Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pool Outlook for Tampa Bay

It was going to be anyone's guess how the ownership turmoil and trade rumours surrounding the Lightning was going to affect the team leading up to the regular season and missing the playoffs was probably a pretty fair (and likely popular) guess. That isn't to say that the Bolts were not going to have a bright spot or two, since they had two highly touted prospects on their team on opening night, giving their fans something to keep tabs on. Sometimes, when a team is trying to find its identity, those small things to look towards is all some need to have a good time in the season.

The early start with coach Barry Melrose didn't seem to work for Steven Stamkos in the 2009 season, but when the coach was let go and the kid was allowed to find his own game, it didn't take long before he found that confidence that he lost and his natural ability to put the puck in the net soon followed. Stamkos amazed the NHL in 2010 with a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy this season after scoring 51 goals, tied with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Stamkos, the 1st pick overall in 2008, was absolutely lights out, unfortunately, it was on a team that let in more goals than he could score. Stamkos finished the season with 95 points in all 82 games this season for the Lightning, ranking him 7th in pool scoring and it will likely put him in the top box for the Bolts in next year's Sheet pool.

Stamkos wasn't the only forward that had a pretty good season, just ask Martin St. Louis, as he finished just behind Stamkos in team/league/pool scoring with 94 points (29 goals & 65 assists) in all 82 games as well. I think St. Louis had the lead for the better part of the season, only to be surpassed in the last few games, as Stamkos chased down the Richard Trophy. Vincent Lecavalier, on the other hand, had a fairly mediocre season by his standards, only picking up 70 points (24 goals & 46 assists) in 82 games, which will likely fuel some more speculation about his future (and his 10 remaining contract years) this Summer. Ryan Malone had a pretty good year (47 points in 69 games) when he was healthy, Steve Downie broke out (46 points in 79 games) playing with Stamkos a fair bit, Alex Tanguay suffered (37 points in 80 games) and there was very little past that. Depth up front was a key issue for the Bolts in 2010, which will have to be rectified going forward.

On defense, there was a real lacklustre effort from the collective, especially on the offensive side of the ledger. I would say that there was some pretty reasonable expectations set aside for the Lightning and their defense, especially after signing Kurtis Foster, Matt Walker and Mattias Ohlund during the Free Agent Frenzy in July, also adding bluechip prospect Victor Hedman to the mix. I remember there being talk of having too many NHL-ready defenders that they would have a hard time fitting Hedman into the fold, but that never seemed to be the case. Foster led all Lightning defensemen in points with only 42 in 71 games, while Hedman was the next best with 20 points in 74 games. It could easily be suggested that chemistry on the blueline was the biggest issue, likely leading to more breakdowns in their own end and not scoring in the other end.

Goaltending wasn't supposed to be a big problem for the Lightning after they made the move to pick up Mike Smith from the Dallas Stars and then signing Antero Niittymaki as a free agent in the off-season. The crease was thought to be a pretty good place to start from for the Lightning, but more often than not, especially in the early parts of the season, it was pretty shaky, but the less-than-solid defense surely didn't help their confidence at all. Niittymaki did finish the season as the better goalie with 21 wins and 45 pool points under his belt, while Smith finished with 13 wins and 30 points. Both were pretty low numbers, but that's why they were not in the playoffs and getting the Outlook done now. I would imagine with a little bit more work together with the defense, the goaltending will be a little more solid going forward.

2011 Season Outlook
It's hard to start imagining what the 2011 season is going to look like right now for the Lightning, because they are currently without a General Manager and Head Coach, but you have to know that the search is under way for the former, because they will definitely need a manager in place before the June Entry Draft. Only then will we get a good idea of what the Lightning will be looking to do at the Draft, although piecing the puzzle together, we might be able to second guess the unnamed future GM.

Steven StamkosVictor HedmanMike Smith
Martin St. LouisAndrej Meszaros
Vincent LecavalierMattias Ohlund
Ryan MaloneMatt Walker
Todd Fedoruk

Anybody who takes on this new job will have a decent foundation to start from, which includes the signed players above and a few really good prospects. The signed and ready-to-go players listed above come in at $37.4 million and that's only 10 names up above. It will be a fair amount of work to fill up the remainder of that roster, but it's definitely a job I would love to do.

I suppose when it comes to free agency this Summer, the Lightning will have a good chance to look after some of their key restricted free agents first of all. Heading up that list is Steve Downie, who likely earned himself a pretty sweet raise after showing that he can play with some of the team's top players and had a breakout appearance with the Lightning. The Lightning will also give some early looks to Teddy Purcell, Mike Lundin and Nate Thompson.

Heading to unrestricted free agency this Summer will be Antero Niittymaki, Kurtis Foster, Alex Tanguay and Brandon Bochenski, as the bigger names that played with the club in 2010. With some good young talent coming up, it would be hard to justify re-signing a few of these guys, although Niittymaki did give the team some good minutes and Foster led all defensemen in scoring on the team. I wouldn't be surprised if none of the four returned, just to open up more spots for youth.

Speaking of said youth, the Lightning have done well to stock themselves up with good talent, but the question will be whether or not they will bring them in a little early as part of a building process or sit and be patient with them and bring in more free agents to fill the gaps. Up front, the Lightning have Carter Ashton coming up the ranks. Ashton was the team's second 1st round pick of 2009 and he's supposed to have good size and reasonable hands to match. He's listed as the team's top prospect in the Hockey News' Future Watch. Richard Panik, Alex Hutchings and Dana Tyrell are all 20 & under prospects for the forward ranks. I'm keen to see how they work out. On the blueline, Ty Wishart has been in the system since the Dan Boyle trade with San Jose, but seems to still be working out some kinks in his defensive game. In goal, the Lightning could have Karri Ramo, Dustin Tokarski or Jaroslav Janus working a back-up role next season, all of which are seemingly capable solutions to the opening that Niittymaki may leave behind.

The Lightning also hold the 6th overall pick in this Summer's Entry Draft, which should work out very nicely for them. I would imagine that they would just go after the best available prospect, that is not a goaltender, just to try and fill in some more gaps. Another top end pick is definitely a luxury these days.

What I said at this time last year: "The Lightning have plenty of firepower on their team already, which is totally obvious to any onlooker at the moment. You can go ahead and take St. Louis and Lecavalier without much fear or regret later on in the season, but then it gets awfully sketchy. The team doesn't have a lot of depth for winning games, which really takes away from their goaltending fantasy-wise. After watching Stamkos pick up his game in the back half of the season and how well he has played at the World Championships for Canada, he does have a lot more potential for more points next season. Remain skeptical of the Lightning's abilities in 2010 and try not to bank on them for a winning season."

Well, I'm pretty sure I nailed last year's statement right on the head. Lecavalier & St. Louis were pretty safe picks, Stamkos did use a lot of his potential for more points this past season, lack of depth hurt the team overall and didn't have a winning season. Ka-pow! I especially like the depth for a lack of a winning season... even with a Summer of transactions between then and now, they couldn't solve that problem.

For 2011... The Lightning have even more to do in terms of filling gaps than they did in 2010, which makes everything a lot harder to predict. New management and coaching will dictate what will happen, so it's going to be tough to do before then. If I was heading into Tampa as the next GM, I would be looking for an offensively-minded coach, so the Bolts could get into some track meets with division rivals like Washington and Carolina. Next, I would make sure that the offensive prospects in the Lightning system have it in their minds that they are going to get a long look at camp this year. Then, going to the Draft, I would look for pure offense, possibly some good two-way players. Get to camp, mash it all together and see if we could build an exciting brand of hockey. That's what I'd do... now where do I send my resume?

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