Resurgent Lightning look to build on momentum
Last spring, while many Canadian headlines focused on the demise of the Atlanta Thrashers as evidence that hockey doesn’t work in the American South, another team was stealing the show on the ice and winning fans from all points of the compass.
For years, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been chock full of talent, but it wasn’t until new ownership, management and coaching took the reins that we saw them realize their full potential.
The 2011 postseason saw the Bolts comeback from being down 0-2 in the opening series to take out the hobbled Pittsburgh Penguins in seven, and then go on to humiliate the mighty Washington Capitals in a sweep. The Eastern Conference Finals went to a Game 7 where Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins claimed a win en route to a Stanley Cup.
Tampa Bay’s fan base, which hadn’t had much to be proud of in recent seasons, rallied and aggressive marketing seems to be paying off with increased season ticket sales. Expectations are high as many still remember the thrill of 2004 when the team won it all.
So how will GM Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher build on the momentum of a franchise that seems to be another developing NHL rags-to-riches tale? Or was last season a fluke that was more about the weaknesses of other teams?
The core of the Bolts’ scoring punch remains intact as Steven Stamkos signed a five-year, $37 million contract in July. Captain Vincent LeCavalier, 31, serves as a veteran foil for the hot shot youngster. Martin St. Louis, now in his13th NHL season at 36, remains the heart and soul of the room.
In goal, Dwayne Roloson, has landed in a spot that could lead to another deep playoff run. One has to think this could/should be his final season. To help him stay in top form throughout the 82-game season, Mathieu Garon was signed in July as his backup, though some suggest the tandem is more of the 1A/1B variety.
The success of these guys will rely as much on improving their defensive coverage, with Victor Hedman expected to be their guy in the future. Is he ready to move to the next level with the experience gained in a grueling postseason? Brett Clark and Eric Brewer will be together again as the top pairing. While neither can be regarded elite, they bring a wealth of experience and leadership.
In 2010-11, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie were a huge factor in the Bolts effectiveness at both ends of the ice. Malone is coming off shoulder surgery, so if they stay healthy, look for more of the same. Forwards Dana Tyrell and Nate Thompson brought energy and will be complemented with new additions Tom Pyatt and Ryan Shannon.
Former Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy, the 2009 Hobey Baker winner at the college level, has speed and a knack for scoring which does more to enhance Boucher’s offensive kit-of-parts than bolstering his less-than-elite line of defense.
Additions: Mathieu Garon, Tom Pyatt, Ryan Shannon, Matt Gilroy, Bruno Gervais
Subtractions: Mike Smith, Simon Gagne, Sean Bergenheim, Randy Jones, Matt Smaby, Mike Lundin
Fresh Faces from the Farm:
- Forwards Brett Connolly and Carter Ashton are both recent first-round picks; both are pushing for an NHL spot this camp. Yzerman signed Connolly to his first contract this off season, but if he doesn’t make the big club, he will return to the WHL. Ashton joined the AHL Admirals in the 2011 postseason and will play in Norfolk if he doesn’t make the big team.
- A couple of AHL defensemen are working their way into the conversation: Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas are less flashy prospects but the AHL coach is quoted to say: “Radko is a throwback,” Cooper said. “He is all meat and potatoes. … He hits like a truck.”
- Goaltender Dustin Tokarski is expected to be the starter in Norfolk. With Roloson’s career winding down, is he the future of Lightning goaltending?
X-Factor: Steven Stamkos
Stamkos exploded out of the gates last fall, on a pace for 70 goal season in the early going. By spring, with injuries to supporting players, his production tapered off and the Lightning hobbled into the post season. How will the 21-year old build on a season that saw him emerge as a new face of the league?
Breakout: Victor Hedman
The 20-year-old Swede will be in his third year in the NHL, about right for a defenseman have learned to what to expect from his opponents and be prepared to challenge more aggressively. I could see his using that big 6-6 frame with more authority and raising his game building on the experience and confidence he gained from last season’s playoff run.
On the Hot Seat: Dwayne Roloson
At 41, everyone is wondering how much this vet has left in the tank. His arrival mid-season last year made the Bolts into legitimate contenders. With new-Bolt Mathieu Garon in a supporting role, will Roli be the inspirational backbone of the Bolts defense again?
Bold Prediction: Stamkos puts together a consistent 55-goal campaign.
The Final Word: The tug between excitement and hangover for the tremendous showing last year will make for an inconsistent start. Count on the vets and management to weather the rough waters early in the season and emerge in April with another playoff bid. The Tampa Bay area will again be a thriving hockeytown. The Bolts’ talents and never-say-die energy, which are now supported by superb management, will show that hockey success is not bound by geography. All in all, a win for both Florida and the sport.
RLD’s Tampa Bay related off-season posts:
July 16: Saturday Faceoff: Steven Stamkos or Drew Doughty (Link)
July 18: Lightning look to build on breakout season (Link)
July 28: Southeast Division Off-season Grades (Link)
August 17: Rest of Southeast in tough to surpass Capitals (Link)
August 19: Windows of Opportunity: Tampa Bay's opening (Link)
Ryan Porth and Cassie McClellan contributed to this post
Photo credit: Getty Images
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