The talk of the National Hockey league this offseason has been the Tampa Bay Lightning, and for good reason.
The Bolts have signed more well-known free agents than any other team in free agency, including their new head coach, Barry Melrose. However, just because you may recognize many of the players on their team, and ESPN’s former face of the NHL, don’t be quick to assume they will be front-runners in the Eastern Conference in 2009.
The Lightning never aided themselves where they need it the most.
The real problem is on the blue line. The Lightning return six defensemen from last season. Of them, only one was above zero in the plus/minus department. He is Mike Lundin, who had a +3 rating in 81 games played.
Overall the returning six are a combined minus-38, which averages to just over a minus-6 rating per player.
Here is a rundown of Tampa Bay’s returning blue-liners (other than Barry obviously):
Filip Kuba – 6’5″, 225 pounds, age 31
2007-2008: 75 GP – 6 G – 25 A – 31 Pts.
Mike Lundin – 6’2″, 188 pounds, age 23
2007-2008: 81 GP – 0 G – 6 A – 6 Pts.
Shane O’Brien – 6’3″, 224 pounds, age 24
2007-2008: 77 GP – 4 G – 17 A – 21 Pts. – 154 PIM
Alexandre Picard – 6’2″, 220 pounds, age 23
2007-2008: 24 GP – 3 G – 3 A – 6 Pts.
Paul Ranger – 6’3″, 208 pounds, age 23
2007-2008: 72 GP – 10 G – 21 A – 31 Pts.
Matt Smaby – 6’5″, 222 pounds, age 23
2007-2008: 14 GP – 0 G – 0 A – 0 Pts.
The additions to the staff don’t provide too much depth. The Lightning acquired Matthew Carle and Ty Wishart from San Jose in a trade that sent Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich to the Sharks. If anything, Tampa Bay lost more than in gained with the trade.
Wishart didn’t play in the NHL last season, and in fact has never touched his skates to a pond with seating of over 10,000 fans.
On the other hand, Carle did see significant ice time.
Matthew Carle – 6’0″, 205 pounds, age 23
2007-2008: 62 GP – 2 G – 13 A – 15 Pts. With the San Jose Sharks
He also has three years of experience of playing the the playoffs, which never hurts. Though, as was the trend from last year for Tampa Bay, Carle had a minus-8 rating.
Wishart has played three seasons for Prince George in the WHL. He has improved drastically in the last two seasons and is a good prospect for the Lightning to have in the organization.
The third defenseman the Lightning signed is Andrew Hutchinson. Hutchinson has spent time in the NHL, but did not do so last season. He played for the Carolina Hurricanes from 2005-2007, playing no more than 41 games in either season.
What all this ‘mumbo-jumbo’ means is that the Lightning will not be able to keep the puck out of their own zone.
As for keeping the puck out of their own net…now that is a different story.
The Bolts boast a trio of goaltenders, none of which were able to stop better than 90-percent of their shots faced last year.
Karri Ramo had the best save percentage of the three, but will likely be the third wheel of the group.
Tampa Bay signed free-agent Olaf Kolzig, long-time Washington Capital, to back up probable starter Mike Smith. Smith went 3-10 with the Lightning, posting a 2.79 Goals against average.
Kolzig has his moments, but as a long-time fan and follower of the Pittsburgh Penguins, I can say with confidence that he will crumble under any slight amount of pressure. Don’t be surprised to see him replaced by Ramo at some point in ’09.
The combination of a problematic blue line and unreliable goaltending means Tampa Bay will have to score a ton of goals to stay afloat. This is something that they are capable of.
For what the defensemen lack defensively, they make up for in the point department. No single player stands out on offense, but as a unit they are rather consistent.
As for the forwards, you rarely see a sportscenter ‘Top 10′ that fails to include Vincent Lecavalier or Martin St. Louis. The two have always been one of the best play-making duos in the NHL, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in 2009 barring injury.
The Lightning are a bit top heavy in point production. St. Louis’ mark of 83 points was second on the team to Lecavalier’s 92 last season, followed by Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen at 42.
The addition of Ryan Malone will add to the fire-power, especially on an already effective power play. The Lightning scored 19.3-percent of the time with the man advantage.
However, the forward position is one that is getting older and older in Tampa Bay. With the singings of Kolzig (age 38), Mark Recchi (age 40) and Gary Roberts (age 42), the Lightning’s forwards have an average age of approximately 30 years old.
I will honestly be surprised if any of these players are on the roster at the end of the season.
It would not be fair if I failed to note the signing of Radim Vrbata, who scored 27 goals and added 29 assists in Phoenix last season. Him plus Malone, along with St. Louis and Lecavalier will make the offense better.
All told, I believe the Lightning are a potential playoff team only because they play in the Southeast Division. It was a tight race last season, and any team could easily step up and win it in ’09. Washington is my favorite to win it, but Tampa Bay could give them a good run that would lead to another exciting finish to the season.
The Lightning will have to be the beneficiary of some good luck to do so. The small amount of quality depth defensively doesn’t provide much breathing room.
Nevertheless, as we saw in the Stanley Cup Finals, strong defense and puck possession are key factors in becoming successful. Tampa Bay has more work to do defensively. If they do make the playoffs, I wouldn’t expect any kind of run from them. However a playoff birth would be a huge success.
But what do I know? You tell me.