Last season the Tampa Bay Lightning fell apart at the seams and had a downright awful year which led to the trading of two of their top players and a significant overhaul of their roster. At the trade deadline Brad Richards was traded to the Dallas Stars for Mike Smith, Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen. This summer, under a new ownership group, we saw top defenseman Dan Boyle traded to the San Jose Sharks with Brad Lukowich for Matt Carle, a prospect and a couple draft picks. The Lightning also managed to sign a number of free agents including Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata, Vaclav Prospal, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Evgeny Artyukin, Adam Hall and Olaf Kolzig. Maybe their biggest addition of the summer is the drafting of Steve Stamkos who they hope will be a star in the NHL for the next 15+ years.
The goal of all these moves is to become this years version of last years Philadelphia Flyers who made a major jump from last in the NHL to a conference finals appearance. There is no doubt that the Lightning have made some bold moves, but are they ready to contend for an Eastern Conference Championship? I am not so sure.
Let’s take a look at a projected Lightning lineup.
Extras: Hutchinson, Smaby, Wishart
Mike Smith, Olaf Kolzig, Kari Ramo
The top line of Prospal, Lecavalier and St. Louis stays intact from last season (before Prospal was traded at the deadline) and has proven itself to be one of the better top lines in the league. The second line is a mix of a couple of free agent signings and first overall draft pick Steve Stamkos. It is really difficult to figure out how well this line might come together but they have the ability to be a very solid second line as well. But as good as the top 2 lines are offensively, one might question whether they have the defensive awareness of other top lines (particularly Detroit’s top line of Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Holmstrom). Beyond the top 2 lines they have some good depth with a mix of skill, experience and leadership. All things considered the Lightning have assembled what could be (if they come together in the right way) one of the better groups of forwards in the league.
But that brings us to two potential sore spots. Defense and goaltending. With the departure of Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich, Filip Kuba and Andrew Hutchinson (who played all of last year in the AHL) are their only defensemen over the age of 25. That is going to put a lot of pressure on Paul Ranger, Matt Carle and Shane O’Brien. All three of those guys have a variety of positive attributes but one has to wonder if any of the three are ready to lead a team to a long playoff run.
Often the best counter to a young defense is to offset it with top tier goaltending. Problem is, I don’t think the Lightning have that either. Key to their hopes is Mike Smith, acquired from Dallas as the key component in the Brad Richards trade. Unfortunately Mike Smith has just 57 games of NHL experience with decent but certainly not near the top of the league .905 save %. Management brought in veteran Olaf Kolzig to help Smith out but in 54 games with the Capitals last year Kolzig looked mediocre at best with a 0.892 save %. One has to wonder if Kolzig has another year left in him or whether he would have been better off retiring.
To summarize, the Lightning should be able to score a lot of goals, particularly if Stamkos can have a solid rookie season. Unfortunately they will also likely give up a lot of goals which will limit how much success they will have. Poor defensive teams sometimes make the playoffs but rarely go deep into the playoffs. In a weak southeast division the Lightning are almost a lock to make the playoffs but I would be surprised if they managed to make much of a playoff run. Their defense and goaltending just aren’t ready for that yet.