The theory that the salary-cap system offers teams an opportunity to turn their fortunes around in only one season will be put to the test by the Tampa Bay Lightning this year.
One quick glance at the roster, especially at the group of forwards assembled, and maybe the idea of going from worst in the league to at least playoff contention is possible. Then again, successful teams boast a strong defense and that's where the big question mark rests with Tampa Bay.
With the 2004 Stanley Cup win hardly a distant memory, the Lightning plunged all the way to the very depths of the NHL last season, earning only 71 points. Furthermore, the franchise was going through a controversial sale that has as many stops and starts as a Martin St. Louis rush to the net.
The team is now owned by Hollywood producer Oren Koules, Len Barrie and six of their closest associates. The only thing the Lightning managed to win last season was the draft lottery, and they ended up with 18-year-old prized forward Steven Stamkos, who scored a shootout goal in the team's exhibition opener and scored a real one in his next outing.
Tampa Bay basically cleaned house in an effort to revamp a tired roster and inject new energy into the fan base. The most surprising move was hiring Barry Melrose as coach. Melrose was enjoying a cushy job as an ESPN analyst for the past 12 years. His previous coaching tenure was dotted with a meteoric rise and quick exit from the game.
A year after winning a minor-league title coaching Adirondack of the AHL, Melrose found himself guiding Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals, won by Montreal (the last Canadian team to win the Cup, in fact). Melrose was fired halfway through his third season with the Kings and never reached the NHL again until now.
The other significant change off the ice was the resignation of popular general manager Jay Feaster, who quickly learned the new owners had their own ideas, and they weren't jiving with those of the man who built a champion 12 years after the franchise played its very first game.
Brian Lawton heads up the decision-makers as head of hockey operations. Lawton is considered a successful player agent after a disappointing career that started off promising when he became the first American-born player chosen first in an NHL draft.
With the new front office in place, the scene shifted to a roster that had a handful of stars and then a huge drop-off in talent. No team changed its look more than the Lightning since the trade deadline late last season until the opening of training camp.
Normally when a first-round pick steps right into an NHL lineup the focus is on that individual, but the Lightning are still clearly led by Vincent Lecavalier, who was in the running for the Hart Trophy at points last season before everything started to fall apart. Lecavalier is just entering the prime of his career, so Stamkos has no reason to feel the pressure a Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk might have felt when they burst on the scene with their teams.
Last season: 31-42-9, 71 points, fifth place Southeast Division, 15th place Eastern Conference, 30th place in the overall standings. The Lightning missed the playoffs for the first time in five springs and fell all the way to the league's basement in the process.
Imports: D Andrej Meszaros (2007-08 team: Ottawa Senators), LW Ryan Malone (Pittsburgh Penguins), LW Gary Roberts (Pittsburgh Penguins), LW Vaclav Prospal (Philadelphia Flyers), D Matt Carle (San Jose Sharks), G Olaf Kolzig (Washington Capitals), RW Adam Hall (Pittsburgh Penguins), RW Radim Vrbata (Phoenix Coyotes), D Janne Niskala (Philadelphia Flyers), C Wyatt Smith (Colorado Avalanche), LW David Koci (Chicago Blackhawks), RW Mark Recchi (Atlanta Thrashers), RW Brandon Bochenski (Nashville Predators/Anaheim Ducks), C Zenon Konopka (Columbus Blue Jackets), D Andrew Hutchinson (New York Rangers), RW Evgeny Artyukin (Russia), D Ty Wishart (junior hockey).
Exports: D Dan Boyle (San Jose Sharks), D Brad Lukowich (San Jose Sharks), D Filip Kuba (Ottawa Senators), D Alexandre Picard (Ottawa Senators), C Tim Taylor (retired), G Marc Denis (Montreal Canadiens), D Doug Janik (Chicago Blackhawks), C Andreas Karlsson (available free agent), LW Andre Roy (available free agent).
Three keys to the season: When a roster undergoes this much change from the top of the organization to all over the ice, chemistry is going to be the first and foremost concern. The idea of adding quality veterans the likes of Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi and Olaf Kolzig could go a long way in helping to bring the group together sooner rather than later. Roberts might struggle to stay healthy, Recchi has lost some of his offensive skills and Kolzig may be here only to back up Mike Smith, but identifying and acquiring the right kind of quality leaders – whether they wear a letter designation or not – is very important when a team is rejuvenating itself like the Lightning.
Second, the blue line is going to have to sort itself out in terms of pairings and roles. Tampa Bay caught a break when Ottawa couldn't come to terms with restricted free agent Andrej Meszaros, who appears headed for stardom. The Lightning dealt Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard in exchange for the soon-to-be 23-year-old versatile rear guard. Tampa Bay is hoping a change of scenery will inject ex-Shark and Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Carle with some needed confidence. The Lightning also got Ty Wishart in the deal that saw Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich go to San Jose. A first-round pick, Wishart is a tall, rangy defenseman on the verge of breaking in. And the Lightning may not be done considering Anaheim is dangling Mathieu Schneider and San Jose appears ready to deal Kyle McLaren. Tampa Bay could end up with one of those vets before the season starts.
Third, the No. 1 goaltending position is Smith's to lose. Acquired in the late-season deal with Dallas that saw Brad Richards leave the Lightning, Smith needs to solidify the Lightning at a position that has not been a sore spot since the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin. Smith is a bigger goalie (6-foot-3, 211 pounds), but he's only appeared in 57 NHL games, so there is still some uncertainty how he can handle the responsibilities of a starter. He, too, will be depending on the defense in front of him, which ranked dead last in allowing 3.44 goals per game last season, granted with different personnel.
On the hot seat: Melrose has been out of the coaching game for a long time, and the view is much different in front of a television camera. The game has changed immensely since the mid-1990s, and the way a coach deals with young athletes is different, as well. At the same time, Melrose has to put all the personality shtick aside and focus on implementing a system that brings the group together quickly and efficiently. No one seems to want to play defense in the Southeast Division, and maybe the first team to commit itself to that goal will take hold of the race. It doesn't look on paper as if Tampa Bay has the makings of a defense-first team, but it might be something to think about for Melrose's long-term security.
Poised to blossom: Stamkos is breaking into an ideal situation. The team will not be looking for him to be the offensive leader – that still falls on Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. In addition, Stamkos has tremendous veterans to turn to including Roberts, Recchi and Ryan Malone. While it's uncertain just how much success the Lightning will enjoy, Stamkos shouldn't feel any added pressure than to just absorb, learn and contribute what he can.
Analysis and prediction: This team could either be the surprise of the division and grab at least a third seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, or it could struggle to defend and wind up anywhere from ninth to 13th place. My guess is somewhere in the middle, but unless the Lightning find a way to finish ahead of either Washington or Carolina, it's doubtful they will reach the playoffs.