September 27, 2009
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Fourteenth in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the Southeast Division (24-40-18, 66 points). Hired a television personality as head coach, before firing him 16 games into the season and having him publicly trash management in front of any open mic. Sought to restore the team's integrity behind the bench by hiring an assistant coach most famous for having been suspended for over a year in a gambling scandal -- a fact that didn't make the cut in the team's official announcement. Go figure ...
The team's new owners, Len Barrie and Oren Koules, helped craft a losing roster with GM Brian Lawton that sparked widespread fan apathy, before having to go before Gary Bettman for relationship counseling. This came after a season in which star Vincent Lecavalier(notes) was on and off the trading block practically every minute, to the point where he needed to hold a press conference during the all-star game in Montreal to address the rumors.
Then there was the rookie disappointment that only happened to be the center of the team's ad campaign; a slew of free-agent busts and underwhelming performances; injuries that plagued key personnel; and plenty of additional off-ice drama.
It was called a circus, which really isn't fair, because circuses are fun and frequently worth the price of admission. Plus, the best clown only lasted 16 games.
After another summer of massive changes, will the comedy of errors continue ... or is it time to stop treating the Lightning like a joke?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): Winning the Alex Tanguay(notes) Derby (such as it was) gave the Lightning the top six forward they were craving all summer and gives Tanguay the chance to play with the kind of elite talent that helped him score 81 points back in 2006-07 with the Flames.
Career Canuck Mattias Ohlund(notes) stunned the hockey world by signing a 7-year, $26 million contract with the Lightning; stunning not only in his destination of choice, but in the tamper-riffic speed of the contract announcement. Other defensemen added to the roster included Matt Walker(notes) of the Chicago Blackhawks (4 years, $6.8 million) and Kurtis Foster(notes) (1 year, $600,000). Goalie Antero Niittymaki(notes) came over from the Flyers and is a very capable backup who is known to make a miraculous save now and again.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): Once again, Tampa disposed of more bodies than one of Oren's "Saw" flicks via free agency: David Koci(notes) (Colorado); Noah Welch(notes), (Atlanta); Corey Murphy, (New Jersey); Wake Brookbank (Pittsburgh); as well as Marek Malik(notes), Mike McKenna(notes), Janne Niskala(notes) and Matt Pettinger(notes).
The team dealt the disappointing Evgeny Artyukhin(notes) to Anaheim for Drew Miller(notes) and a pick. Lecavalier co-star Vaclav Prospal(notes) was waived and signed with the New York Rangers. Free-agent bust Radim Vrbata(notes) was traded back to the Phoenix Coyotes for David Hale(notes) and Todd Fedoruk(notes).
Most of these moves corrected past mistakes, others were made in order to upgrade positions. Still, it's a dizzying number of transactions, but expected when your team's in the basement.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): Vincent Lecavalier battled through injuries in a season that saw his point totals dip to 67 after scoring 200 in the previous two seasons combined. He also battled through a season of intense trade speculation and leaks, with Lightning ownership reportedly split into warring factions over dealing him after signing a "lifetime" contract. His no-trade clause kicked in on July 1; while that's far from a guarantee that he's going to retire a Bolt, it will allow him to focus on the ice a bit more this season ... though it will cause hockey writers to search a little harder for news without the benefit of Vinny-to-the-Habs as a crutch.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): Drew Doughty(notes) showed last season that a fantastic rookie defenseman is still going to be hard-pressed to win the Calder unless his team is successful. So that could be Hedman's greatest obstacle if he's as good as advertised. ("Advertised" in the "what the experts are saying" sense, not in the hokey "Seen Stamkos?" sense.)
He's 18 years old, 6-foot-6 and still growing. He's been seasoned in the Elite League and he looks like a Swedish Benicio Del Toro in Zdeno Chara's(notes) body. He's logged some quality ice time in the preseason and is a lock for the blueline, perhaps with Kurtis Foster as a partner. Provided he can handle the grind and pressures of the NHL, Hedman is a special talent that can make an impact in his rookie year -- and hey, maybe he'll end up flying the Lightning's charter jet one day, too.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): Hedman is one of several new additions to a Lightning defense that's seemingly had half the NHL under contract at one point in the last two years. Mattias Ohlund brings 11 years of experience, if diminishing skills, to a blue line that can use his veteran presence both in action and as a mentor. Veteran David Hale came over in the Radim Vrbata salary dump. Tampa snagged Matt Walker from the Blackhawks was a coup, as he was a gritty, unsung player for Chicago last season when he wasn't scaring women with freak injuries. Speaking of freak injuries: Kurtis Foster is also in the mix.
