(This month, Puck Daddy asked bloggers for every NHL team to tell us The Essentials for their franchises — everything from the defining player and trade, to the indispensable fan traditions. Here is Bolts blog Raw Charge, giving us The Essentials for the Tampa Bay Lightning.)
By Raw Charge
No player, past or present, epitomizes the Tampa Bay Lightning better than Martin St. Louis.
Everyone said he couldn't make it, he was too small. Passed over in the NHL Draft, cut from more than one team, Marty exemplifies more than mere perseverance.
Like the franchise itself, St. Louis wasn't supposed to succeed. The thing is, though, Marty's a true warrior, a believer in hard work, in showing up, in making the most of what you have. He's a skill player with the heart of a grinder, a guy who has missed only seven games in nine years. He has stuck with the franchise in good times and bad. And it's practically kismet that it was this particular player, the guy who fought the odds and won, who scored the essential Lightning goal in franchise history (see below).
Just like the franchise and its fans, St. Louis is easy enough to overlook in the media driven world of hockey stardom. But just commit to watching for a little while and you'll see why Tampa Bay fans relate to Marty so powerfully. He's the heart and soul of this team. He is the engine that drives everything. He is the Lightning.
It would be easy to anoint the 2003-04 season as the essential season in the history of the club. It was their first time they'd won the Stanley Cup, the game's ultimate prize. Clearly, that's the greatest season in the team's history. But how "essential" was it? The next season was lost to the lockout, which didn't do them any favors in maintaining momentum. That was just one factor preventing perennial contention...
Cut to 2010-11. After another ownership change, the Lightning saw themselves with two core players remaining from the glorious '04 championship (Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis), a budding superstar in Steven Stamkos, and not much else. But the hiring of Steve Yzerman as GM marked a decided change in the approach to things in Tampa Bay. Bringing Yzerman aboard and the hiring of hot property Guy Boucher as head coach signified major philosophical changes for the club, and raised expectations for the fans.
The assembled on-ice product responded, playing at a higher level than anyone had expected in the first season of a rebuilding. Stamkos started hot, suffered a nasty slump and finished strong. The mercurial but talented Teddy Purcell seemed to finally show signs of learning how to best utilize his skills. St. Louis raised his already consistently solid game and earned a Hart Trophy nomination in the process. They got contributions from role players like Sean Bergenheim, Nate Thompson and Adam Hall. To cap it off, Yzerman brought in Dwayne Roloson to address the dilemma that threatened to ruin the season. Roloson brought stability to the crease and thus stability to the team.
As a unit, the Bolts came out of nowhere and got all the way to a one-goal loss in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Granted, in 2011-12 the team fell far short of high expectations, but 2010-11 brought back hope to a team that had been lost to mediocrity for so long, and whet fans appetites with the promise of continued contention.
June 5, 2004. Saddledome's C of Red was at frenzy and the city of Calgary was ready to erupt in celebration. Down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, the Lightning belayed the city's championship celebration plans by going toe-to-toe with the Flames for 80 minutes and 35 seconds.
Though Game 7 was itself monumental to the franchise, and though there are other games that could very well be mentioned as essential in Lightning history, it's this Game 6 victory that enabled Game 7. It's not securing momentum through a crucial victory, but gaining another chance at life. You do or you die in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Lightning staved off death and put them in the driver's seat — playing at home for the right to hoist the Cup.
St. Louis' goal 35 seconds into the second overtime of that game, putting a rebound past Miikka Kiprusoff.
When we talked to fans about the essential trade in Lightning history, most responses hinged on deals that were crucial to the Bolts winning the 2004 Stanley Cup. Obtaining goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin in 2001 was a game changer for the franchise, and the trades that brought in right wing Ruslan Fedotenko and defenseman Brad Lukowich (during the 2002 NHL draft) were vital to rounding out the eventual championship roster. What those deals lack is a lasting impact on the Lightning that long preceded and succeeded the 2004 championship.
The essential trade in Tampa Bay Lightning history helped define the direction of the franchise: In 1998, Tampa Bay traded defensemen Bryan Marchment and David Shaw, along with its 1st round selection in the 1998 entry draft to the San Jose Sharks for left wing Andrei Nazarov and a 1998 1st round selection (previously acquired by the Sharks from the Florida Panthers). That draft pick would be Vincent Lecavalier.
So 998 games later, with 373 goals, 469 assists, a Rocket Richard Trophy and a Stanley Cup championship, Lecavalier's value to the franchise isn't questionable. His promise as a young NHL'er was the lone hope that Bolts fans could cling to during the team's otherwise painful rebuilding years of 1998-2001. Lecavalier, though best known now for his gargantuan contract, remain as core figure, as well as team captain, to this day.
Part of playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning is that you're generally ignored and discounted by the rest of the league unless you do something really crazy like score an empty net goal in the last game of the season to tie Sidney Crosby for the league lead in goals. Then you get noticed. So it's no surprise really that quite a few players have come and gone from the Bolts that didn't necessarily get the accolades they deserved.
There's one guy who truly sticks out more than the others though: Fredrik Modin.
