The Tampa Bay Lightning dropped off dramatically from their 103-point season in 2010-2011, missing the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a talented Lightning roster that could, with some defensive and goaltending upgrades, be prepared to return to the postseason.
For all their troubles, Tampa Bay was tied with Nashville for eighth in the league in scoring last season, with 2.83 goals per game. Obviously, having the game's only 60-goal scorer helped, but four other 20-goal scorers provide the kind of offensive base to suggest that the Lightning have the wherewithal to be more competitive.
In an effort to support their top-end scorers, the Lightning need to actively seek upgrades throughout the rest of the lineup. Having a powerhouse AHL team this season is a good indication that there is help on the way, but there also ought to be some urgency to get the Lightning to the playoffs again, and quickly.
That doesn't mean that the Lightning have to sacrifice their future for a short-term fix, but it makes sense to push a little harder while Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are still productive contributors. There will be many years for the Lightning to build around Steven Stamkos with their up-and-coming talent, but it won't be easy to replace the production of St. Louis and Lecavalier even if that decline is a couple of years down the line.
As such, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Lightning add some prospects as well as some veteran free agents to the mix next season. The first priority will be goaltending, an obvious area of concern when the Lightning finished with the worst goals against average (3.39) in the league, while allowing 30.5 shots against per game, which ranked 17th.
Even with better goaltending, though, the Lightning can improve their defence. At least one proven top-four defenceman would be an immediate upgrade for a group that, generally, struggled last season.
Finally, while the Lightning don't lack for scoring talent, their forward depth needs help. When injuries hit last season, too many players were thrust into roles beyond their capability in an effort to plug the leaks, but with prospects coming and the chance to add a couple of veteran free agents, the Lightning should be able to fashion a supporting cast more suitable for a playoff contender.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Steve Yzerman/Guy Boucher
Free Agent Forwards
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
It's easy to run out of superlatives when talking about the goal-scoring exploits of 22-year-old Steven Stamkos, but this illustration ought to tell the tale rather succinctly: in the last three seasons, Stamkos has scored 156 goals which is, not surprisingly, the most in the NHL.
What makes Stamkos' exploits stand out is how far ahead he is of second place, Alexander Ovechkin, who has 120 goals. On average, then, Stamkos has been a dozen goals better than any other player in hockey and as he continues to get stronger, he should remain the standard bearer among the league's snipers.
Martin St. Louis finished 18th in the league with 74 points, which is nothing to sneeze at of course, but it was his lowest point total since 2005-2006 and since he'll be 37 next season, it's not unreasonable to expect his numbers to go down rather than up in the coming seasons.
Injuries have started to catch up to Vincent Lecavalier, who has missed 35 games over the last two seasons after missing 33 total in the previous 11 seasons and his 49 points last season was his lowest point total since 2001-2002. He's still capable of being an offensive contributor, but the mileage of 998 career regular-season games is starting to show.
Teddy Purcell is a talented scoring winger who was inconsistent early in the year, but once injuries prompted the Lightning to load up one line, Purcell took off playing with Stamkos and St. Louis, scoring 43 points in his last 38 games (after 22 points in 43 games before that), so he ended up with career-highs in goals (24) and points (65), raising expectations for the 26-year-old going forward.
He has yet to play more than 70 games in any of his four seasons with the Lightning, but Ryan Malone is a power forward who has scored 20 goals and 40-plus points six times. Malone may have trade value if the Lightning are looking to make a blockbuster move, but they could do worse than keeping a proven veteran performer.
Industrious forward Tom Pyatt finished with a career-high 12 goals, playing 14:48 per game, which is too much given his credentials, but with injuries and the trust that coach Guy Boucher has for him, the 25-year-old still has a chance to play a regular role, just not quite as regular as last season.
Like Pyatt, Nate Thompson took on the tough assignments, with the majority of his starts in the defensive zone, but his production is relatively low for his ice time. He's one of nine players to play at least 2100 minutes and record 40 points or fewer over the last two seasons so, like Pyatt, Thompson has a role to play, but perhaps one less significant.
Rookie winger Brett Connolly scored four goals in a seven-game span in November, but then didn't manage another goal all season, so there's room for growth. At the same time, the 20-year-old has the offensive pedigree to get a chance in a scoring role next season.
Checking forward Dana Tyrell had his season ended prematurely by a knee injury, and though he didn't score a goal in his 26 games, there were some indications of a positive impact when he was in the lineup. His differential between zone starts and finishes (54.5% finishes - 37.7% starts = 16.8% differential) ranked fifth among all players to skate in at least 25 games and suggests that he is at least moving the puck in the right direction.
The Lightning tried to go with a patchwork group of forwards last season and it caught up to them eventually. Certainly prospects (J.T. Brown, Cory Conacher) will get a chance to join the fray, but adding proven talent would make sense too.
If the Lightning are willing to spend a little to bolster their forward group veterans like Ray Whitney, Jarret Stoll or Jiri Hudler might offer different things, but all could provide immediate help for a team that wants to contend now.
Marc-Andre Bergeron is a specialist, quarterbacking the power play and starting the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone. He started last season in spectacular fashion, scoring 21 points in 26 games before his production waned and then he was sidelined with a back injury. Nevertheless, he fits within Boucher's system and the 19:21 per game he played last season was his highest time on ice per game since 2005-2006.
Several injuries, including a concussion, kept 21-year-old Victor Hedman out of the lineup for 21 games, but he was effective when he was healthy, playing 23 minutes per game, taking on the toughest matchups and starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone (www.behindthenet.ca). He's the anchor of this unit going forward, but could use more help.
Eric Brewer is the steady veteran presence on the Lightning defence, combining with Hedman to provide some semblance of competent defensive zone work, though Brewer could be more successful if his level of competition was managed more effectively. That means improving the unit altogether because, as it is right now, there aren't enough proven options available to allow Brewer an easier workload.
