Join TSN.ca in a 30 Teams In 30 Days tour of the NHL in preparation for the upcoming season. Today, we examine the 2011-12 campaign for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Get the lowdown on their off-season and the issues they face this season. And use the Your Call feature to give us your take!
What a difference a year makes.
Under the guidance of general manager Steve Yzerman, the Lightning went from a lottery pick team to a team that came within a game of the Stanley Cup Final
All in just twelve months.
While the emergence of young stars like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman alongside established vets like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier certainly helped that turnaround, so too did the acquisition and prominence of character players like Dominic Moore, Dwayne Roloson and Teddy Purcell.
The club also breathed a sigh of relief this summer, locking down their future (that is, Stamkos) to a five-year deal after a lengthy negotiation process.
Here's a look at what's in store for the 2011-12 season.
Prospect Report: The top dog in the system remains centre Brett Connolly. He has fought off injuries over the past couple of seasons, but if he can get healthy he has the skill and initiative to flourish into the kind of talent the Lightning saw when they took him sixth overall in 2010.
Behind Connolly, there's well-seasoned 2009 draftees Carter Ashton and Richard Panik, who could move up the ranks soon. More intriguing is the approach Yzerman and company took at this past summer's draft, looking to Russia for their first two picks, including London Knights forward Vladislav Namestnikov and 2011 Under-18 World Championships Best Forward Nikita Kucherov.
Breakout Player to Watch: Victor Hedman has had the kind of beginning to his NHL career that might make opponents forget that he was once a potential first-overall pick. His point totals have been decent for a young defender (20 and 26 respectively in his first two seasons) but not the kind that really make him stand out as an elite young talent.
His physical game, however, has become a potent weapon. And he has had the benefit of learning from three defenders who've used their bodies and their shots as weapons in the past in recent months in Pavel Kubina, Mattias Ohlund and Eric Brewer. If Hedman continues his maturation process, he'll be a force on both ends of the ice. However, if he can leap frog Kubina, Brett Clark and Marc-Andre Bergeron on the power play depth chart, his point totals could boost significantly.
Marquee Match-Up: Oct. 8 at Boston - One Goal Game. After losing a one-goal heartbreaker to the eventual-champion Bruins in last year's Eastern Conference Final, Tampa gets an early shot at redemption. The ceremonies and formalities of opening night will be behind them and it'll be all business.
Other Dates to Watch: Oct. 15 & 17 and Nov. 25 & 26 vs. Florida - The intra-state rivalry features two home-and-homes this year with Dale Tallon hoping to turn the Panthers around in Yzerman-esque fashion. Nov. 17 vs. Pittsburgh - The first potential meeting of the year of the two players that defined last year's first half - Stamkos and Sidney Crosby (hopefully).
Reason to Get Excited: One goal. That's all that separated the Bolts from the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. The team that now must be looked at as the benchmark for success in today's NHL was better than Tampa for less than eight minutes in a decisive Eastern Conference Game 7. Dwayne Roloson was just one goal worse than eventual Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas. This team was close last year. One more year of maturity might be all they need to take the next step.
Home Hardware: You'd think after back-to-back 45-plus goal seasons and a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2010 that Stamkos would be a given amongst the Hart Trophy candidates. But that hasn't been the case just yet. In fact, it was his linemate Martin St. Louis that got all the recognition last season as Stamkos tried to round out his game beyond his sniping capabilities.
One of Stamkos' biggest problems last year was consistency. He started the year like a man possessed, putting up 40 points in the first two months of the season, but struggled down the stretch with only five in the team's final 12 games. If Stamkos can dominate the league like he did last fall for an entire season, there are few that can match his potential output, making him a solid contender for the Hart...not to mention the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies.
On The Hot Seat: One of the Bolts' most potent weapons, when used effectively, is Steve Downie. He's the kind of wild card on the ice that keeps the opponents guessing and while he's always been known to rack up penalty minutes, he's also become adept at piling on points in Tampa.
The problem is that for a young man, he's already had his share of time on the injured reserve. Downie was limited to just 57 games last season with separate injuries to his back and ankle. Combine that with a past concussion and a penchant for getting suspended and Downie's time on the ice dwindles. If he's going to contribute and help this team reach the next level, he'll have to stay healthy and stay out of trouble.
It's Your! Call: What to make of Vincent Lecavalier?
The team's captain and longest-tenured player has seen his share of ups and downs. Last season he put up a respectable, if unspectacular, 54 points in 65 games but missed considerable time with a broken hand. He then stepped up in the playoffs to finish second in team scoring with 19 points in 18 games.
He has not been even a point-per-game player since 2007-08, but at times has shown flashes of the showstopper that once poured in 108 points over a full season.
He's constantly being mentioned in trade rumours - usually with Montreal - but is in the midst of a big-money contract that will pay him until the end of time (or 2020, whichever comes first).
Sometime in the very near future this will become Stamkos' team and St. Louis - despite five years Lecavalier's senior - hasn't really missed a beat in the last five years. Yet Lecavalier doesn't carry the team every night and - having undergone wrist surgery and a broken hand over the past two years or so - may no longer be capable of a full 82-game contribution.
Make no bones about it, if Tampa is going to contend again, they'll need Lecavalier's help. But if you're running this team and are looking at your team's roster for the next two, five or ten years, where does he fit in?