After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the new regime of the Tampa Bay Lightning not only made the playoffs in 2010-2011, they advanced to Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what GM Steve Yzerman might be able to do for an encore this summer, as he builds on the second-best season in franchise history.
While the coaching style of Guy Boucher, and his touted 1-3-1 system, surely deserves some credit for the Lightning's success -- their shot differential was best in the Eastern Conference -- it also is indicative of the talent at his disposal.
With Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier in the lineup, the Lightning have elite talent to match with any team; it then becomes a matter of surrounding those players with the right pieces.
Last season, the right pieces included the likes of Teddy Purcell, Dominic Moore, Brett Clark, Sean Bergenheim, Nate Thompson, Adam Hall and Dwayne Roloson, guys that wouldn't garner a second glance before the season started and were vital contributors to a team that finished with 103 points.
This immediate success could make Yzerman's summer more challenging, as unrestricted free agents will look for big paydays and, of greater concern, rising star Stamkos is one of the pre-eminent restricted free agents.
Yzerman proved, in his first season as GM, that he could make the savvy moves to turn the Lightning from a team on the outside-looking-in at the playoffs to a contender. Can he take a contender and make the right moves to compete for the Stanley Cup?
It's a challenge, but obviously a pleasant challenge to undertake.
To his credit, Yzerman recognizes the job that lies ahead and that he can't afford to rest on the laurels of last season's playoff run. Hey, he comes from Detroit, where reaching the Conference Finals isn't necessarily cause for celebration.
"I'm going to look back three, four, five years from now and assess whether I think we, as an organization, have done a real good job," Yzerman told the St. Petersburg Times. "We're enjoying this, but we recognize we still have a lot of work to do."
Steve Yzerman/Guy Boucher
In the last five seasons, there are two players that have scored at least 80 points in all five seasons. Alexander Ovechkin is one and Martin St. Louis is the other. It doesn't seem to matter that he's now 36, he's a creative force offensively and handles a heavy workload -- not as much as he did in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 when he was playing more than 24 minutes per game, but he's good for 21 minutes a night now.
After a first half of the season that looked like his game was in decline, scoring 21 points in his first 33 games, Vincent Lecavalier scored better than a point-per-game through the rest of the regular season and in the playoffs, re-establishing his place among the game's premier talents.
Lecavalier missed time with a broken hand and played a career-low 65 games last season. For a guy that has played through his share of injuries already, it's fair to wonder whether 31-year-old Lecavalier may have trouble staying as consistently healthy as he has for much of his career, playing at least 80 games in a season eight times.
Injuries limited power forward Ryan Malone to 54 games last season and he didn't put up big point totals in the postseason, but his point-per-game production during the regular season was the highest of his career and he made his mark by frequently going mano-a-mano against Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara on the forecheck in the Eastern Conference Final.
A high ankle sprain sabotaged a good chunk of Steve Downie's season, but he roared to life in the playoffs, scoring 14 points in 17 games despite playing just 12:36 per game. That was Downie at his finest, checking, scoring and agitating but, generally, under control.
Playing for his eighth team in six NHL seasons, Dominic Moore may have finally found a home on the third line in Tampa Bay, scoring a career-high 18 goals during the regular season playing a full season with one team for the first time since his rookie season in 2005-2006 with the New York Rangers.
Nate Thompson took a step forward in his career development, scoring a career-high 10 goals and 25 points while playing more than 15 minutes per game; impressive progress from a high-energy forward that never scored 40 points in any of his four junior seasons in the WHL.
Claimed on waivers from Detroit, Mattias Ritola got into 31 games for the Lightning and produced as modestly as one might expect in limited ice time, so he figures to still in a battle for playing time.
Dana Tyrell played 78 games as a rookie, contributing in a checking role. While Tyrell's production (15 points) was minimal, he's steadily improving and should be able to provide more as he gets comfortable in his role at the NHL level.
The most pressing issue for the Lightning this summer will clearly be the contract status of Steven Stamkos, the 21-year-old superstar who is a restricted free agent.
While it's easy for the Lightning to say that they will match any offer Stamkos receives, how the roster shakes out could be altered dramatically if another team shows up offering Stamkos a $150-million contract. Even marquee restricted free agents haven't received a lot of offer sheets, but when it comes to a 21-year-old like Stamkos or the Kings' Drew Doughty, it's not out of the realm of possibility that a team makes an outrageous offer because there is little projection required since they are already star players.
Aside from contract concerns, Stamkos is obviously a building block talent. Alexander Ovechkin is the only other player in the last 15 years with more goals than Stamkos' 119 in his first three NHL seasons, even with a late-season slump that saw him score seven goals in the last 32 games of the season.
Afforded a fresh start and an opportunity on a scoring line in Tampa Bay, Teddy Purcell thrived, tallying 51 points during the regular season and followed it up with 17 points in 18 games. Natrrally, that kind of production will earn the restricted free agent a raise, how much remains to be seen.
If the Lightning don't retain the services of their unrestricted free agent forwards, there will definitely be holes that need to be filled. Simon Gagne had a disappointing season and Sean Bergenheim may never again be as productive as he was during the playoffs, but they are two legitimate top nine forwards.
While there might be some fanciful talk of bringing Brad Richards back, it would either require great creativity on the Lightning's part or a willingness on Richards' part to take far less than he could make on the open market.
More reasonably, free agents like Pascal Dupuis, Chad LaRose or Drew Miller might be capable replacements to round out the forward ranks, but how much money the Lightning can afford to spend on free agents will be affected by how much Stamkos gets paid.
Pavel Kubina's role decreased as the season progressed (20:23 average time on ice pre-All-Star break, 17:07 after) and his total of 23 points was his lowest since 2002-2003. Take into account the concussion that knocked him out of the playoffs and the 34-year-old may be on the decline.