Acquired from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline, Brian Lee was never going to fulfill expectations in Ottawa after he was drafted ninth overall in 2005. However, he did play a more significant role down the stretch for the Lightning, contributing enough to warrant an opportunity at a regular job next season.
Keith Aulie and Brendan Mikkelson are still battling for roster spots and could just as easily wind up in the AHL, depending on who the Lightning add to their roster. Prospect Mark Barberio is a possibility and Tampa Bay would be wise to invest in a proven top four defenceman. Free agents like Brad Stuart, Barret Jackman or Johnny Oduya would add an element of safe and reliable that has generally been lacking in recent seasons.
If Tampa Bay gets anything from 35-year-old Mattias Ohlund, who missed all of last season after major knee surgery, it has to be considered a bonus. He has four years remaining on his contract, so it makes sense that he wants to try and come back, but the longer he's out, at this stage of his career, the tougher it gets.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
There is no more glaring need for the Lightning than between the pipes. They made the Conference Final the year before, with Dwayne Roloson carrying the mail, but 42-year-old Roloson struggled last year and Tampa Bay had no way to recover from the dramatic collapse. His save percentage dropped from .914 in 2010-2011 to .886 in 2011-2012 and over the 1126 shots he faced last season (he would have faced more had he been playing better), that difference in save percentage accounted for more than 30 goals.
Mathieu Garon ended up playing more than expected -- 48 games was his most since a carere-high 63 in 2005-2006 -- because Roloson was playing so poorly, and while Garon had his moments, his play was pretty much as expected, okay for a backup goaltender.
That leaves the Lightning as one of the teams most desperate to change their goaltending situation this summer. They could get in on the Roberto Luongo sweepstakes (Ryan Malone? Brett Conolly?), trade for a young goalie like the Kings' Jonathan Bernier or the Predators' Anders Lindback or they could turn to free agency.
Josh Harding could be ready for a starting job but, if the Lightning are focused on more immediate results, perhaps a proven veteran like Tomas Vokoun makes some sense. Vokoun's .917 save percentage in Washington last season was his lowest since 2003-2004, thanks in large part to a messy November (.881 SV% in 10 GP). Otherwise, the 35-year-old performed at a relatively high level again.
||13-48-61, +29, 74 GP
||24-23-47, +29, 39 GP
||19-22-41, +13, 64 GP
||22-49-71, +15, 63 GP
||39-41-80, +19, 75 GP
||31-37-68, +17, 75 GP
||23-23-46, +12, 34 GP
||CSKA Moscow (KHL)
||1-3-4, -1, 18 GP
||32-11-0, 2.23 GAA, .913 SV%, 45 GP
||7-13-20, +19, 73 GP
The Lightning aren't exactly overrun by quality puck-moving defencemen, so there should be ample opportunity for 22-year-old Mark Barberio to earn a spot next season after a fantastic second season in the American Hockey League. A sixth-round pick in 2008, Barberio could be helping the Lightning power play very soon.
Signed after his sophomore season at Minnesota-Duluth, J.T. Brown got a taste of NHL action, playing five games with the Lightning and not looking out of place. He's not big, but has the speed and shot to be an offensive performer in the NHL.
21-year-old Richard Panik is a skilled forward with good size, but he may not be quite as close to the NHL as some of the Lightning's other prospects. The 2009 second-round pick had a productive season in the AHL, but could use another year of development before competing for an NHL job.
A late first-round pick last summer, Vladislav Namestnikov is a skilled playmaker who could use some time to get bigger and stronger to handle the pro grind, but the 19-year-old has intriguing skills for the future.
Undrafted out of Canisius College, Cory Conacher is a spark plug of a player, listed at 5-foot-8, who earned an NHL contract with an outstanding first full season in the AHL. Size may be an issue, or it may be the reason that the Lightning managed to secure the services of a scoring forward that others let pass them by. In any case, he should get a legitimate look next season.
Another undersized, undrafted skilled player, Tyler Johnson also had a strong rookie campaign in the AHL and while he doesn't play with the same bite as Conacher, he's sound at both ends of the rink, which could help him earn an NHL job sooner rather than later.
Alex Killorn improved steadily through four years at Harvard and the 22-year-old from Halifax made a successful late-season jump to Norfolk, putting up 17 points in 20 games (regular season and playoffs combined). That production in his AHL trial would seem to indicate that Killorn may not be far from challenging for a job in Tampa Bay too.
A skilled scoring winger, Nikita Kucherov dropped to the second round of the draft last year and the 18-year-old has plenty of time to develop into a scorer in the KHL then, hopefully, in the NHL.
Goaltender Dustin Tokarski has put in three years in the AHL and earned a handful of games with the Lightning last season. While he's been solid and might be an NHL backup, his size and performance in the AHL suggest that he'll need improvement to warrant more significant consideration. As it is, Tokarski may have a hard time holding off Jaroslav Janus, who was just as effective for Norfolk last season.
Radko Gudas may not be the biggest dog in the fight, but there's tons of fight in that dog, quite literally -- he's fought 27 times on his way to 360 penalty minutes in two AHL seasons. Not exactly your stereotypical Czech-born defenceman.
10th - Morgan Rielly, Jacob Trouba, Radek Faksa, Griffin Reinhart.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Lightning have approximately $46.4M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 14 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Lightning roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, two top four defencemen, two more defencemen, starting goaltender.
What I said the Lightning needed last year: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen, two goaltenders.
They added: Tom Pyatt, Brett Connolly, Ryan Shannon, Adam Hall, Matt Gilroy, Bruno Gervais, Mathieu Garon.
TRADE MARKET Ryan Malone, Brett Connolly, prospects.
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.