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Things are looking up for the Lightning

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What a year it was for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last season, the team's first under new ownership, was anything but smooth. No one seemed to know who had the final say and who was calling the shots.

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Co-owners Len Barrie (L) and Oren Koules butt heads last year.
(Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)

It got so weird, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had to intervene and determine whether owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie could co-exist in a professional manner. He gave a thumbs-up to the arrangement, but don't be surprised if one owner eventually buys out the other.

Brian Lawton got caught in the crossfire last season, and it was difficult for him to act as the team's general manager. The biggest headache was the decision of whether to put franchise forward Vincent Lecavalier(notes) on the trade block or allow him to remain on the roster long enough for his 11-year, $86.5 million extension to kick in.

Lawton was telling everyone who would listen, and many people who wouldn't, that Lecavalier wasn't available. But even Lawton wasn't sure since the owners were divided – Koules reportedly wanted to trade the star while Barrie wanted to hold on to him. It's moot now: The new deal has kicked in for Lecavalier, who, at age 29 with 10 years in the league, is still very much in his prime.

Lawton, too, doesn't appear to be looking over his shoulder as much as last year. He, or someone, fired coach Barry Melrose only 16 games into the season. The unenviable job went to interim Rick Tocchet, who did what he could with a revolving door of a roster.

Tampa Bay had some pretty amazing stats last season. With all the optimism of new owners and a new roster, the Lightning actually had an even worse season than the prior year, when they finished 30th overall. They lost 18 games in overtime, by far the most in the league. But the most shocking number of all is the 22 players who tried their hand on the blue line.

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Lawton

Lawton's No. 1 offseason priority was to try and make some sense of the defense, and convincing Mattias Ohlund(notes) to leave Vancouver and sign a seven-year deal with the Lightning was pivotal. Sure, Tampa Bay had to offer a longer term than others would for a 33-year-old, but the Lightning needed to start somewhere and this makes a lot of sense.

Last season: 24-40-18 (66 points). Fifth place Southeast Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference and 29th in the overall standings. Earned five fewer points than the previous year's last-place finish and missed out on the postseason for a second straight spring.

Imports: D Mattias Ohlund (Vancouver), LW Alex Tanguay(notes) (Montreal), G Antero Niittymaki(notes) (Philadelphia), D Kurtis Foster(notes) (Minnesota), C Stephane Veilleux(notes) (Minnesota), LW Todd Fedoruk(notes) (Phoenix), D David Hale(notes) (Phoenix) and D Matt Walker(notes) (Chicago).

Exports: RW Radim Vrbata(notes) (Phoenix), C Vaclav Prospal(notes) (N.Y. Rangers), D David Koci(notes) (Colorado), D Richard Petiot(notes) (Chicago), D Noah Welch(notes) (Atlanta), LW Wade Brookbank(notes) (Pittsburgh) and D Josef Melichar(notes) (Europe).

Re-signings: D Matt Lashoff(notes), D Matt Smaby(notes) and D Lukas Krajicek(notes).

Salary cap: The Lightning have approximately $53 million tied up in payroll, more than one might expect from a team that has finished so low each of the past two seasons. But minus bonus money, the team has about $8 million to play with if the budget allows spending all the way to the ceiling.

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Smith

Three keys: First and foremost, Tampa has to shore up work in its own end, and the Lightning have a better opportunity to do that with more experience and talent on the blue line to start this season than it did last year.

Newcomer Ohlund will spearhead a group that should include Andrej Meszaros(notes), Kurtis Foster, Lukas Krajicek, Matt Walker, Paul Ranger(notes), David Hale and probably rookie Victor Hedman(notes), too.

Second, one way to improve defense is to keep cycling the puck in the attacking zone as much as possible. And Tampa Bay isn't lacking for offensive skills up front.

Lecavalier and 34-year-old Martin St. Louis(notes) welcome Alex Tanguay and a second season from Steven Stamkos(notes) to spark the attack. The Lightning have some proven role players, including Jeff Halpern(notes), Ryan Malone(notes), Todd Fedoruk, Stephane Veilleux and Adam Hall(notes), to support the effort up front.

Third, ownership and Lawton to a large extent, and Tocchet to a smaller one, have to remain patient with this group. There's a nice mix of youth and experience here, and in an unpredictable division, the team just needs to allow things to play out.

On the hot seat: Goalie Mike Smith(notes) did about as well as could be expected considering the lack of support in front of him. He stopped 91.6 percent of the shots he faced while starting 40 games before post-concussion syndrome ended his season early. Assuming the defense will be significantly better, Smith will need to match his game with theirs to bring respectability back to Tampa Bay. But Smith, 27, may not get pushed much, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

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Second overall pick Victor Hedman could anchor the Lightning blue line for years.
(Dave Sanford/Getty)

Poised to blossom: Victor Hedman was the second overall pick in this year's draft. Yes, we're saying the 18-year-old will not only jump straight to the NHL from the bigger foreign ice surface, but the mature Swedish defenseman will provide an impact for the Lightning.

The draft couldn't have worked out better for Tampa Bay, which didn't mind the top-picking Islanders' choice of John Tavares(notes) since the Lightning took high-profile forward prospect Steven Stamkos first overall in 2008. Hedman, whom a number of scouts favored over Tavares, can cozy up with fellow countryman Mattias Ohlund and play with a team that will be patient with rookie mistakes.

Time has passed: Todd Fedoruk is one of the greatest warriors of his time. The underrated forward won't back down from anyone, and he's a consummate pro in the locker room. Sometimes, however, he is too loyal to his teammates, too willing to stand his ground. Fedoruk has permanent titanium plates in his face as a result of a brutal injury suffered during a fight several years ago. It hasn't deterred him from fighting, although he does a little less of it. Hopefully the Lightning will have enough policing so Fedoruk doesn't put himself in harm's way.

Prediction: It'll be much better this year with a sense of stability and direction. The Lightning will earn 15-20 more points than last season, and if they can squeeze out another 5-7 on top of that they'll be right in the hunt for the final playoff spot.

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