The Season Preview will be a running column on questions and thoughts for the upcoming season. Individual teams will be highlighted in each post. CLICK HERE for the full list of Season Previews.
Has it been that long since it happened? It seems like a lifetime ago when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004. And in some ways, it was… Since that magical run there’s been two lockouts, a plethora of rule changes, and so many news grabbing stories in the hockey world. Why did we forget so fast? This season changed the franchise from another hockey joke in the state of Florida, into an actual champion. There’s just one problem though, they didn’t do much after that to remind us of how good that team was. They were the 8 seed the two seasons after the lockout, and have made the playoffs one time since, all but squandering the first few seasons of Steven Stamkos and his scoring prowess in the process.
Despite all this failure, the franchise seemed desperate to cling to that past victory, holding onto Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier when they should have been looking to sell when the value was high. Lecavalier’s last four seasons with the Bolts should be viewed with frustration by fans. Sure, the franchise was hoping he could be a leader for a young cast of up and coming stars, like Stamkos, but there was a time when Montreal was willing to pay big for Lecavalier, despite lowering production and a likely role as a high payed 2nd liner. I’m all for loyalty. I love watching the Yzermans, Sakics, Howes, and Richards. Those one franchise icons. But there are as many cases where a franchise just held onto a guy far too long and against all logic (see: Iginla, Jarome). Now here are the Lightning, entering their first season sans their former Captain, with nothing to show for it but a lot of wasted money.
That’s the past now, though, so what’s the future hold? Well, unfortunately, the needs are the same ones the Bolts have had for close to a decade. They are still looking for the number one goalie that has eluded them since the departure of cup winning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, turning the crease over to mostly a series of veteran journeymen. They also continue to search for the kind of puck moving defenseman that they used to have in Pavel Kubina and Dan Boyle. Also, the roster’s depth has continued to be horrid, without the likes of Ruslan Fedotenko, Corey Stillman, Brad Richards, Fredrik Modin, and Dave Andreychuk adding the kind of secondary scoring, grit, and leadership necessary for contenders. The Bolts had the two top scorers in the league last year, and still finishing outside of the playoff picture. The last time an Art Ross trophy winner finished on the outside looking in? Wayne Gretzky with the 93-94 LA Kings. Yeah, it’s been that long for a reason. It takes a special kind of mismanagement to build a team with that kind of high end talent on the top line, that somehow can’t compete nightly.
Okay, I’ll grant it that Tampa’s misfortune hasn’t all been bad management. There was the change in ownership, the injury problems to key players like Mattias Ohlund, the unexpected regression of guys like Ryan Malone, the arrival of new GM Steve Yzerman, but there have also been some bad moves. Signing an old and injury prone Sami Salo for two years? Signing Valtteri Filppula for first line center money, when he’s a second liner on most teams? But that shows you that this is a team that thinks they can still be a good (a problem they’ve had in the past, but I digress)… and under the right circumstances, they can be. Victor Hedman has shown signs of building on the potential he’s shown, a full season for Matt Carle can only increase his contributions, and the dynamic duo of Stamkos and St. Louis doesn’t look ready to slow down. It wouldn’t hurt if guys like Teddy Purcell, Filppula, and Malone contributed enough to give the rest of the NHL more than two players in Tampa to worry about. And let’s not forget about the new generation of youngsters, which is ultimately Tampa’s biggest hope over the next few seasons, like Jonathan Drouin (who appears NHL ready), Vladislav Namestnikov, Tyler Johnson and Brett Connolly. Despite all this potential, several key questions remain; How soon can the youth come in and contribute? Who’s ready this year? And how much progress can Tampa make in one season (a spot in the playoffs would sure help team morale and give valuable experience)?
It’s been a long time since Tampa Bay was a contender, and they held onto the allure of the names that got them there for too long, but it appears that the youth movement is finally here. It may make for another difficult season or two (just ask Edmonton, sometimes it takes time for skill to amount to success), but things are happening in Tampa and for the first time in a decade most of the decisions appear to be good ones.
Optimism rating (out of 5): 1.5