The Tampa Bay Lightning have a new owner, Jeff Vinik, and they're still waiting on a new general manager and coach to take the franchise into the future.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the job ahead for whomever is handed the keys to the general manager's office in Tampa Bay.
Immediately after the season ended, Vinik fired GM Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet, telling the Tampa Tribune, "My vision of being world class here necessitated taking this action and really having a fresh start on the hockey side of things."
Without knowing who the Lightning will have calling the shots, it's hard to have a real idea which direction the team will go. They could try and build from the ground up, possibly dealing some veterans, or the Lightning could try to rebuild on the fly, all the while keeping Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis where they've been accustomed to playing.
Both have no-trade clauses, so it's entirely possible they aren't going anywhere. At the same time, 34-year-old St. Louis at least sees that the challenge of rebuilding may go beyond the one year he has left on his deal.
"I want to be on a winning team," St. Louis told the St. Petersburg Times. "It's three years of this and (we're going) back to square one, so I want to be on a winning team. That's the biggest thing. I'm not getting any younger. We'll see how it all shakes out this summer."
Certainly, if the new GM is going to go with a rebuilding process that includes moving St. Louis to a contender, that move would have to bring in some quality building blocks in return -- and, despite the presence of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, this team could use more core pieces around which to build.
For his part, Lecavalier made an immediate attempt to head off any trade rumours, telling the Tampa Tribune, "I'm still young and I'm still strong. I'm with the Tampa Bay Lightning and I want to be here next year - that's that."
"When we did the Cup run," Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier told the Tribune, "Some guys were there for a long time and we knew each other and we grew together, and that's how they want to do it this time around. They want that stability."
Stability in Tampa Bay? That does sound like a new era.
|Martin St. Louis||84.33||$5.25M|
|Player||Rating||Class||'09-'10 Cap Hit|
It was fair to expect improvement from Steven Stamkos in his second season, building on a strong finish to his rookie campaign, but jumping to 51 goals and 95 points as a 20-year-old was more than a little unexpected. The only player in the last 20 years to score more goals in his second NHL season was Pavel Bure (scoring 60 in 1992-1993), who was two years older than Stamkos as a sophomore.
Stamkos has a lethal shot, using it to lead the league with 24 power play goals, and he's already established himself as a bona fide franchise centre, one who should only get better as he continues to mature physically.
34-year-old Martin St. Louis remains exceptionally durable, playing all 82 games (he's missed two games in the last seven seasons) and tallying 94 points, good enough for the second-highest total of his career.
Understandably, St. Louis may be growing frustrated with the situation in Tampa Bay but if he does desire a move to a contender, and is willing to waive his no-trade clause, he would surely bring quality in return.
Though Vincent Lecavalier finished with more than 65 points for the seventh straight season, but he only had nine goals through the first 41 games and some of his late goal production came too late to matter for a team out of the playoff hunt.
Lecavalier has also been durable, playing at least 80 games in six of the last seven seasons. The 30-year-old is under contract for ten more seasons, and has a no-movement clause, so the Lightning may have to continue their rebuilding effort with Lecavalier as part of the plan.
Ryan Malone got off to a terrific start last season, notching 35 points in 40 games to start the year, but injuries and a line shuffle left him goalless in his final 19 games. Malone is signed long-term and his size, toughness and hands around the net all make him a valuable performer.
Enforcer Todd Fedoruk's role is in decline and his play doesn't warrant any more than the 7-8 minutes per game he plays, but he is going into the final year of his deal, so he's not a major commitment.
Steve Downie came into the league with a reputation as an agitator and, while that persists, he found a home on Stamkos' wing. With 30 points the last 41 games, and a total of 46 points in his first full NHL season, Downie provided the right mix of skill and combativeness.
In five seasons, Brandon Bochenski has played for six teams and despite having decent offensive skills, he's been unable to solidify his position as an NHLer. Even with an okay stint in Tampa Bay last season, that trend will probably continue.
