The Bottom Line
The Tampa Bay Lightning finished 43-33-6 this season with 92 points, eighth in the Eastern Conference and second in the Southeast Division. In 2003-2004, prior to the lockout, the club finished with 3 more wins but 14 more points in the standings. The Lightning's goal production this year actually improved by 7 goals, but their defense declined by a shocking 68 goals (that is not a typo) and the team actually scored 8 less goals than it allowed this season. The most important number though is 15, as in the 15 less playoff games the team won this season after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs 4 games to 1 by the Ottawa Senators.
What Went Wrong?
The Lightning's defense of their Stanley Cup was short circuited from the beginning by the new NHL CBA which voided the 2004-2005 years of existing contracts allowing goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to become an unrestricted free agent. General Manager Jay Feaster had done an admirable job locking up the Lightning's core players through 2005, but the results of the new CBA and a restrictive salary cap undid the best laid plans.
In Khabibulin's stead the Lightning were forced to go with the tandem of John Grahame and the venerable Sean Burke. The Lightning felt comfortable with Grahame after the ex-Bruins netminder went 18-9-1 with a .913 save percentage, but much of the progress made in Grahame's positional game evaporated during the lockout. Grahame finished the year 29-22-1 with a horrific .889 save percentage. Burke proved little better going 14-10-4 with a .895 save percentage, although he showed surprising resiliency in staying healthy for a majority of the year. Rookie netminders Brian Eklund and Gerald Coleman also made their NHL debuts in limited action. In all, the Lightning's goals against average ballooned by nearly a full goal on the season.
On defense, the Lightning did well to keep opposition shot totals low, but they struggled with the speed of opposing teams counterattacks allowing far too many odd man chances and breakaways. Veteran Darryl Sydor's game showed considerable decline while less than speedy mainstay Pavel Kubina struggled to adjust his game to the NHL's new rules despite posting a career high in points. In all, the team's lack of depth was deeply apparent after losing veterans Jassen Cullimore and Brad Lukowich as cap casualties. Cullimore's absence was particularly notable as his absence forced the Lightning to play offensive dynamo Dan Boyle in more even strength top line defensive situations allowing bigger forwards to wear him down as games drew on. This was exacerbated by Cory Sarich's failure to step up and become the shut down defenseman the club hopes he can become.
Boyle's increased duties also might have taken a toll on the Lightning's power play which was abyssmal throughout the season. The Lightning finished 23rd on the power play this year at 16.7%. Had the Lightning been merely competent on the power play, there's no doubt they would've had the best offensive season in team's history. Instead, Assistant Coach Craig Ramsey's reluctance to change from a failing three shooter high umbrella strategy on the power play proved a failure in leadership. The Lightning's power play was also deeply hurt by the loss of team captain Dave Andreychuk to forced retirement at midseason, although rookie Ryan Craig did pick up some of Andreychuk's slack in front of the net with the man advantage.
What Went Right
The Lightning somehow managed to absorb the loss of their second leading scorer Cory Stillman and a subpar year by Martin St. Louis and still managed to improve their goal output this season. Head Coach John Tortorella shortened his bench considerably this year giving his top two lines a much larger share of the ice time. Vincent Lecavalier responded with a career high in goals while Fredrik Modin posted the second 30 goal season of his career and Ruslan Fedotenko broke the 20 goal plateau for the first time in his career. Brad Richards obliterated his previous season high of 79 points with 91 points to top the team in scoring while Vaclav Prospal exceeded his previous career high set with Tampa the last time around by 1 point. The Lightning's checking lines had less success with diminished ice time, but there were promising debuts by rookies Ryan Craig and Evgeny Artyukhin and signs of life from winger Dimitry Afanasenkov late in the year.
On defense, the team's top pairing of Dan Boyle and rookie Paul Ranger did amazing work under difficult circumstances. Boyle matched his career high season of 53 points while shouldering increased responsibilities that he handled fairly well throughout the year. Indeed, Boyle was probably the team's MVP this season. And then there was 21 year old Paul Ranger, who at 21 was probably the Lightning's second best defenseman holding down 17 minutes a night and scoring 18 points during the regular season before exploding for a point a game as one of the few bright spots of the team's abbreviated playoff run. Gritty veteran Nolan Pratt also turned in another of the strong, quiet, competent seasons he has become known for.
What Happens Next?
Brad Richards is a restricted free agent this summer and Jay Feaster's first responsibilty will be to lock him up to a long, lucrative deal. Beyond that, John Grahame is an unrestricted free agent and probably won't be retained while Sean Burke has 1 year left on his deal. The Lightning will no doubt make finding a new starter a top priority, whether via free agency with players like Cristobal Huet or via trade for players like Evgeny Nabokov.
The team also has some important decisions to make at forward and on defense to free up salaries. Unfortunately, Darryl Sydor has 1 year left on his deal and an almost untradable $2.1M price tag. Expect the Lightning to let Pavel Kubina walk via unrestricted free agency and attempt to sign a replacement who can cope better with the new NHL's speed. In a perfect world that would be Zdeno Chara or Ed Jovanovski, both unrestricted free agents. Look for rookies Matt Smaby, Andy Rogers, Mike Egener and Vladimir Mihalik to battle for a job out of camp as well.
Up front, the Lightning will likely have to move one of their wingers, be it Vaclav Prospal, Fredrik Modin or Ruslan Fedotenko. Given his contract size and his terrible playoff performance, Modin might be the odd man out to be replaced on a scoring line by Dimitry Afanasenkov. On the checking lines, the team will probably continue to infuse youth and more speed into the lineup, possibly by the promotion of Nick Tarnasky.
The ball is in Jay Feaster's court now. True, he already has a Stanley Cup ring but this is the offseason that may make or break Feaster's legacy in Tampa Bay. Faced with a challenging and uncertain offseason Feaster must learn to embrace the change of the new NHL and fill the Lightning's pressing needs on defense and between the pipes. If he does, there is no reason to believe the Lightning can't challenge for a cup again next season with the core they have in place. But it will require Feaster to get outside his comfort zone into competitive high stakes free agency and in faster paced trade negotiations.
And yes, Craig Ramsey needs to go back to the chalk board on the power play this offseason.