After last summer's big splash acquisitions didn't quite pan out as hoped, the Tampa Bay Lightning's new braintrust may want to go for more something more reliable this summer.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Lightning could do in an effort to rebound from their 29th-place finish in 2008-2009.
Defence has been a notorious weak spot for the Lightning in recent seasons, and general manager Brian Lawton knows it.
"The reality is our blue line has been really weak from the start. Now we've been ravaged with injuries to guys like Andrej Meszaros and Paul Ranger, but even with those guys we have to do a better job with our D," Lawton told season-ticket holders late in the season, according to the Tampa Tribune.
Lawton also promised to dip into free agency to help expedite the recovery process and it's not inconceivable to think that the Lightning would be much-improved next season with the addition of at least one quality free agent defenceman and, perhaps, Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman, if he's available with the second overall pick in this June's draft.
There's enough talent here for the Lightning to make a charge to the playoffs as soon as next season, but they will need productive years and good health from their core players; given the way things have gone the past two seasons, it takes some faith to believe that the bounces will go in Tampa's favour.
Even if the bounces don't go in their favour, the Lightning will be hard-pressed to duplicate last season's 18 overtime/shootout losses, so they should be better with the growth of their young players, as well as better health on the blueline and in net.
Brian Lawton/Rick Tocchet
Top Prospects: Dana Tyrell (19-21-40, minus-22 in 30 GP; Prince George-WHL), Mitch Fadden (35-36-71, plus-22 in 54 GP; Tri-City-WHL), Radek Smolenak (24-25-49; plus-3 in 71 GP; Norfolk-AHL), Johan Harju (27-22-49, plus-13 in 55 GP; Lulea-SEL)
The most imporant question for the Lightning is whether or not they are keeping Vincent Lecavalier around long-term. Lecavalier's no-trade clause kicks in July 1 and there have undoubtedly been trade talks (whether or not they are denied).
And why not? As Lecavalier has battled injuries over the last two seasons, his point totals have declined from his career-high 108 points in 2006-2007 to 67 points in 2008-2009. More importantly, the Lightning aren't showing signs of winning with him, so it's at least worth exploring what kind of package Tampa Bay could get for a marquee talent like Lecavalier, to say nothing of the increased financial flexibility of getting out from under his 11-year contract.
Martin St. Louis has been a model leader for the Lightning, with 2008-2009 marking the third straight season in which he's recorded at least 80 points and he bounced back with a plus-4 rating (from a career-worst minus-23 the year before).
Reasonably priced for two more seasons, there is little reason for the Lightning to even consider moving St. Louis.
After signing a big free agent contract, Ryan Malone put up about what should have been expected -- 26 goals and 45 points. To his credit, Malone (along with St. Louis) was one of Tampa Bay's most effective two-way forwards, but it's tough to commit $4.5-million of cap room to a good two-way player and not a premier offensive weapon.
Vaclav Prospal had a down year, which was to be expected given his up-and-down career chart, but he's now 34, so he's not particularly marketable with three more years remaining on his current deal. The good news for the Lightning, if they are indeed stuck with him, is that Prospal should be due for a bounceback season in 2009-2010.
The number one pick in last year's draft, Steven Stamkos stumbled out of the gate, scoring six goals in his first 47 games, but a dedicated effort from Stamkos (in conjunction with special attention from the coaching staff) brought out his elite skills in the latter stages of the season as he scored 17 goals and 27 points in his last 32 games.
If that kind of production is what can be expected of Stamkos over a full season, then that gives the Lightning another legitimate offensive threat, and could make it easier to swallow dealing one of the veteran forwards.
Monstrous left winger Evgeny Artyukhin is an impact player for a guy who only managed 16 points in 73 games. Far and away the Lightning's leading hitter, despite limited ice time, Artyukhin was also a plus player. It would be great if he had the hands to move into a prominent scoring role, but that's never been part of his game, so it's most reasonable to hope for a bigger role, if not a vast increase in point production.
Paul Szczechura performed admirably in minimal ice time, giving him a leg up on the competition for a checking line job next season, though he could improve in the face-off circle (40.8%) if he's actually going to be a legitimate checking centre.
Veteran Jeff Halpern struggled as he returned from knee surgery a couple of months into the season. The 32-year-old has proven to be a reliable defensive player for the last decade or so and, with good health, should be more effective in that role next season, whether it's in Tampa Bay or elsewhere.
Steve Downie is practically a household name, but it's generally for the wrong reasons, as 18 points in 61 career NHL games isn't very noteworthy. If the 22-year-old could ever harness his energy in the right direction, Downie might be able to make a difference in the NHL (as he does have 50 points and 244 penalty minutes in 48 AHL games over the last two seasons). Maybe next year is the year, maybe not.
Grinder Adam Hall has 33 points over the last three seasons, yet has managed to secure a regular role, most often on the fourth line. An inexpensive contract, good size and playoff experience with the Penguins in 2008 makes Hall somewhat desirable as a role player for contending teams. For those same reasons, however, he's good value for the Lightning too.
Injuries have slowed Ryan Craig, a big forward who didn't have a step to lose in the first place. With only six points in 54 games last season, Craig could be in a battle for his roster spot.
