Tampa Bay Lightning 2008-2009 Season Wrap-Up

I hope some lessons were learned this season in the OK Hockey hierarchy. After spending the entire summer pointing the finger at the previous coach, GM, and scouts and slinging money around the free agent market like three drunken sailors on shore leave, I hope Oren Koules, Len Barrie, and Brian Lawton learned it takes more than flash to build an elite organization. Defense and coaching, for instance, are two very important components to any hockey team that OK Hockey neglected to adequately address heading into the season. When the club traded Filip Kuba to Ottawa for Andrej Meszaros, thereby making Paul Ranger the grizzled veteran of their d-corps, even Stevie Wonder could see trouble on the horizon for the Lightning. Lawton and Company’s reticence to address the obvious deficiency was puzzling, and turned out to be one of the ultimate downfalls of the season. And, of course, there was the unmitigated disaster of naming Barry Melrose the team’s Head Coach. Melrose could barely coach his way out a wet paper sack 13 years ago before he became a talking head on ESPN. What on earth possessed Oren Koules to believe his buddy had become Scotty Bowman in over a decade of inactivity, I’ll never know.

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The coaching, I believe, has been addressed. I don’t have a lot of faith in GM Brian Lawton and I’m still suspicious of the amount of influence part-owner Len Barrie wields over hockey operations. However, I have faith in Rick Tocchet. Tocchet reinstilled a sense of accountability and work ethic that was completely absent with the laissez-faire coaching style of Melrose. He’s a stripped down, bare bones, meat and potatoes, honest hockey coach. He’s a straight shooter without an ulterior agenda; John Tortorella without the stiffling ego that sucks the oxygen out of any room. He might be the perfect fit for Tampa Bay, which is a sports market that likes honest, hard-working, unflamboyant coaches. Aiding Tocchet was the return of assistant Mike Sullivan, who gave the Lightning an X’s and O’s backbone that didn’t seem to exist in Melrose’s vacuum of a system. Now that John Tortorella has joined the New York Rangers, he’s openly talked about wanting to bring Sullivan north. Hopefully the Lightning can find a way to keep Sullivan around.

Defense will be another issue. The club’s problems were exacerbated by season ending injuries to Ranger and Meszaros, but they won’t be solved simply by the return of those two rearguards. The team moved Shane O’Brien after a single game to Vancouver for Lukas Krajicek, but Krajicek is soft, and really doesn’t seem to fit above the bottom pair. The team then signed Marek Malik, but Malik is nothing more than a glorified traffic cone at this point in his career. Mike Lundin was banished to the minors after 25 games because his style doesn’t mesh as well with Tocchet’s as it did with Tortorella’s. It remains to be seen if Lundin will get the opportunity to make a comeback with the club. The Matt Carle experiment was a complete failure and the player he was traded for, Steve Eminger, was dealt for what amounts to a bag of pucks, despite showing promise, because he might be able to command a fair amount of money as a restricted free agent this offseason. Of course, if you had to go back to the one point in time where the Lightning’s blueline started to collapse, you’d have to return to the trade of Dan Boyle. When you consider that the combined cap hit of Radim Vrbata, Gary Roberts, and Marek Malik came in at about $6M, and you consider that Boyle is making $6.67M this season, you realize how unnecessary Boyle’s trade was. Would every single Lightning fan in the world trade Vrbata, Roberts, Malik, and about $700K for Dan Boyle? You betcha.

There is some help on the way, though. Matt Smaby, who seemed like an afterthought at the start of the year, turned a midseason callup to a spot as the Lightning’s #4 or #5 d-man next season by bringing a new confidence and his trademark punishing style to the big show. Smaby was joined at the deadline by Matt Lashoff in the Mark Recchi deal as another bright young defender who the Lightning can count on making their top-six next season. Lashoff’s physical gifts are the equal of Ranger and Meszaros, and the development of his physical approach to the game and his professionalism could very well yield a 30-40 point two-way defenseman. Ranger, Meszaros, and Lashoff give the Lightning a lot of mobility on their backline and Smaby brings some physicality. None of them have much experience, though. That’s why it’s imperative for the Lightning to acquire one or two veteran defensemen in the offseason. The method of acquiring that defenseman may be the key, though. I don’t trust Brian Lawton yet, especially considering that NHL defensemen cost an arm and a leg to acquire via a trade. The Lightning might be tempted to forego acquiring a veteran defenseman now that they’ve gotte the #2 overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, which seems likely to yield stud defenseman prospect Victor Hedman. However, finding a veteran mentor for so many young defensemen should be even more of a priority if a gem like Hedman finds his way into the fold. Adding Hedman into the mix, in my mind, likely spells the end of Lukas Krajicek’s stay in Tampa Bay. At the number seven spot, the Lightning will have to see if Cory Murphy will return to the team at a reasonable price point, or if they want to go with a prospect like Ty Wishart or Vladimir Mihalik.