Teddy Purcell may want to see Bochenski as a cautionary tale. Even though the Lightning are just his second NHL franchise, Purcell is expected to fill a scoring role, though 34 points in 110 career games raises the question of whether or not it's going to happen for the 24-year-old.
Purcell got a chance late in the season and had his moments (nine points in 19 games with Lightning), but next year will be very important in determining his career path.
Nate Thompson is a scrappy checker, though he was probably asked to do too much for the Lightning, playing nearly 14 minutes a game. There could be a spot for him, but possibly in a reduced role if the team's depth is improved.
Battling for a spot in the lineup over the last two seasons, Paul Szczechura has 16 points in 83 career NHL games. Like Thompson, he should be on the roster bubble.
30-year-old Alex Tanguay is coming off the worst season of his career, scoring ten goals and recording the first minus rating of his ten-year NHL career. He's still young enough to rebound from a down season, but it would figure to happen somewhere else.
Whoever ends up calling the shots for this franchise, they will need to get out and find some legitimate NHL checkers to handle third-line roles and it wouldn't hurt to land a proven scorer to join Lecavalier's line.
Some forwards worth considering further down the depth chart include: centres Matt Cullen, Dominic Moore and Jim Slater and wingers Christopher Higgins, Taylor Pyatt or even a return from former Bolt playoff hero Ruslan Fedotenko.
Even with a couple of free agent additions, the Lightning would probably still have room for a young forward like James Wright, who made the team last year, or Dana Tyrell, to earn a depth checking role.
|Player||Rating||Class||'09-'10 Cap Hit|
Though he didn't dominate as a 19-year-old rookie, Victor Hedman played nearly 21 minutes per game and was as reliable as any Lightning defender. He faded in the second half of the season, so Hedman will need to get stronger, and improve his conditioning, so that he can handle the 25 minutes per game that will be expected of him.
Brought in to mentor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund led the Lightning by playing nearly 23 minutes per game, but he offered little offensively, with career lows of zero goals and 13 points. He didn't see much power play time, but with that amount of ice time, Ohlund needs to be more productive.
More was also expected of Andrej Meszaros when he was acquired from Ottawa a couple of years ago. In 133 games with the Lightning, Meszaros has 33 points and a minus-18 rating. He does handle tough defensive assignments, for a team without established shutdown defenders, but the Lightning surely wouldn't mind Meszaros providing more than ten even-strength points.
A defensive defenceman with size and toughness, Matt Walker is a third-pair defenceman who is better off if he's not forced into matchups against opposing teams' top lines. Walker is inked for three more seasons and needs to be allowed to play at his level, rather than expecting more simply because he was signed to a four-year free agent contract last summer.
Matt Smaby continues to work for a spot in the lineup and the 6-foot-5, stay-at-home blueliner has played 90 NHL games over the last three seasons. Smaby was protected when he did play last season, getting 13:28 of ice time per game, so he could very easily end up seventh or eighth on the defensive depth chart.
After a season in which he played only eight games due to a personal leave of absence, Paul Ranger would be a significant addition to the Lightning defence, providing solid puck-moving skills, good size and smart defence on the back end. If Ranger can return, he could fill a top-four role.
Mike Lundin jumped into a prominent role on the Lightning defence late in the year, playing 24 minutes per game after the Olympics and, with his strong play, raising expectations for what he might be able to provide next season.
While David Hale isn't more than a depth defenceman, Kurtis Foster is a valuable free agent, who scored 28 of his career-high 42 points on the power play following his inspiring comeback from a broken femur.
|Player||Rating||Class||'09-'10 Cap Hit|
Expected to be the Lightning starter last season, Mike Smith struggled early and was supplanted in the role by Antero Niittymaki. 28-year-old Smith is still under contract, so he's the default option as starter right now, but the Lightning may look to upgrade this position.
Niittymaki got into 49 games and, generally fared pretty well, having the occasional blow-up game (six times giving up at least five goals in a game), but overall improving his marketability as he heads towards free agency.
