampa Bay to even get past the Crosby- and Malkin-less Penguins in the first round, much less advance to the conference final.
“We flourished come playoff time,” added Stamkos, who has taken over as the face of the franchise. “It sucks, knowing how close we were. But it’s only going to make us better.”
Yzerman pushed all of the right buttons once he stepped foot in Tampa Bay. He especially made an impact when he obtained Dwayne Roloson and Eric Brewer prior to the trade deadline. Both were big pieces of their playoff run. Yzerman finished second in the GM of the Year voting.
Aside from the new ownership and management, a big reason for the Lightning’s breakout season was the dynamic duo of Stamkos and St. Louis. Separated by 15 years, the two have complemented each other perfectly ever since being placed on the top line together in 2008-09.
“He’s meant a lot to the success I’ve had in my career,” the NHL 12 cover athlete said of St. Louis. “He’s been there since Day 1 for me. I jumped on his line midway through my rookie year when things weren’t going well. He’s meant so much. I’ve learned so many things on and off the ice from him. Without him I definitely wouldn’t be here today.”
St. Louis saw a slight dip in production as the Bolts hit rock-bottom, but he and Stamkos have blossomed into a dynamite one-two punch, one that has racked up a total of 379 points in the last two years.
“I’ve got a front row seat,” St. Louis said of Stamkos, “for seeing great success at such a young age. He’s been everything people thought he was going to be. Actually, I think he’s been more than people thought he was going to be. The stuff he’s doing at his age – it’s amazing.”
What impresses St. Louis most about Stamkos?
“His shot,” the 36-year-old veteran commented. “It’s quick, it’s heavy, it’s accurate. Some guys have quick releases, but aren’t very accurate. Some have not that hard of a shot, but it’s accurate. He’s got it all.”
Despite registering his second straight 90-point season, Stamkos had some growing pains last season. Through Nov. 19, the young sniper had 19 goals in 19 games. He even had pundits talking about the possibility of scoring 50 goals in 50 games, something that had not been done since 1992.
Stamkos followed that up by netting 26 goals in 63 games and struggling with consistency down the stretch.
“When you go through droughts like that you learn a lot about yourself and how to deal with pressure in certain situations,” Stamkos said. “I’m a realist. I realize how hot of a start I had and you know that’s not going to (continue). I tried to focus on other parts of my game, like faceoffs and defensive zone coverage. I matured a lot as a player by going through that.”
If he can learn how to score with consistency, a 60- or even 70-goal season isn’t out of reach, especially with St. Louis setting him up.
However, for the Lightning to keep pace with the rest of the Eastern Conference and get back to where they were this past spring, it’s going to take a lot more than just the duo of Stamkos and St. Louis. Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim were key off-season subtractions, meaning others will have to step up. Also, Roloson and Brewer will be under pressure to repeat the success they had late in the year. (Not to mention, Stamkos needs to get re-signed!)
With Vinik, Yzerman and Boucher steering the ship up top, and Stamkos and St. Louis leading the way on the ice, the Lightning’s future is very bright.
“Playing in the playoffs and going on the run that we went on,” Stamkos said, “it’s going to help me personally and the other guys who hadn’t had that playoff experience before. You just have to work even harder. It’s kind of a mental thing, knowing you have to go through another 100 games just get to that same point again. We have a great nucleus of guys on the team, we know what it takes now and we’re only going to get better.”
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