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2013-14 Season Preview : Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning, just two years removed from the Eastern Conference Finals, finished the 2013 season with just 40 points. Only the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers finished with fewer points. It’s hard to believe a team that has both Martin St. Louis and Stephen Stamkos could be so bad. Their offense averaged 3.06 goals a game but they also gave exactly 3.06 goals a game too. Only the the Blackhawks and the Pittsburhg Penguins scored more than Tampa’s 147 goals but they were 26th in goals against.

Tampa Bay spent their summer buying out the contract of long time star and captain, Vincent Lecavalier. They also signed Valtteri Filppula away from the Detroit Red Wings, their new division rivals.

Today John Fontana, from Raw Charge, joins us to chat about the 2013-14 Bolts.

Steve Yzerman was an all time great player but has yet to really dazzle as a general manager. How do you feel about the job he has done so far?

There are two ways that I figure NHL fans directly judge Yzerman or any other GM: player acquisitions and coaching/team success. That’s the short game, immediate returns, which haven’t been delivered so much… But long-form? That’s still developing for the Lightning and starting to bear fruit.

After the 2010 off-season (when everyone was dazzled by what Yzerman achieved – the perceived coup of hiring rising star coach Guy Boucher, getting Simon Gagne for nothing in trade with Philadelphia, savvy free agent acquisitions to compliment the roster he had inherited), the Lightning didn’t just make the Eastern Conference finals but were two goals shy of the Stanley Cup Finals. So I figured that’s where people are focused on Yzerman, “The team was good for a year and fell apart. Man, this guy isn’t doing anything.”

Yet, Yzerman’s plan was never to constantly revamp with constant changes at the NHL level via signings and trades. The franchise has been focusing on trying to grow their talent through smart drafting and player development. That’s been evidenced by Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate winning the Calder Cup in 2012 and going to the Calder Cup Finals in 2013… Those teams weren’t a majority of AHL veterans and former NHL players; it was a group of prospects. And these guys are pressing for NHL jobs now. The organization is ranked very highly regarding system talent and depth.

There are still issues (Boucher didn’t work out, goaltending remains an issue with a suspect goalie coach and two still-green netminders in Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop sharing duties this season) but in general, I’m OK with what Yzerman is doing. It’s not as sexy as pulling off a big trade or signing a big name free agent, but if growing your talent gets results without grabbing headlines for the moves, that’s fine.

So, I’m patient. I can’t say every fan is, but I am.

Martin St. Louis is one of my all time favorite players and I think he is one of the most underappreciated players of this era. Why do you think that is?

I’ve seen this for years with other players on the Lightning and other teams, it’s simply because of where he’s not playing in (insert northeast or Canadian media market); he’s in Tampa of all places.

You don’t get undrafted players who achieve what Marty has done in his career, and he’d be an NHL standard-bearer or someone constantly praised if he had accomplished this elsewhere.
What he’s done at five-foot-nothing, a-hundred-and-nothing pounds is just incredible: A Hart trophy (twice nominated), a pair of Art Ross trophies, other nominations and accolades including the stigma of the Lady Byng. He’s got his name on the Stanley Cup and his last Art Ross win was at 37 years of age, with a better scoring pace than what Gretzky or Lemieux did at that age!… Oh, and he’s in Tampa. Never mind, what is Sidney Crosby having for lunch? Discussion priorities…

How much does the loss of Vincent Lecavalier hurt the Lightining’s chances of success this year?

This is probably the question of the season right here, or at least the question that will be associated with the Lightning to start the year. There’s a hole left without Vinny, but it’s not as cut-and-dried as him being gone and the Lightning suffering. His leadership will be missed, but with organizational depth (something Yzerman has been building, see answer 1) I think his offensive production can be accounted for through other players. We’d seen the need for that from the Lightning roster in recent years for each time Lecavalier went down with an injury.

What kind of changes do expect on the ice with Jon Cooper getting a full season behind the bench?

Cooper wants his teams to be a combination of the 80’s Edmonton Oilers and the 70’s “Broad Street Bullies” Philadelphia Flyers; he’s stated this publicly. I’ve seen this in the AHL with the Norfolk/Syracuse teams he coached from 2010 until his promotion to Tampa Bay in the spring of 2013; they weren’t thugs but they weren’t taking shit either. The roster is going to be transitioning to this. The veterans need to adapt while the young guys who played for Cooper in the AHL are already true-believers and why not? Cooper delivered results and made them better players (and set records as well).

It’s more than that though; Tampa Bay’s biggest flaw last season was defense and lack of responsibility. The team could score goals, they couldn’t hold leads though. Their play in their own zone was somewhere between horrendous and pathetic. It’s going to be the job of former Canucks assistant Rick Bowness to overhaul the defense in general, while Cooper is working with the squad on defensive responsibility.

Cooper isn’t trying to transition his roster on the fly here like last spring… There’s more time to implement changes if certain players don’t fit.

Who will emerge as the Lightning’s #1 goalie, Ben Bishop or Anders Lindback?

I can’t say at this point. Both goalies are going to get the chance to claim the #1 spot, but there is a dirty, ugly fact that they both have to overcome at this point: Since 2010, no goalie that has started the season in Tampa Bay has finished with a GAA better than 2.52 or a save percentage higher than .902. Part of that is related to bad defense in front of the crease, part of that is related to questionable coaching by goalie coach Frantz Jean since he took over in 2010-11.

So, basically, it’s a wait and see thing. The talent is there with either netminder (as is the size), but can the Bolts get the best out of either guy?

Does Jonathan Drouin have what it takes to stay in the NHL all season long or does he need some additional time to develop?

I want to invoke my first answer here again with Yzerman: His big M.O. has been to give guys time to develop – not to rush anyone to the NHL. If Drouin proves he belongs in the NHL now, I think the Lightning will do what they need to with roster spots to create space for him.

That being said, I went into the 2013 NHL draft as a Lightning fan thinking that whoever got drafted – Drouin, Seth Jones, Nathan Mackinnon, Alex Barkov or whoever – wasn’t going to be playing in Tampa this season unless they could leapfrog both the up-and-coming young talent in the organization (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, Brett Connolly, Mark Barberio, and others) as well as displace returning veterans in Tampa.

I don’t know if Drouin can or will do that. He may get a short look-see before being returned to Halifax, but I don’t see him sticking this year in Tampa. I could be wrong though. The fact he has nothing left to learn in juniors shouldn’t be reason for him to play sheltered minutes or left-bench this year for the Lightning.

Which one of your new divisional foes are you looking forward to starting a rivalry with the most?

Detroit. The Bolts have played every other team in the “Flortheast” division regularly, and while there’s always a bit of a grudge when playing the teams of the (former) Northeast division (Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo), it’s Detroit that is the standard the Lightning are trying to imitate in how the franchise operates. They’re the gold standard… They’re also a team that has a dominating record against the Lightning in 32 games total over the last 20 years (5-24-2-1).

Thanks again to John for helping us out! We will see the Bolts at the United Center right off the bat on October 5th.  The Hawks travel to Tampa for an October 24th match up.

Talking Points