Up front the Lightning suffered deeply from the lack of anything resembling a system early in the season, as well as the slow early start of top pick Steven Stamkos, who turned out to not quite be physically mature enough to compete along the wall at the NHL level. Injuries to winger Ryan Malone and the complete failure of free agent signing Radim Vrbata also added to the Lightning’s early season offensive futility. Stamkos gained 9 pounds of muscle by training hard over the course of the season, and Malone finally returned from injury and showed the scoring touch in close he was given a huge contract for over the summer. That coupled with the resugence of veteran Martin St. Louis helped the Lightning show a lot of flashes offensively in the second half. However, Vincent Lecavalier struggled with injuries and consistency while Vaclav Prospal struggled with his usual even season jinx.

Here’s the good news: if they decide to do so, the Lightning have five of their top-six forwards locked in, and the inertia of Stamkos and Malone’s natural development should mean the Lightning will have an explosive offense next season. Brian Lawton doesn’t need to lift a finger to make it happen. Stamkos’ late season tear sets up for a 2009-2010 season where 40 goals doesn’t seem impossible. Stamkos may very well be the best pure finisher ever to wear a Lightning jersey and, in my opinion, his shot was the best of any 18 year old to enter the league since Ilya Kovalchuk. When you consider the large majority of his 23 goals came in the final 25 games of the season, you can begin to project the kind of monster goal scoring seasons this guy is going to have in the coming years. And he only had about 190 shots this season. Can you imagine what will happen if the Lightning lay the challenge at Stamkos’ feet to get, say, 300-350 shots on goal next season? The beneficiary of that kind of shot total won’t just be Stamkos, either, as it will lead to many rebounds for uber-talented garbageman Ryan Malone. Malone playing on a line with two shooters like Stamkos and St. Louis is a perfect spot for a guy who makes his living in close off of loose pucks. He got to 26 goals despite an early season injury and breaking his hand late in the year. 35 goals doesn’t seem out of the question with a full season on a line with Stamkos and St. Louis. Bear in mind also that Stamkos will have the entire offseason to get bigger and stronger, and will be playing next season a full year in a stable Rick Tocchet system, with good linemates, with a defense that should be better at moving the puck up and out of their zone efficiently, and with the confidence of knowing he can score and score big at the NHL level. Watch out.

And, if Stamkos does become a 40 goal capable scorer next season, it creates a horrible dilemma for opposing teams. Do you dare take attention off of the line of former Richard Trophy winner Vincent Lecavalier to try to stop Stamkos, who might have even better hands? Lecavalier should actually be healthy and in better shape next season, and if Stamkos can distract some attention from #4, he too may have a 40 goal season coming to him. If that happens, it’s probably going to lead to another odd season up-tick for Vaclav Prospal, who went from 33 goals and 71 points a year ago to 19 goals and 45 points this season. The question then will be who the third member of the line will be. Ideally the Lightning would acquire a sniper to go on this line, possibly via free agency. I wouldn’t be shocked at all, for instance, if Mark Recchi returned to Tampa Bay in the offseason. They could conceivably also choose to bring Radim Vrbata back, although that seems somewhat unlikely. The best bet may be the promotion of spark plug and recurring suspension addict Steve Downie to his first full season in the NHL. Downie has very good playmaking ability and an underrated shot. With a good offseason of training to get bigger and stronger, he should get even better along the wall. He’ll definitely be with the Lightning next season. The question is whether Lawton really has the guts to put a prospect right onto Vincent Lecavalier’s line?

Whatever they do on Lecavalier’s line, the team should have plenty of offensive firepower on the power play between Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Stamkos with Malone standing in front. Lashoff showed he could distribute the puck from the point as did Cory Murphy, if he is brought back. With those kind of pieces, there’s no reason why the Lightning shouldn’t have one of the 10-12 best power plays in the league next season. Penalty killing is another story. It was disasterous during the second half of the season. Adding Ranger and Meszaros’ mobility back into the mix should help, as should a healthy Mike Smith, but the blueliners still have so much to learn about effective penalty killing at the NHL level.

