Colorful characters, revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene...
Last Season (34-36-12, 80 points. 4th in Southeast, 12th in the Conference)
The OK Hockey error finished its short tenure of mangling a once proud franchise by missing the playoffs, before bowing out of the hockey ownership business.
While off the ice there were plenty of issues, on the ice there were some bright spots for the Lightning. Steven Stamkos(notes) missed the memo about the sophomore jinx that was affecting Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Steve Mason(notes), and busted out a 51-goal season en route to sharing the Rocket Richard Trophy with Sidney Crosby(notes). Martin St. Louis(notes) experienced a 14-point increase thanks to the chemistry that he developed playing with Stamkos
Once OK Hockey left the building, Jeff Vinik stepped in and began restoring order in the Lightning's house. Head coach Rick Tocchet and GM Brian Lawton were shown the door as the change began for Tampa. Vinik hired Steve Yzerman as GM, who then brought in the hottest coaching prospect on the market in Guy Boucher.
Stevie Y was very busy over the summer overhauling the Lightning roster and gaining the team a ton of buzz in the media as one of the dark horses in the Eastern Conference. Can Tampa now live up to the hype?
Like we said, there were plenty of changes in the Lightning lineup over the summer. Up front Todd Fedoruk(notes), Zenon Konopka(notes), Alex Tanguay(notes), and Stephane Veilleux(notes) all found new homes after providing depth within the roster.
After a serviceable year splitting time with Mike Smith(notes), Antero Niittymaki(notes) (21-18-5, 2.87, .909) took advantage of the open spot on the San Jose Sharks' roster by signing a two-year, $4 million deal on the opening day of free agency in July.
Also leaving the blueline were Andrej Meszaros(notes) and Matt Walker(notes) who were dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers in separate deals. Walker was part of the trade that helped land Yzerman's biggest acquisition of the off-season...
After weeks of speculation about whether or not he would waive his no-trade clause, Simon Gagne(notes) finally gave in and accepted a trade to Tampa Bay. Entering the final year of his deal, Gagne is expected to rejuvenate Vincent Lecavalier(notes) who is coming off two not-so-Vinny-esque seasons.
Dan Ellis(notes) had his rights dealt from Nashville to Montreal before July 1st, but unable to agree to a deal with the Canadiens, the 30-year old netminder inked a two-year contract with Tampa. Both Ellis and Mike Smith came up through the Dallas Stars system and their competition for the No. 1 can only benefit the Lightning this season.
Brett Clark(notes) and Pavel Kubina(notes) help solidify a defense that's looking to improve on it's 27th ranked 3.08 goals per game average from last season, while Sean Bergenheim(notes) and Dominic Moore(notes) look to fill out the depth up front.
Already equipped with Lecavalier, St. Louis, Stamkos, and Ryan Malone(notes), what's Steve Yzerman to do? Go out and grab another scoring forward. In Simon Gagne, the Lightning bring an experienced veteran to the fold who despite a history of concussions, is still capable of 30-plus goals and is just 30-years old.
Head coach Guy Boucher's puck moving system should help improve the NHL's 23rd ranked offense (2.60 goals per game) from a year ago. If Steve Downie(notes) can back up his 22-goal season, Tampa will have one of the league's most dangerous top-six forward groups.
With the trade rumors emanating out of Montreal dying down (we think), Lecavalier can find his game again alongside Gagne and break 70-points for the first time in three seasons.
Wrestler(s) That Best Symbolize the Team
What can the Tampa Bay Lightning accomplish now that they've shed OK Hockey and rid them of the "circus" description that's hovered over them the past two seasons?
A defense that was 27th in the NHL last season can only get better, right? Out go Meszaros, Foster and Matt Walker and in comes Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina.
Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 system requires a certain type of defenseman to help it succeed. Having no true puck-moving defenseman apparently won't be an issue as Boucher's system warrants getting the puck to the forwards and letting them do the work.
Victor Hedman(notes) enters his sophomore campaign looking to build off of a 20-point season that saw him third in time on-ice among all Lightning defensemen (20:50). He may have been given too much responsibility for an 18-year old rookie, but he managed to handle it and can learn from his mistakes in year two.
Kubina and Mattias Ohlund(notes) will be two of the veteran stalwarts on the blueline along with Brett Clark. Ohlund will try to rebound from arguably his worst year as a pro with career lows in goals, assists, and points and finishing a minus-eight.
With Boucher not needing one puck-moving defenseman, the defense corps as a whole will have to work together to make the new system click in Tampa.
Entering the final year of his deal, Mike Smith would like to rebound from a 2009-10 campaign that saw him lose his job to Niittymaki. Having the presence of his good friend Dan Ellis should help do that and both push each other for the starting job.
Ellis enters the picture in the same situation as Smith having lost his starting job to Pekka Rinne(notes) in Nashville. Trying to regain the form that once had him as a No. 1, Ellis should benefit from the competition with Smith and give Tampa a solid goaltender duo to rely on as they attempt to take the next step in their turnaround.
Match We'd Pay To Watch
Steve Downie has an opportunity to prove that last year's 22-goal season wasn't a fluke. Cutting down on the PIMs and figure-four leg locks on opponents will help his focus on increasing his production.
Injury could be the excuse to explain Mattias Ohlund's subpar season, but in the second year of a seven-year contract he signed last summer, the 34-year old isn't getting any younger and his production has been slowly decreasing the past several seasons.
Joining the ranks of the Tombstone, Hulk Hogan's leg drop and Shawn Michaels' superkick, Steven Stamkos' one-timer from the left faceoff circle is as deadly as they come.
The addition of Gagne will help a strong power play that was 8th last season (19.3 percent) thanks to Steven Stamkos' NHL-leading 24 power play goals. Meanwhile, the penalty kill (22nd, 80.1 percent) could use some help. Only two teams, New York Islanders (71) and Toronto (73), allowed more power play goals than the Lighting (67).
A new era in Tampa Bay brings both a new head coach and new general manager to the fold. Yzerman is still in the early stages of molding the team of his liking, but his additions so far during his short term at the helm should improve the Lightning this season. Guy Boucher's system may not be perfect for this current Tampa roster, but over time with the help of Yzerman signings and player development, the pieces will be in place to fully see how the 1-3-1 will work.
2010-11 Preseason Report Card:
Forwards: B+ (big drop-off after top six)
Special Teams: C+
Management: Inc. (Yzerman's moves look great on paper, let's see on the ice.)
Main Event or Dark Match? (Prediction)
There's no question that the Lightning have improved over the past four months with the work Steve Yzerman has done, but is it that easy to peg them as a playoff team in the Eastern Conference?
No. The forward depth production is almost non-existent after the top six and the defense still needs to show a vast improvement. Finally, the big question is what to expect in goal. Mike Smith has had his moments in the Tampa net, but nothing to make him the outright No. 1 heading into this season. Ellis has been a No. 1 and experienced a bit more success than Smith in his young career. Can they both benefit from the crease competition to support their teammates?
Up front, Tampa's offense may have a new addition in Simon Gagne, but if Vincent Lecavalier doesn't return to his 90-100-plus point form, the former Flyers' presence may not be enough to win those games when the defense has an off night
Tampa Bay Lightning Entrance Music to the 2010-11 Season
With Gagne joining St. Louis and Lecavalier, Tampa Bay has their Fabulous Frenchmen, who've been just a tad more successful than The Quebecers.