A horrible 2007-2008 season paid off for the Tampa Bay Lightning when they won the NHL draft lottery, earning the right to make the first pick this summer.
Off-Season Game Plan examines the state of the rudderless Lightning and what they could do this summer to get back to playing competitive hockey.
The primary issue for the Lightning, unfortunately, revolves around ownership. The group led by Oren Koules, former minor league hockey player and producer of the Saw movies, has stumbled along in his attempts to finalize the sale of the team and until ownership of the team is solidly in place, Lightning general manager Jay Feaster will have his hands tied by uncertainty surrouding the budget.
An injury to Dan Boyle exposed Tampa Bay's appalling lack of depth last season and the deadline trades of Brad Richards and Vaclav Prospal helped to address those issues, at the expense of quality talent, but the Lightning need to be active this summer if they are going to improve in 2008-2008.
Certainly, remodeling the team gets an immediate boost with the presumed addition of Stamkos, an 18-year-old who just scored 58 goals and 105 points in 61 games with Sarnia in the Ontario Hockey League.
"To have the opportunity to have the No. 1 pick in this draft, to have the player we think is NHL-ready be a forward, that's a real nice position for our franchise to be in," Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said following the lottery.
Stamkos isn't necessarily considered a franchise saviour, like Vincent Lecavalier, but he's an undeniably gifted offensive player and could be penciled in as Tampa Bay's second-line centre right away.
The Lightning should be prepared to make some significant moves in an effort to contend next season because with Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle, there is still a strong core that is being supplmented with decent young talent. However, it's hard to make significant moves when you don't know who is signing the cheques at the end of the day.
"It's a little difficult to plan without knowing exactly where we are as far as all that goes," Feaster told the Tampa Tribune, regarding the ongoing ownership saga.
As a result, until that gets resolved, it's hard to expect much more than minor tinkering from the Bolts this summer.
Jay Feaster/John Tortorella
Dana Tyrell, Blair Jones, Justin Keller
A terrible season for the Lightning finished with their marquee talent heading for surgery when Vincent Lecavalier suffered a dislocated shoulder. Before suffering his injury, Lecavalier went into a late-season swoon (14 points, minus-20 in 19 games after the trade deadline) that showed how much Tampa Bay needs to improve their depth and ease the load on their franchise player.
Similarly, Martin St. Louis faded to the finish, but his 83 points was still enough to tie for 12th in the league and he played in all 82 games for the fourth time in the last five seasons. He has good chemistry with Lecavalier and their game-breaking skills can give Tampa Bay a chance in games in which they are outmatched.
Michel Ouellet missed time with a shoulder injury, but he's a solid second-line scorer, capable of at least 20-25 goals over a full season and he surprisingly led the Lightning with a plus-11 rating.
Then we get to the players the Lightning added from Dallas in the Brad Richards deal. Jeff Halpern has been a reliable checking centre for his eight NHL seasons, but he stormed to the finish with Tampa Bay, scoring 18 points in 19 games as the second-line centre.
Assuming the Lightning do take Steven Stamkos with the first pick in the draft, Halpern can go back to a third-line role, but he's now shown that he has enough skills to move up if the depth chart, if necessary.
Jussi Jokinen got a look with Lecavalier and St. Louis on the top line and, while he put up 14 points in 20 games, his minus-16 rating seemed to indicate that they need a different wingman. However, Jokinen is a good setup man and that might make him a good fit alongside Stamkos, who has a lethal shot.
Though he missed virtually the entire season with a herniated disk followed by a knee injury, Ryan Craig is still a viable third-liner. He's not a strong skater and, coming off knee surgery, doesn't figure to be any faster, but he works hard and has a little touch around the net.
Hard-hitting Nick Tarnasky is a serviceable role player on the fourth line who can scrap and provides those services inexpensively.
Veteran Jason Ward is reliable but, with 36 goals in 335 carer games, is best when left to focus on a checking role.
Without any hot forward prospects (Blair Jones or Dustin Keller could make the jump into a fourth-line role), the Lightning will have to dip into the free agent market and how that goes will obviously depend on the direction of new ownership.