The only restricted free agent among the Tampa Bay forwards is Martins Karsums, a 23-year-old who is battling to prove he's more than a good AHLer.
If the Lightning dare to venture into the free agent market again this summer, they could find wingers like Petr Sykora and Mike Knuble, who could be nice complementary scorers on a second line, to be appealing.
On the other hand, if the Lightning are looking for an offensive upgrade, they may have one in their own organization if they are going to let him come back from Europe. Radim Vrbata only had six points in 18 games with the Lightning before he was dispatched to Europe, where he did put up 12 goals and 17 points in 18 Czech League games.
Since he still has two years and $6-million left on his contract, Vrbata would figure to want another shot in the NHL and last year should be more than enough of a wake-up call for the 27-year-old.
Top Prospects: Ty Wishart (1-6-7, plus-5 in 61 GP; Norfolk-AHL), Vladimir Mihalik (2-13-15, minus-4 in 61 GP; Norfolk-AHL)
Defence has to be the foremost priority for the Lightning if they are going to make serious strides next season.
After overpaying for Andrej Meszaros, both in assets to acquire him and in cost for his new contract, the Lightning have to hope that he can return from shoulder surgery and perform better than he did in his partial first season in Tampa.
Meszaros' partner on the shoulder woes defence, Paul Ranger, never appeared to be at full strength coming off surgery and got into 42 games before he was shut down again. If he's fully recovered for next season, Ranger figures to join Meszaros in the top four.
Then there's a gap.
The Lightning don't have any other NHL defencemen under contract for next season and their restricted free agents, Lukas Krajicek, Matt Smaby and Matt Lashoff would fit best in the 5-7 range on the depth chart.
While he hasn't developed as quickly as hoped since he was drafted in 2001, Krajicek was Tampa Bay's top-scoring defenceman last season with his career-high 19 points. At this point, it seems unlikely that he'll suddenly turn into a top-pair calibre defenceman, but he's a capable regular D-man.
Smaby has the size needed to battle against opposing power forwards and he's getting more involved physically, so he has defensive potential to be explored, but the Lightning shouldn't immediately rush him into a prime shutdown role just yet.
Lashoff is an intriguing prospect. He has good size, moves the puck and skates well, yet couldn't crack the Bruins lineup for anything more than limited duty (46 games over three seasons). Lashoff needs to improve in his own end, but if he proves he can handle a regular shift, he would also be able to help on the power play, as he did some good things with the man advantage late in the year.
Filling in a couple of top four spots on defence isn't easy for any team, let alone one coming off a 29th-place finish.
The Lightning could look to retain the services of Cory Murphy, an unrestricted free agent, just as insurance for the power play, but more quality defensive options should be part of the off-season shopping list.
Natually, if the draft goes as anticipated, the Lightning may have a chance to add Victor Hedman with the second overall pick and that would not only give them the kind of cornerstone defenceman that the organization can build around, but one that can come in and play right away in the top four.
Playing for Modo in the Swedish Elite League this year, Hedman tied for third in the league at plus-21, which is all the more impressive when one considers that Modo finished ninth in a 12-team league, allowing 24 more goals than they scored.
A player like Francois Beauchemin might be ideal, as he's experienced and still young enough to handle a heavy workload and play in any situation for several years to come. While he won't command top dollar coming off an injury-marred season, Beauchemin is still not likely to come cheaply.
Failing that, some other defenders that might be able to fill a top four defensive role on the Tampa blueline, and not necessarily break the bank in the process, would include Greg Zanon, Jordan Leopold, Nick Boynton and Kent Huskins; guys that are, first and foremost, responsible in their own end.
Top Prospects: Riku Helenius (9-15, 2.72 GAA, .918 SVPCT in 25 GP, Norfolk-AHL), Dustin Tokarski (34-18-2, 1.97 GAA, .937 SVPCT in 54 GP, Spokane-WHL)
If Mike Smith isn't ready to return from the concussions that cut short his 2008-2009 season, the Lightning will be faced with a real dilemma. While a youngster like Karri Ramo could feasibly fill the backup role behind Smith, it's clear that Ramo isn't yet ready to be an NHL starter, which means the Bolts may need to seek out veteran help, just in case.
Assuming Smith is okay, though, the Lightning would have a promising young goaltender to lead them. While his 14-18-9 record last season wasn't exactly awe-inspiring, Smith's .916 save percentage provided a good indication that he's capable of handling the starter's workload, particularly if the Lightning can do anything to improve the defensive unit in front of him.
If nothing else, the Lightning have several young goaltenders in the organization to develop so they should be able to eventually come up with a long-term solution out of Smith, Ramo, Mike McKenna, Riku Helenius and Dustin Tokarski.
The least problematic solution would be for Smith to simply move forward as the healthy number one.
2nd - John Tavares, Victor Hedman.
The Lightning have approximately $40-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top six forward, two top four defencemen
What I said the Lightning needed last year: Three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman
Who did they add? Steven Stamkos, Vaclav Prospal, Ryan Malone, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Radim Vrbata, Matt Pettinger, Adam Hall, Matt Carle, Lukas Krajicek, Andrej Meszaros, Josef Melichar.
Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone, Vaclav Prospal, Andrej Meszaros, Jeff Halpern, Adam Hall.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca