There may be no other team in the NHL more eager to start the current season than the Tampa Bay Lightning. Instability in ownership and coaching dogged this team for a great deal of the season while relentless trade rumors and nagging injuries hampered the play of Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier. The rest of the squad stumbled through the season trying to find chemistry and the ability to score goals while keeping the puck out of their own net. To say the team had to deal with distractions is an understatement. With most of the distractions behind them, the Lightning made several acquisitions in the offseason that should help the team in the standings, but how much it will help remains uncertain.
The primary offense of the Bolts will again be lead by the tandem of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Small and speedy, St. Louis may be the less dynamic of the two, but he has certainly been consistent. The 34-year old right wing has accumulated 80 or more points in four out of his past five NHL seasons and finished last year with 30 goals and 50 assists. Fighting through injuries, Lecavalier still played in 77 games for the Bolts but only managed 67 points – a far cry from the 92 he contributed the season before. If healthy this season, Lecavalier could again find himself over the 90 point plateau with at least 40 goals.
The off-season acquisition of Alex Tanguy should help provide some desperately needed secondary offense for the Bolts. Tanguy had 41 points in an injury-shortened 50-game season last year with the Canadiens. Center Steve Stamkos, the first overall pick in the NHL draft in 2008, should also help with the secondary offense. Stamkos began to find his stride late last season and ended up contributing 46 points in 79 games. With more confidence and experience under his belt, expect Stamkos to build on those numbers this year and be a vital part of Tampa Bay offense.
The problem with the Bolts, however, is still defense. While Tampa Bay may have improved the defensive core with the addition of veteran defenseman Mattias Ohlund and second-overall pick Victor Hedman, the Lightning generally lack the ability to back check and play a viable defensive game and keep the puck out of their net. The highest plus/minus rating of any player on the team last season was plus-5. Martin St. Louis was plus-4. Lecavalier was minus-9 while Stamkos was minus-13. Both offensive and defensive players need to tighten up and play good defense if this team is to be successful.
Goaltending is always a question in Tampa Bay, but the Lightning may finally have a consistent duet to share time in net and compete for the starting job. Goaltender Mike Smith started most of the season last year, but the addition of Antero Nittymaki from Philadelphia will give Tampa Bay a strong second-string goalie who is more than capable to step in if Smith begins to falter. Expect a strong and healthy competition between the two for most of the season as they fight for the number one job. If nothing else, however, Tampa Bay will have two solid goaltenders capable of making the saves they are supposed to make and maybe even steal a game or two throughout the season.
Even if this team can put the distractions from last season behind them, the question marks on the roster are still there. Can Lecavalier regain his scoring touch and 90-point hands? Will Stamkos continue to build on last season’s late success and avoid a sophomore slump? Will Tanguy stay healthy and be the dominant offensive threat he is capable of becoming? Most importantly, can this team learn to play defense and keep the puck out of their own net? This team may have more holes than most, but in a competitive Eastern conference, those holes can be quickly exploited. Expect the Bolts to fall short of the postseason again this year.