Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After a memorable run to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning had no magic left last season. They dropped 19 points in the standings and had to settle for watching the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring. Dwayne Roloson couldn't recapture the form that helped lead the Lightning to within a game of the Cup Final and the lack of depth production doomed Tampa.
The only real highlights were Steven Stamkos once again being Steven Stamkos by scoring 60 goals and winning his second Rocket Richard Trophy and the addition to the badass Tesla coils to the rafters of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
With GM Steve Yzerman improving the goaltending over the summer and helping to fix a league-worst defense from a year ago, is there a return trip to the playoffs in the cards for the Lightning?
"Building a better defense back to the playoffs"
After 42-year old Dwayne Roloson ran out of steam last season, Yzerman sought to upgrade his crease by acquiring Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators and signing him to a 2-year deal. Helping out Lindback in the back will be Sami Salo, who inked a 2-year, $7.5 million deal and Matt Carle, who moves on from Philadelphia with a new 6-year, $33 million contract. Trying to improve the team's depth production up front, Yzerman went out and signed Benoit Pouliot to a 1-year deal.
Aside from Carle, these are short-term solutions for problems within the lineup. With prospects coming up through the ranks, this gives Yzerman the flexibility to slot in a youngster or head back to the free agent market if these signings don't end up working out.
At forward … The Lightning offense was carried by Stamkos' 60 goals and 97 points. We can expect similar numbers from the 22-year old for the next handful of years, but he'll need some help, especially with the likes if Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier not getting any younger. St. Louis had his lowest point total (74 points) since 2005-06. After back-to-back 90-plus point campaigns, the hope is the 37-year old can hit those marks again. Lecavalier has battled injuries in each of the past two seasons and his numbers have slowly declined since a 108-point year in 2006-07. If he can remain healthy, a 70-point season seems to be what he'll settle into for the rest of his career.
Since coming over from the Los Angeles Kings, Teddy Purcell has found comfort in the Lightning lineup. With 24 goals and 65 points last season, he benefited from playing next to Stamkos at times. Tampa will need that continued production if they're getting little from their depth.
Providing that depth scoring will have to come from the likes of Pouliot (career high 16 goals, 32 points), Ryan Malone (20 goals), and Brett Connolly, who played 68 games in his rookie year. Only five Lightning players had more than 19 points last season. The team finished ninth overall in goals per game, led by a very top-heavy offense. Same goes for the power play, which finished tied for 25th with a 15.2 per cent success rate. The addition of Salo (7 PPGs) should help that number improve.
On defense … There was no team worse defensively last year that the Lightning, who allowed 3.39 goals per game. The hope is that the signings of Carle and Salo will improve the back at both ends of the ice. Victor Hedman showed improvement and will continue getting better at age 21.
With Mattias Ohlund's future uncertain, Salo and Eric Brewer will be the leaders on the blueline. But Salo will need to do something he he's had a hard time doing in his career: staying healthy. He can be good for close to double digit goals per season, as well as a contributing member on the power play unit, but don't count on him for more than 70 games if recent history is any indicator. Brewer will welcome the likes of Salo, Carle and an improved Hedman. His minutes can take a bit of a cut and the responsibilities can be shared.
In goal … It's going to be Lindback's crease to lose, but while he has only made 28 starts over two seasons, he'll be given every opportunity to own the No. 1 role. Should he falter, veteran Mathieu Garon proved to be a valuable backup. With the struggles of Roloson last season, Garon started 44 games, winning 23 of them. All eyes will be on Lindback if he can handle the heavy workload of an No. 1.
Fortunately for the Lightning players, they don't need to call Coach Boucher "maestro", unlike Bob Cobb.
This is where the work begins for head coach Guy Boucher. After a rookie season of success, the sophomore campaign saw a big step back. This third season is when Boucher will need to make adjustments to get out of the gate better and put Yzerman's new additions in the best situations to be productive.
Speaking of Yzerman, he saw weaknesses in the lineup and did his best to improve them. Time will tell if they will work, but with a supportive owner in Jeff Vinik, Yzerman should be able to turn around the Tampa's fortunes quickly.
The offense will once again be strong and the defense will likely be improved. The success will rest on the shoulders of Lindback. He'll be the No. 1 guy and relied upon to carry the heavy load.
Despite missing 21 games, Victor Hedman was able to handle his bigger load and succeed. He showed a much more physical game than his rookie season and as he grows into his 6'6, 229 lbs. frame, Hedman will be an even bigger presence on the blueline.
Given his inexperience as a starter, it's hard not to be skeptical about what Lindback will do. He comes from an organization known for pumping out goaltenders, but now out on his own, will he be able to lead Tampa back to the postseason?
"Is Guy Boucher building a death ray?"
"We don't have any proof. But look at him. Doesn't he just look like somebody who would be building a death ray?"
"Because he totally does. How did he get that scar? Death ray installation accident? Probably."
"Now, without evidence, there's simply no way for us to come right out and say GUY BOUCHER IS BUILDING A DEATH RAY AND MUST BE STOPPED, but if he were building a death ray, which he almost certainly is, wouldn't you like to bring him into custody before he can counter by firing his death ray?"
"Guy Boucher with a functional death ray. That's not what this country is about. That's never been what this country is about."
"Paid for by the Tea Party of America."
Tampa missed the playoffs by 8 points last season. A few breaks here or there and they could have found their way in. The hope is that the contributions from Carle, Salo, Pouliot and most importantly, Lindback, will be enough to make up those 8 points and more in 2012-13. Just as important, the Lightning can't continue to rely on their top dogs for offense. Contributions down the lineup need to complement the production led by Stamkos, St. Louis and Purcell.