No team in the league went through as much turnover as the Lightning this summer. Spearheaded by a new ownership group led by Oren Koules and Len Barrie, who have made many headlines this summer, the Lightning have promised their fans an exciting brand of Lightning hockey and a replication of success they enjoyed in 2004. The Lightning enter the season with much intrigue, as many fans and experts are wondering what sort of Lightning team that features as many as five new key players and a coach that hasn’t worked in the NHL for a decade, will show up.
It wasn’t too long ago that John Tortorella realized he made a mistake naming Vincent Lecavalier as captain and took the ‘C’ away from him. Now that he’s more mature (and really there really isn’t anyone else as qualified), new coach Barry Melrose has returned the captaincy to him. Make no mistake, Lecavalier is one of the top five centres in the league. His size and scoring ability makes him dangerous offensively, and along with Martin St. Louis they form the best scoring duo in their division. The re-addition of Vaclav Prospal and being able to land some of this summer’s best free agents in Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata, and not to mention Steve Stamkos (who surprised me with his defensive plays), the Lightning have a lot of firepower. How well the new additions will mesh with Jussi Jokinen and Jason Ward will be interesting, as it’s hard to believe the locker room isn’t suffering from loyalties to the old and new regime. However, it was a great move to bring in both Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, whose veteran (and perhaps intimidating) presence may keep the Bolts in line. Scoring shouldn’t be a problem, but if Stamkos can’t put up the numbers or keep up, the Bolts will find themselves without a legitimate number two centre. Depth on the wings is a luxury the Bolts have, but with Barrie and Koules’ spending this summer it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, positively or negatively.
The Lightning forwards will do fine with Lecavalier and St. Louis. However, if the Lightning want to win the division, they’ll have to do more than put pucks in the net. They’ll have to do a damn good job of keeping the puck out in a high-scoring Southeast Division… and with the current corps they have, it’s going to be a battle. When Andrej Meszaros is your best defenseman, you know you have a problem. That’s not taking anything away from Meszaros though – he’s talented and will be a good defenseman for years to come, but it speaks volumes about a team’s six-man group when Meszaros is your alternate captain and minutes eater. Matt Carle, acquired from the Dan Boyle trade (which I believe was an awful move on their part), is still young and still has tons of room to grow. In fact, the Lightning defense was so bare that they had to sign journeyman Jamie Heward just days before their opener in Europe. The Bolts’ puck-moving abilities and responsibility were so awful that the Lightning have already pulled the trigger and opted for a more mobile Lukas Krajicek over the tougher Shane O’Brien. One defenseman that can really surprise, however, is Janne Niskala. The smooth skating defenseman potted 19 goals in the AHL last year and judging by his play early on could supplant Meszaros or Carle as the new powerplay quarterback. Considering that the Lightning don’t have a particularly strong tandem in net, signing Marek Malik, which they are rumoured to do, would give this defense a much-needed boost.
Mike Smith played well in the season opener, but when your defense is average you’re going to have to steal a lot of games to remain competitive. Olaf Kolzig didn’t relish his job as backup in Washington, but seems okay with it for now. The Lightning have gotten off to a bad start, but the goaltending has remained fairly solid with a porous defense and snoozing offense. The Lightning will most likely continue to split duties, perhaps 60/40 between the two. Kolzig seems happy to play second fiddle for now, but I wonder if that’ll change once the losses start to pile up (and they will for stretches). Kolzig was enjoying a much deserved success last year in Washington and feels a bit better they aren’t including him as part of their plans going forward.
Perhaps all these inconsistencies and holes can be plugged with Melrose, but I hardly think so. The Rangers weren’t great in Europe either, but the Bolts as a whole looked slow, a bit ironic considering the Bolts’ website advertises Melrose as the “Coach to Ignite Us.” Judging by Melrose’s first press conference, in which he indirectly called out his forwards, is strangely reminiscent of Tortorella’s. A lot of Tampa’s success will hinge on Melrose’s adjustments during the season, and it’s hard not to assume that he’s still shaking off a lot of rust after being more than a decade away from the game. The series against the Rangers definitely showed that the Lightning have much work to do – so much so that they may not gel as a team until it’s too late.
Ryan Malone – Vincent Lecavalier – Martin St. Louis
Vaclav Prospal – Steven Stamkos – Radim Vrbata
Jussi Jokinen – Evgeny Arthyukhin – Mark Recchi
Gary Roberts – Chris Gratton – Adam Hall
Vladimir Mihalik – Andrej Meszaros
Matt Carle – Lukas Krajicek
Janne Niskala – Jamie Heward
Mike Smith – Olaf Kolzig
Coach: Barry Melrose
GM: Brian Lawton
Predicted finish: 3rd Southeast, 10th East