(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
Things didn't go as planned for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013. They entered the season with an unproven goaltender and a suspect defense, but there was still hope that over a short 48-game schedule, they'd figure things out in time to make a playoff push in the Eastern Conference.
They didn't. Anders Lindback struggled and the Lightning finished 26th overall in goals against (3.06 per game). Injuries plagued the lineup. Rookie Cory Conacher, who shot out of the gate, was eventually dealt to Ottawa for goaltending help. And finally, head coach Guy Boucher was fired in March and Tampa Bay finished 14th in the East (18-26-4, 40 pts.).
The 2013-14 season will be one of change. Their long-time captain is gone. Jon Cooper gets a full season as head coach. First round pick Jonathan Drouin should add another spark to the offense, and along with Valtteri Filppula, should improve the team's secondary scoring.
So, can those changes lead to a fresh start for the Lightning?
Andrei Markov is still wondering how he didn't beat Anders Lindback.
The additions were kept a minimum by general manager Steve Yzerman. Filppula, who Yzerman knows from his days with the Detroit Red Wings, cashed in with a five-year, $25 million deal. He and the drafting of Drouin were the main upgrades for the Lightning in the off-season.
But the biggest news of the summer in Tampa Bay was the use of a compliance buyout on captain Vincent Lecavalier. The Lightning decided to buy out the final seven years of his contract and will pay him $32.667 million over that term, plus an $8 million in signing bonus money. A week later, Lecavalier would sign a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Also leaving town were Benoit Pouliot (New York Rangers), Marc-Andre Bergeron (Switzerland), Mathieu Garon (tryout, Los Angeles Kings), and Adam Hall (Philadelphia Flyers).
Forward: Production wasn't an issue for Tampa last season. Steven Stamkos scored 29 goals and Martin St. Louis won his second Art Ross Trophy with 60 points. Overall, the Lightning finished third in the NHL in scoring with 3.06 goals per game. You can pretty much pencil in Stamkos for another 50ish-goal season, like usual. St. Louis turned 38 in June, but he's defied the odds before, and as long as he's playing next to Stamkos the points will be there.
Filppula, Teddy Purcell (11 goals, 36 points) and a healthy Ryan Malone (24 games) will be looked upon to provide the secondary scoring. It's expected that Drouin will slide in on the top line next to Stamkos and St. Louis. If he stays there and past his nine-game NHL tryout, fantasy hockey players will love him.
Alex Killorn had a solid rookie campaign (7 goals, 19 points) and should improve upon that over a full season. Nate Thompson won't provide a ton of points, but brings a physical presence (85 hits) and the ability to block shots (31) down the lineup.
Defense: They scored 3.06 per game and also allowed 3.06 goals per game. That's with the additions of Matt Carle and Sami Salo from summer 2012. The pair contributed 39 points between them, but only helped to slightly improve a defense that was 30th in the NHL in 2011-12.
Victor Hedman has gradually gottan better since entering the league in 2009. He's been a steady offensive presence contributing 20-plus points a season, but defensively he still has his moments. Eric Brewer was a vital presence during Tampa's 2011 run to the Eastern Conference Final. Since then, well... only two more years on that contract!
Goalies: Anders Lindback struggled after being given the No. 1 role to start the season. He was spelled by Mathieu Garon, who started 16 games, but neither were the answer for the Lightning.
Yzerman felt he needed to shore up his crease, so he dealt Cory Conacher to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop. Both Bishop and Lindback have just a little more than 50 games of NHL experience each, but the hope is that a platoon setting will be the catalyst for improvement.
After a drop off following his first season in charge, Steve Yzerman has been criticized for his team-building, specifically going cheap in net and hoping for results; but he has built a strong minor league system for the Lightning, as shown by appearances in the previous two Calder Cup finals, with the AHL squad winning it all in 2012.
Those two successful AHL teams were coached by Jon Cooper, who replaced Boucher in March. That will be beneficial when the Lightning's kids come reach the NHL and are already familiar with the system. The 15 games Cooper was behind the bench for last season gave him a good look at what needs to be tweaked going forward. Helping Cooper will be George Gwozdecky, who was hired as an assistant after years as a college head coach at Denver.
"Hockey Paradise" makes you want to grab a Corona, lace up your skates and head to the beach.
Stamkos, St. Louis and potentially Drouin will be fun to watch as red lights around the NHL get worn out.
Cooper has won at the USHL and AHL level. No matter where he goes he brings success. It shouldn't take too long for him to right the ship in Tampa.
Until engineers figure out how to have an actual bolt of lightning go off after a goal, the awesome tesla coils inside Tampa Bay Times Forum will have to do.
If the goaltending tandem of Lindback and Bishop doesn't do the job, Yzerman will have to change his philosophy and open Jeff Vinik's wallet for an upgrade.
Whether or not the Lightning are in the playoff mix will depend on how the defense and goaltending hold up. Even if there's improvement, it'll be tough sledding in the new Atlantic Division. But a full season of Cooper behind the bench should see improvements in areas with an eye on the future.