Acquired for defenseman Cory Cross from the Toronto Maple Leafs and brought in with very few expectations, Modin quickly proved himself with the Lightning and was named an alternate captain.
In 2001, his second season with the team, he was the sole Lightning representative at the All-Star Game where he went on to win the hardest shot competition with a shot clocked at 102.1.
During the course of his career in Tampa, Modin established himself as the team's top penalty killer, logging tons of tough minutes and blocking a lot of shots; then Coach John Tortorella's type of guy.
Beyond doing the dirty work, Modin's versatility and offensive touch was on display on the 2nd line with Brad Richards. In 2003-04, enough to consistently play on the 2nd line in Tampa with the likes of St. Louis and Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis.
Modin logged the most productive seasons of his career with the Bolts, eclipsing the 50-point mark three times in his six seasons with the club. On top of that, he quietly flew under the radar as a dark horse Conn Smythe candidate in 2004 with 19 points in 23 playoff games that season.
With the injury-riddled, unceremonious culmination of his playing career, few fans know how important and talented Fredrik Modin really was. For the long-time Lightning faithful, his importance will never be questioned.
It is often the bumbling villain from within that does the most damage. In the case of the Lightning, that would be the previous ownership group headed by Oren Koules and Len Barrie. Also known with horror and contempt as OK Hockey.
The OK Hockey group took over the team in early 2008, and almost immediately started making changes as if they were a part of a hockey fantasy league and not running an actual NHL franchise. For instance, Dan Boyle was traded for personal reasons (Len Barrie played with him in Florida and reportedly didn't like him). But they almost traded Steven Stamkos his rookie season and Vinny Lecavalier as well on separate occasions.
"Patience" was not a word with which these men were familiar.
In their first offseason, they fired head coach John Tortorella and ignored GM Jay Feaster until he quietly quit. They hired long-time ESPN hockey analyst — and one-time NHL coach back in the mid-1990s — Barry Melrose who, by many accounts, was woefully unprepared for coaching in the current state of the NHL. Although Melrose would only last 16 games, he still ended up with a better win percentage (0.438) than his assistant coach who replaced him, Rick Tocchet (148 games, 0.394).
After months of Barrie vs. Koules, the team was sold to Jeff Vinik. While Vinik has righted the ship with the franchise, the legacy of OK Hockey's inept tenure and the damage done to the franchise during that time will not soon be forgotten.
While there have been a number of battles and physical confrontations in Bolts history, we'll go with one of the more amusing skirmishes in Lightning history: Line brawl! Lightning versus the Pittsburgh Penguins from April 4, 1998. This wasn't a vital game in the least, as both franchises were foundering at the time, but the skirmish was an entertaining one. How often do you see players tossed around like rag dolls by the refs?
John Tortorella remains the winningest coach in Tampa Bay Lightning history with a 239-222-36-38 record, with four playoff appearances, a Stanley Cup and a Jack Adams award to his name.
Most hockey fans are pretty spoiled when it comes to the broadcasting for the 'home team.' The Florida Panthers have Randy Moller and his pop culture references the Pittsburgh Penguins have Mike Lange and his off the wall catch phrases during key moments, and the list goes on and on. Pretty much every NHL team has one commentator that's a little goofy. The Lightning is no exception.
Phil Esposito is the guy responsible for bringing hockey to the Tampa area. Since the Bolts inception, he's found a way - front office or otherwise - to be involved with the team. These days, aside from some community work, he's the radio color commentator for all Lightning home games. And by all means, he's as close as the NHL has to "Major League's" Harry Doyle.
Espo has no filter and has no shame. It's not unusual for Phil to ask lead commentator (and essential in his own right) Dave Mishkin "what just happened?" on a rapid sequence he couldn't keep up with. Even less unusual is for Phil to wonder out loud to all the Bolts faithful "what the hell was that?" when the Lightning's play makes us all wonder, well, what the hell was that.
Furthermore, Esposito's grandfatherly spiels are some of the best material in hockey. "Back when I played, if somebody did that, you came out the next shift and let him know that that ain't cool. But nowadays you can't look at a guy without getting called for interference."
Perhaps most endearing though is Espo's honesty and loyalty to the team. In a hockey world where NBC Sports Net has shoved "unbiased, professional commentary" down our throats, Phil tells it like it is, whether that means telling listeners "we got screwed on that one!" or "boy, our guys really look like garbage tonight."
Attending games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in shorts and sandals are commonplace among Bolts faithful. While there's a noted lack of traditions at the Forum, current ownership has been trying to remedy that while enhancing the fan experience in the building.
If you're in possession of one of the Bolts fabled "rainstorm" alternate sweaters from the late 1990's, your allegiance to the team likely won't be questioned — though your taste may be.
Fans are still assimilating to the new logo and jersey system that was implemented in 2011. While season-ticket members are likely sporting blue home jerseys, other die-hard fans are likely to be dressed in the "BOLTS" third jersey. (Bonus points for player names besides Martin St. Louis or Steven Stamkos on the back).
Previously On Puck Daddy