The Tampa Bay Lightning enter training camp seeking a new identity.
In June, the Lightning cut ties with Vincent Lecavalier, their team captain and long-time offensive centerpiece. While the move was done for financial reasons, it is hard to overlook the era it ends — one in which Tampa Bay iced a prolific scoring machine, often at the expense of protecting its own end.
Defense is the new identity Jon Cooper, who took over as head coach in March, will be working to establish when camp opens Wednesday.
For two years in a row, the Lightning have been on the negative side of goal differential, allowing at least three goals a game. The last season in which the Lightning kept that number below three, they made the postseason and advanced to the Conference Finals.
“It’s goals against. Last year we were able to score, but we weren’t able to keep them out of our net,” said Assistant GM Pat Verbeek. “It starts from the goal all the way out, to our defensemen, to our forwards. We have to play better defensively as a five-man unit. That was something that wasn’t good enough last year and we’re going to have to improve on it if we’re going to make the playoffs.”
Cooper’s defensive game plan has produced results. When he led the Norfolk Admirals to a Calder Cup title in 2011-12, Cooper’s squad ranked third in goals against during the regular season. The Syracuse Crunch, Tampa Bay’s American Hockey League affiliate which lost in the Calder Cup finals last season, ranked among the top 10 in defense.
Even with the focus turning to its own end, Tampa Bay will still need Steven Stamkos and reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis to produce as usual. But both could additional defensive responsibilities added to their roles.
If anyone knows firsthand about the benefits of sacrificing a little offense for defense, it is Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.
“[Former Detroit Red Wings coach] Scottie Bowman wanted [Yzerman] to be able to change,” Verbeek said. “He made the adjustments, changed and checked and the next thing you know, he’s winning Stanley Cups all over the place.
“There’s no secret that your best players, they have to score, but they also have to play defense, too, at least have to be decent at it. They don’t have to be great at it, but they have to be decent at it.”
Vincent Lecavalier, C; (Amnesty buyout; Signed with Philadelphia); Benoit Pouliot, LW (Signed with New York Rangers); J.T. Wyman, RW (Signed with Colorado); Brendan Mikkelson, D (Signed with Pittsburgh). Newcomer
Valtteri Filppula, C – A role player in the Detroit organization for eight seasons, Filppula cashed in one year removed from a career campaign that saw him record 23 goals and 43 assists. But aside from that 2011-12 effort, he’s never netted more than 20 goals or 30 assists in a full season. There’s concern Tampa Bay may have overpaid (5 years, $25 million) for a player who finished with just 17 points in last year’s lockout-shortened season. The Finn will fill the second-line center spot left open by the departure of Lecavalier, but whether Filppula can match the on-ice output remains to be seen. Rookies
Jonathan Drouin, W – The third overall pick in the 2013 draft, Drouin will see at least some NHL action before the Bolts have to make a decision on whether the winger needs one more year in juniors. Drouin appeared in two rookie tournament games for Tampa Bay in Coral Springs, Fla., showing flashes of his stickhandling and playmaking ability, but did not overwhelm as some expected him to. The playmaker will likely get the chance to skate alongside Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis at training camp, which could make his somewhat unimpressive showing moot. But it is also worth noting the Bolts have adopted a no-rush approach with top talent, especially after watching 2010 first-rounder Brett Connolly struggle in his rookie season. Seeing how Drouin matches up against men will be the first indicator as to how NHL-ready the 18-year-old actually is.
Nikita Kucherov, RW – The biggest surprise out of Tampa Bay’s rookie tournament may have been Kucherov, who dominated with three goals and four assists. A second-round pick in 2011, Kucherov only transitioned to the North American game last year, racking up 29 goals and 34 assists in 33 games with Quebec and Rouyn-Noranda of the Quebec Major Junior League. The 20-year-old is a long-shot to make the Lightning’s opening night roster. Tampa Bay would probably like to see what he can do in a full season at the junior level, but a good camp may fast track him to the American Hockey League.
Vladislav Namestnikov, C – The pivot styles his game after Pavel Datsyuk, a two-way player with scoring ability. Namestnikov’s numbers in his first pro season were average — seven goals and 14 assists in 44 games with Syracuse. The Lightning have an opening for a fourth-line center, though, and Namestnikov’s willingness to protect his own end could play to an advantage over AHL scoring machine Tyler Johnson or veteran Tom Pyatt. Burning questions Will someone emerge as Tampa Bay’s No. 1 goaltender?
Goaltending always seems problematic for the Lightning. The current plan has Tampa Bay platooning 26-year-old Ben Bishop and 25-year-old Anders Lindback. The two have the size, skill and potential to be starters, but lack experience. Tampa Bay risks forcing Bishop and Lindback into high-pressure situations they may not be ready for. But having veterans (Dwayne Roloson, Mathieu Garon) to fall back on in recent years has not worked out for the Bolts, either. By creating a tandem with a combined 107 games of NHL action, Tampa Bay has brought youthful enthusiasm and competitiveness to its crease. That should make for an interesting traning camp and could have a positive impact well into the season. How quickly can the Bolts blueline bond?
Regardless of who ends up spending time in net for the Lightning, they need a stronger effort in front. After Tampa Bay finished the 2011-12 season last in the NHL in goals against, Yzerman revamped the defense through free agency. The Bolts still allowed an average of 3.06 goals per game, wiping out the efforts of their prolific offense. Matt Carle and Victor Hedman are under contract for at least the next three seasons, while Eric Brewer and youngster Radko Gudas are inked for the next two. With that kind of commitment, the Lightning have little choice but to work with the defense it has. The talent is there, but chemistry has been slow to develop. Having a full camp and preseason to work together should benefit the defensive corps. Is Brett Connolly NHL-ready?
Tampa Bay realized it rushed Connolly after a below-average rookie season in 2011-12. Rather than continue developing him at the NHL level, the Bolts let the highly touted winger work on his game, undistracted, with Syracuse last season. Connolly responded with 31 goals, 63 points and a plus-19 rating in 71 games. Those are the kind of numbers Tampa Bay wants to see out of its top pick in 2010. The question is whether one season of priming is all Connolly needed to get his game in order. If it is enough, Connolly could earn a spot on the second or third line and give Tampa Bay the additional scoring depth it has lacked.