Assuming that the top-end free agents won't be lining up to join the Lightning and that Tampa Bay is probably going to be sticking to a tight budget, the best way to fill holes will be to look for second and third-tier free agents.
That being the case, an ideal fit like Pittsburgh's Ryan Malone may not be in the cards, so some of the forwards who might help the Lightning among their top nine forwards could be speed guys like Malone's Pittsburgh teammate Pascal Dupuis, Dallas' Antti Miettinen or Chicago's Jason Williams. Even former Tampa Bay winger Cory Stillman, a 34-year-old coming off a 65-point season, could be a decent short-term fix.
Considering the unceremonious end to Andre Roy's season, a new enforcer is likely on the shopping list too, with Todd Fedoruk, Chris Simon and Aaron Downey among the tough guys headed for free agency. Georges Laraque is too, but is probably too expensive for the Lightning's budget.
Vladimir Mihalik, Andy Rogers, Kevin Quick
There's not much chance that Dan Boyle could have another season as terrible as his 2007-2008 campaign. After severing a tendon in his wrist with his own skate, Boyle was limited to just 37 games and managed to record a minus-29. Since Tampa Bay inked Boyle to a six-year contract extension, they have cast their lot with him as the team's No. 1 blueliner for the forseeable future.
Filip Kuba is a solid enough contributor on the blueline, playing in all situations and logging nearly 25 minutes per game. He's a solid top-four defenceman who is probably a better supporting player on a winning team.
Paul Ranger has made a lot of positive strides in a short amount of time, but the 23-year-old was probably forced to handle too much responsibility too soon because of Boyle's injury. However, with Boyle healthy, Ranger should be a good fit on one of the top two pairings.
While Shane O'Brien was a healthy scratch to wind up the season, he's still a good piece to have -- a physical guy who is willing to mix it up and he can handle the puck a bit. O'Brien's lapses could be minimized if his role is limited behind more reliable defenders, but he could also be moved if the Lightning are comfortable with the development of the rest of their young defencemen.
Mike Lundin might not have warranted a spot in the NHL YoungStars game, but he fared well in his first pro season, playing a safe and steady game albeit in a limited role.
Veteran Brad Lukowich missed quite a bit of time with a sports hernia injury and wasn't having a very positive influence on the games he did play. At his salary, the 31-year-old needs to have a bounceback season.
Picked up from the Flyers at the trade deadline, Alexandre Picard showed good puck skills and has potential to make an impact on the power play. He needs to shore up his defensive game before he can be counted on in a consistently prominent role, but the Lightning will likely give him a big push next season.
Towering Matt Smaby is still developing, but he's a big, stay-at-home presence who at least offers good depth and may play more if he stays committed to the physical game.
If the Lightning are going to dip into the free agent market, finding a reliable defensive defenceman would seem to make the most sense. Some names that could be of interest may include players like Colorado's Jeff Finger and Kurt Sauer or Columbus' Jan Hejda; they're not sexy, but if one of them can come in and provide stability on the second pair, that would be a much-needed upgrade.
Mike Smith struggled at times after he was acquired from the Dallas Stars, but the 26-year-old is considered a goaltender on the rise and he'll get every opportunity to be the number one guy that the Lightning have lacked since letting Nikolai Khabibulin leave via free agency. Smith played very well in Dallas, but needs more support from the team in front of him in order to reach his potential, which is why it's incumbent on the Lightning to make roster improvements.
21-year-old Karri Ramo is also making progress. He was sidelined for early in the season with a high ankle sprain, but wasn't bad once healthy. Next season should be important for Ramo's development as he figures to get a significant workload as Smith's backup.
It's hard to imagine the Lightning getting much less in return for their investment in Marc Denis, who has been a total bust after signing a three-year deal in the summer of 2006 after he was picked up in a trade from Columbus. A buyout of the final year of his contract ($3-million) is a possibility, but probably depends on the decision of ownership, whoever that is.
1st - Steven Stamkos
The Lightning have approximately $30-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman
What I said the Lightning needed last year: Four top nine forwards, two top four defencemen, goaltender
Who did they add? Jan Hlavac, Chris Gratton, Mathieu Darche, Craig MacDonald, Brad Lukowich, Mike Lundin
Kuba, Lukowich, O'Brien
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com