Of course, all of this assumes Vincent Lecavalier will be back in a Lightning jersey next season. I cannot stress how incredibly short-sighted and stupid it would be for OK Hockey to deal off Lecavalier at the trough of his value, thereby making him the third of the Fantastick Four to be dealt off at their behest. Such a move would clearly signal that OK Hockey is not really interested in putting a winning product on the ice in the short term.

The lower lines of the Lightning are far more of a mess, and I suspect that in terms of raw attrition this is where Brian Lawton will make his most moves. Veteran Jeff Halpern was ineffective after returning from a knee injury at mid season and didn’t really seem to get back to anything resembling himself until the last week or so of the season. His contract is somewhat affordable and I expect to see him back, but 7 goals and 16 points in 52 games is not the kind of production the Lightning need from their third line center. Put simply, he’s got to be better next season. Adam Hall is the only other veteran checking liner I think will definitely be back next season. His contract is dirt cheap and he’s a good penalty killer who is a solid forechecker. He’s a perfect fourth line soldier. I also think the team would like to retain Matt Pettinger, whose speed is a nice assett on the lower lines. But, I think his current $1.1M price point is too steep. I could imagine Pettinger needing to take a slight paycut in order to stick around.

Beyond that, it’s hard hats and sledge hammers for the Lightning. I think the Evgeny Artyukhin experiment is probably over. If there was a Western Conference team willing to part with a 2nd round pick for R2, I personally would have to move him. In December, he showed flashes of becoming a dominant player, but that was probably fool’s gold. Artyukhin just isn’t a hockey player. Is he a great specemin? Sure. But, he’s not a hockey player. Ryan Craig has never really come back from the injuries that beset him in his second season in Tampa Bay, and his lack of speed is a liability. I suspect he’s also on the way out. That means the Lightning may have 7 lower line forward spots and only 2 or 3 guys inked into them at the start of the offseason. If Paul Szczechura shows up to camp in shape, I’d be inclined to add him to the team. His intelligence and energy was infectious when he was on this season. The problem over the past two years has been that Szczechura is somewhat injury prone. He needs to train harder to make sure he stays healthy. Beyond that, expect one or two free agent signings and some open competition in camp amongst the team’s young forwards. Radek Smolenak brings a lot of grit and a sniper’s quick release, but he’s not terribly fleet of foot. Blair Jones is also not a speed merchant, but he’s capable of looking like Superman on the forecheck. Of course, then again, he also then tends to revert to looking like Lois Lane in the very next contest, and his defensive game still needs refinement. Martins Karsums was ineffective down the stretch for the Lightning, but he has speed and some grit and will be in the mix. Justin Keller was great in the second half of the season for the Admirals, but he’s a small, mediocre skater who isn’t naturally suited for lower line duty. Juraj Simek does have speed, but he is also small and doesn’t seem suited for lower line duty. Johan Harju might have been in an ideal spot to make the team had he not bolted to the KHL, so Dana Tyrell may be the only fresh addition capable of making a run for a job and he is currently rehabbing after knee surgery.

In goal, the Lightning seem solid, but only if Mike Smith’s recovery from post-concussion problems is the last we ever have to hear of them. Smitty showed in his 41 decisions this season that he is a very capable NHL starting goaltender, and his puck handling makes him a lethal weapon for the Lightning on the penalty kill. Smith should be backed up by Karri Ramo, who recovered from a terrible first half of the season with Norfolk to redeem himself down the stretch with Tampa Bay. Ramo needs to work on maintaining his composure and minding his positional fundamntals as well as his decision-making when handling the puck. But, he turns 23 in July and he’s already shown himself as being capable of giving the club quality starts. His athleticism is also unquestionable. The team will have to decide if it wants to keep veteran AHLer Mike McKenna as the #3 in the organization. My guess is that with Riku Helenius playing well in Norfolk after Ramo’s recall and junior phenomenon Dustin Tokarski entering his rookie season of professional hockey, the team may forego retaining McKenna’s services.

Keys to Next Season:

1.) A healthy Mike Smith. Nothing else matters unless Smitty is healthy.

2.) Don’t trade Vincent Lecavalier.

3.) The acquisition of at least one veteran d-man capable of playing 18-20 minutes in the top-four.

4.) Don’t trade Vincent Lecavalier.

5.) The natural development of the team’s young players, especially Steven Stamkos and the team’s young defensemen.

6.) Don’t trade Vincent Lecavalier.

7.) The revamping of the lower lines. More speed and a better forecheck is a necessity.

8.) Don’t trade Vincent Lecavalier.

9.) Finding another winger for Vincent Lecavalier. Good players have to play with other good players in order to be great.

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excellent

Exceptional commentary Pete.

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