Victor Hedman continues to develop, yet it's easy to forget that he's only 20-years-old because he's already playing 21-22 minutes per game. If he's going to become a star, Hedman may need to contribute more offensively, but that's the kind of responsibility that can come if he gets more assertive as he matures.
Veteran Brett Clark came in as a free agent and suddenly found himself on the power play, scoring a career-high 17 of his season-total 31 points with the man advantage. That Clark was required to play the point on the power play is more an indication of Tampa Bay's needs at the position than a sudden skill development of the 34-year-old blueliner.
Aside from his empty-net goal in the playoffs, Mattias Ohlund hasn't scored a goal in two seasons with the Lightning, and last season's five points was a career-low, but he rallied in the playoffs, logging more than 20 minutes per game and doing so more effectively than he has for the bulk of the past two seasons.
In what may come as a surprise to some, Mike Lundin ranked third among Lightning defencemen, behind Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman, in time on ice last season (20:24 per game). While his results haven't been particularly noteworthy, Lundin is quite economically priced for a top-four defenceman if he's indeed going to play those minutes.
Matt Smaby is huge (6-foot-6, 239 pounds), but doesn't play huge minutes. He's strictly an extra defenceman, playing 122 games over four seasons with the Lightning, with last year's 6:59 average time on ice per game the lowest among any defencemen that played more than 10 games in 2010-2011.
Tampa Bay's defence is the position most in need of an upgrade. If they could keep Brewer, who played very well after coming over from St. Louis, that would be a start, and Marc-Andre Bergeron can be an asset on the power play, but the Lightning should remain open to any trades or signings that will upgrade a defence corps that has too many vets in their mid-30s.
Again, how much money is available to bolster this position will depend on the cost associated with Stamkos' new deal, but a puck-mover like Andy Greene could be viable, particularly if Brewer departs.
While it's not easy to bank on a 42-year-old starting goaltender, the Lightning may be inclined to keep Dwayne Roloson, considering how well he played as a 41-year-old for Tampa Bay after coming over from the Islanders.
Roloson had some rough games against Boston in the Eastern Conference Final, but was exceptional through the first two rounds of the playoffs and should be able to provide at least average goaltending at a reasonable price.
If the Lightning don't retain Mike Smith, they'll likely seek an inexpensive backup and, if no great options come in at the right price, could give the role to Cedrick Desjardins.
||Prince George (WHL)
||46-27-73,-5, 59 GP
||33-38-71,-6, 62 GP
||27-29-56,-6, 51 GP
||4-13-17,+14, 76 GP
||16-31-47,-6, 80 GP
||2.65 GAA, .901 SV%, 46 GP
||2.59 GAA, .905 SVPCT, 24 GP
||23-29-52,+15, 63 GP
||9-22-31,-1, 68 GP
||Owen Sound (OHL)
||1-19-20,+17, 45 GP
The sixth overall pick last summer, Brett Connolly stayed relatively healthy last season and continued to show that he can put the puck in the net. His combination of size and skill makes him a potential frontline player and might even earn him a look next season, though if the Lightning are following a Detroit Red Wings model, he may be due to spend some time on the farm first.
A big winger with some scoring upside, Carter Ashton has steadily improved and already has 13 AHL games on his resume with late-season and playoff call-ups over the last two seasons. More seasoning is likely needed, but there's nothing wrong with a 20-year-old needing time to develop.
An elite talent who is still working on the consistent application of his gifts, Richard Panik may be a boom-or-bust player. If he matures and brings his best game nightly, then he should be a big scorer. If not, he may be be hard-pressed to reach the NHL.
A defenceman who can skate and plays the body, Radko Gudas would add a new element of physical play to the Tampa Bay blueline. If his decision-making is ready for the test, the 21-year-old could challenge for a spot as soon as next season.
Rushed to the NHL in 2009-2010, James Wright spent a full season in the AHL in 2010-2011 and was reasonably productive, surprisingly so given his junior scoring numbers. Wright is a big bodied player that will fit in a checking role and his time may be coming soon.
With 101 AHL games over the last two seasons, goaltender Dustin Tokarski has quite a bit of experience for a 21-year-old. Another year in the AHL won't hurt him as he is groomed to be a future starter.
Cedrick Desjardins has played for Guy Boucher with Hamilton in the American Hockey League, so the undrafted 25-year-old may be a step closer to landing an NHL gig.
Johan Harju is now 25-year-old, so he's reached a crossroads of his career, and he's not likely to have the long-term upside of the younger Lightning prospects but, at the same time, he produced enough in the AHL last season to be considered for promotion.
A sixth-round pick in 2008, Mark Barberio was very productive in junior with Moncton and continued to put up points in his first year as a pro, ranking second among Norfolk defencemen with 31 points.
Geoffrey Schemitsch missed some time last season with a broken wrist, but the heady defenceman played a significant role for the OHL champions.
Check out a possible roster for next season, on www.capgeek.com, with Stamkos signed, Brewer re-signed and more tweaking here: http://bit.ly/mCnWf5
27th - Rocco Grimaldi, Connor Murphy, Stuart Percy.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Lightning have approximately $37.0M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 12 players.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen, two goaltenders.
What I said the Lightning needed last year: Four top nine forwards, one defenceman, starting goaltender.
They added: Simon Gagne, Dominic Moore, Sean Bergenheim, Adam Hall, Mattias Ritola, Brett Clark, Pavel Kubina, Mike Vernace, Dan Ellis.
TRADE MARKET Ryan Malone, Pavel Kubina.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.
Off-Season Game Plan Archive