They join returning Bolts defensemen Andrej Meszaros(notes) (2-14-16 in 52 games), Paul Ranger(notes), Lukas Krajieck (2-17-19 in 71 games), Matt Smaby(notes), Matt Lashoff(notes) and Mike Lundin(notes). There are obviously going to be some personnel decisions before the first puck drops, because teams don't enter the season carrying 10 defenseman. You know, typically ...
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Mike Smith(notes) is healthy, which means the Bolts could have a fairly fortified defense if the blue-liners find the right mix in front of him. Smith played in 41 games (2.62 GAA, .916 save percentage) before post-concussion symptoms kept him off the ice for eight months. If you're one that looks at good karma as a reason to believe a player could have a solid season, consider that Ryan Craig's skates did not, in fact, castrate Smith during the preseason.
Antero Niittymaki is the kind of solid backup whose play pushes the starter to excel (and, in some cases, even steals his job). The only question is whether Tampa can make the playoffs solely on the points Nitty will generate by sweeping the Thrashers.
The Inventor (The Coach): The best thing about Rick Tocchet is that he's not Barry Melrose, which means the Lightning may not stumble out of the gate like a newborn fawn this season. He earned the job by reorganizing the mess last season, and seems determined to get the Lightning physically and mentally prepared to compete. Managing this roster is going to be a challenge, no doubt. But we'd wager ... uh ... you see, any offseason with big changes is a gamble ... uh ... Tocchet's OK.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C+
"It's ‘Extreme Makeover 2.0' for the Lightning in 2009-10 though, this time, it sure looks like their offseason moves were made with pinpoint accuracy. The defense seems fortified, there looks to be scoring depth, health is not an issue and - oh yeah - Barry Melrose didn't run training camp.
"With such turnover, of course, comes apropos cause for concern about cohesion, but this group appears to be on the same page from the start.
"My ‘bold' predictions? The ownership struggle resolves itself with far less drama than most expect (before Christmas, at the latest), Victor Hedman(notes) is as steady a rookie d-man as a rookie d-man can be, Vinny Lecavalier returns to 40 goal/90 point form, the Lightning make the playoffs and, suddenly, the once-all-too-easy Bolts joke well runs dry."
"Stability in coaching and a revamped defense should improve the Bolts in the standings and lead them out of the cellar. The circus distraction regarding team ownership, however, is likely to persist for some time still."
Don Draper Says ...
"Sometimes hockey teams can be like bad martinis: Shaken too hard, mixed poorly and simply offensive to the senses. What you need to know about bad drinks, gentlemen, is that the good ones make you forget them."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): The roster is, like last season, a jumble that will either click or have pieces moving until it does. On paper, the Marty St. Louis (30-50-80)-Steven Stamkos(notes) (23-23-46)-Ryan Malone(notes) (26-19-45) trio could be a hell of a line; but what happens if Lecavalier and Tanguay can't locate an effective winger, and suddenly St. Louis is back on a mega-powers top line? And, perhaps more importantly, what happens if Stamkos is ineffective as a second-line center for the second straight year?
The defense has all the parts it needs ... but again, "on paper." How will they mesh on the ice, and can defensive specialist/assistant coach Rick Wilson find the right personnel for an effective corps in front of Smith?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): Stability is an essential ingredient for success in the NHL. The Lightning didn't have it on the ice or behind the bench last season, and now we've seen another summer of turnover on the roster -- some of it undeniably good, some of it potentially negative. Stability has no home in the owners' suite at the moment, which is something that needs to change ASAP for this franchise to turn it around.
Will they turn it around? They'll be a playoff bubble team thanks to the improved defense and better goaltending. Whether they make the cut or not depends on Vinny's health, Stamkos's maturation and whether than can get anything worth a damn out of the special teams and the secondary scoring.