It's a little over 3 hours until the puck drops on the 2006-2007 season. Looking around the internet, including this site, it seems the Lightning fan base has divided into two camps. One camp seems to believe the acquisition of Marc Denis will propel the Lightning back into the stratosphere of the Eastern Conference elite. The other camp seems far more pessimistic and tends to believe what much of the national hockey media is spouting about the Lightning falling from playoff contention this season. Both sides seem pretty dug in with their beliefs and both sides have shared a good amount vitriol with their counterparts on the other side. Both sides need to slow down.
I don't know. You don't either.
I suspect this is the nature of the beast in the new NHL where teams will be remaking at least 1/4 of their roster every offseason due to the relaxed free agency rules and the salary cap. It's impossible to tell how this year's version of the Tampa Bay Lightning will perform, and anyone who tells you they know one way or the other is dilluding themself. Team chemistry is a mysterious thing and, I would argue, not even John Tortorella has a complete idea when, if or how this team will gel with its new additions. With that in mind, here are some of the questions that will begin to be answered tonight in Atlanta:
1.) Will the big three step up and will the power play improve?
There's been a lot of talk about how the Lightning will replace Fredrik Modin's goal scoring and, for a very vocal portion of the Lightning fan base, Dimitry Afanasenkov is being set up as the sacrificial lamb should the team's scoring lines falter. In my view, it's time for Lightning fans to come to understand that Afanasenkov represents the type of player the Lightning will be plugging in annually around their three highly played scoring line stars, the generic semi-skilled winger who is probably good for around 15 goals and 40 points and makes less than $1M a season. A player who, at times, shows some more upside and, at others, is madeningly inconsistent. Some of these players in the future will be our young prospects like Marek Kvapil  who may turn out to be 20, 25 and maybe even 30 goal scorers but it's probably foolhardy to expect to replace Modin's production with Afanasenkov alone.
The key will not be Afanasenkov's production. Instead, it will be that the big three: Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis must step up their production. As Lightning fans have been constantly reminded, these three players now make over $20M combined, and 2006-2007 is the year they must live up to their pay grade. All three need to be at or near the Top-25 in the league in scoring this year for the team to be successful. From a goal scoring standpoint, that means that Vincent Lecavalier needs to have his first 40 goal season this year. Martin St. Louis needs to score at least 35 goals this season and probably needs to challenge for 40 in his own right. And, Brad Richards, who has never scored more than 26 goals in a season in his career, has to establish himself as a 30 goal scorer this season. Anything less from these three and the Lightning could be in trouble.
For the big three to get those numbers, the power play simply must improve. Through the preseason, the Lightning had one of the top-five power plays in the league so at least on this point there is something to point to optimistically. On the other hand, the team is still using the same perimeter oriented tactics they used last season to such poor results, so whether or not the team stays hot with the extra man remains to be seen.
2.) Was Ryan Craig's incredible rookie production for real?
There was a lot of buzz early in training camp about the Ryan Craig /Andreas Karlsson/Nikita Alexeev line after a couple of very strong scrimmage outings. Some are predicting breakout years for Alexeev and Karlsson, but it seems to me the line will live and die with Ryan Craig's production. Craig scored 15 goals in 48 games last season, which prorates to 26 goals in an 82 game season. The Lightning simply cannot afford for Craig to have any kind of sophomore slump. The former Brandon Wheat King is being counted on to step into most of the roles former captain Dave Andreychuk had with the team prior to his retirement. That means the Lightning desperately need Craig's power play presence in front of the net and a good 20-25 goals off his stick as well as solid penalty killing. If he can do that, the so-called "third scoring line" may be in good shape, even despite what I personally believe are two players in Alexeev and Karlsson who have extremely pedestrian, if not subpar, scoring upside.
3.) Will the 4th line play more than 8 minutes a night?
In the Lightning's cup season John Tortorella trusted enough in his 4th line to give them roughly a dozen minutes a night, but last season the 4th line was lucky to get more than four to eight minutes a night. That, in my view, contributed to overuse of the scoring lines that may have worn out the team's top offensive players once they got into the playoffs against Ottawa. In the preseason, John Tortorella remained extremely sparing with the minutes he gave to 4th liners like Tim Taylor and Nick Tarnasky ? The 4th line must, in my opinion, step up and earn Tortorella's trust by proving they can provide a solid forecheck and a dependable defensive presence on the backcheck to take some of the ice time burden off the top lines.
4.) How will the defense gel?
Other than the need for the big three to step up, this might be the biggest question that needs to be answered. The team let go of Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor this offseason both of whom, like them or hate them, played considerable minutes for the team last year. Together, they comprised the team's second pairing a year ago. The Lightning brought in a proven minutes eater in Filip Kuba but he alone cannot make up for the loss of an entire pairing. The team has to count on younger defensemen like Cory Sarich or Doug Janik to step up along with Kuba to plug the hole while also hoping Luke Richardson has enough left in the tank to provide veteran leadership to the entire defensive corps. With so many moving parts and so many youthful defensemen like Paul Ranger  (the team simply cannot afford for Ranger to have a sophomore slump on the top pair with Dan Boyle) and Janik, the situation on the blueline is incredibly fluid and may not be fully resolved until the trading deadline this season.
5. How much better is the team's goaltending?
I don't think there's any doubt Marc Denis is capable of winning 30 games for the Lightning. The question may be whether he's capable stealing games when the Lightning aren't at their best and what his learning curve will be on a potential Lightning playoff run. Moreover, the team has a huge question mark in backup goaltender Johan Holmqvist  who has been far from steady in the preseason. Holmqvist couldn't make it in the NHL on his first try in North America and it remains to be seen how much he really improved playing back home in Sweden. As a whole, Denis/Holmqvist is a much steadier and dependable tandem than Grahame/Burke was, but that is based almost completely on Denis' reputation as a workhorse. If Denis gets hurt, the Lightning may be in huge trouble.
Altogether those are five critical points which none of us know the answers to. That's why I'm eager to see what this year's Lightning look like starting tonight and you should be too.