Should Niittymaki depart, perhaps the Lightning will bring Karri Ramo back from the KHL or they could have to look outside the organization if they don't expect Dustin Tokarski to be ready to make the jump from the American Hockey League. Dan Ellis or Martin Biron are a couple of veteran free agents that might be intriguing additions at a likely reasonable cost.
|Carter Ashton||RW||Regina (WHL)||24-27-51,-13, 65 GP|
|Karri Ramo||G||Avangard Omsk (KHL)||21-17-4, 2.11 GAA, .913 SVPCT, 44 GP|
|Dustin Tokarski||G||Norfolk (OHL)||27-25-3, 2.51 GAA, .915 SVPCT, 52 GP|
|Richard Panik||RW||Belleville (OHL)||21-20-41,+3, 60 GP|
|Alex Hutchings||LW||Barrie (OHL)||47-34-81,+44, 68 GP|
|Dana Tyrell||C||Norfolk (AHL)||9-27-36,+9,74 GP|
|Jaroslav Janus||G||Norfolk (AHL)||7-6, 2.07 GAA, .922 SVPCT, 13 GP|
|James Wright||LW||Vancouver (WHL)||6-13-19,-4, 21 GP|
|Ty Wishart||D||Norfolk (AHL)||9-23-32,-18, 76 GP|
|Blair Jones||C||Norfolk (AHL)||9-21-30,even, 63 GP|
A first-round pick last summer, Carter Ashton has power forward potential packed into his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame, but he'll have to do better than 24 goals in 65 Western Hockey League games to think he's ready to make a move to the Lightning.
23-year-old Karri Ramo had a strong first season with Avangard Omsk in the KHL, yet he is under contract for one more year, which is unfortunate from the Lightning's perspective, as they might have an opening for him this year. AT the same time, Ramo had struggled in his previous turns with Tampa Bay, so another year of growth probably won't hurt him.
Dustin Tokarski excelled in his first pro season, so the 20-year-old does have to be considered a serious prospect, but it's still advisable to give him another year of starting in the AHL before throwing him to the dogs in the NHL.
Though he only managed 41 points in 60 games in his first OHL season, Richard Panik led Slovakia at the World Juniors with six goals and eight points in six games, showing off his combination of size and skill.
Alex Hutchings is going to have to learn how to handle the rigors of pro game as an undersized forward, but after a 47-goal season, he's ready for his apprenticeship in the AHL.
Coming back from a broken leg, Dana Tyrell had a solid first year as a pro. He may not be a big scorer, but Tyrell registered a team-best plus-9 rating in Norfolk and his hustle could earn his a trial in Tampa Bay soon enough.
A sixth-round pick last summer, Jaroslav Janus was promoted from the OHL during the season and performed well when given the chance with Norfolk. A tandem of Janus and Tokarski should be formidable in the American Hockey League next season.
James Wright surprised many by making the team out of training camp last season, but he was sent back to the Western Hockey League after five points and minus-9 rating in 48 games. Wright's junior hockey profile doesn't suggest that he'll be a scorer in the NHL, but he has the size to be a banging up-and-down winger.
A first-round pick by San Jose in 2006, Ty Wishart has developed his offensive game, but his team-worst minus-18 at Norfolk suggests that there is more work to be done before the 21-year-old is given his shot in the NHL.
While Blair Jones has played 38 NHL games over the last four seasons, he has yet to stick with the Lightning full-time. Jones has the size to be an effective checker and might be able to land a fourth-line job, but could also end up back in the AHL again.
Monster defenceman Vladimir Mihalik has also made steady improvement and has to be considered for a team that has so little organizational depth at the position, but the 6-foot-8, 23-year-old may take additional time to develop.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Lightning have approximately $38.4M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 10 players.
Needs: Four top nine forwards, one defenceman, starting goaltender.
What I said the Lightning needed last year: One top six forward, two top four defencemen.
Who did they add? Alex Tanguay, Stephane Veilleux, Victor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker.