Steve Yzerman is bringing back a proven formula to the Tampa Bay Lightning: defense and patience.
The opportunity for Tampa Bay to build upon its trip to the Eastern Conference Finals two seasons ago has disappeared, well, like a flash of lightning.
Entering their 21st season, the Bolts are all but scrapping their identity of being one of the league’s most dynamic offenses as numbers reflect the desperate need for change. In the two seasons since making the postseason, Tampa Bay surrendered more goals than it could produce — an average of three per game.
Yzerman knows firsthand about the importance of protecting one’s end as well as integrating talent slowly. It is a model that has resulted in the Detroit Red Wings — the squad he captained for 20 years — making 22 straight postseason appearances, earning six trips to the Stanley Cup finals and winning four championships since 1990.
Jon Cooper, promoted to head coach last season after back-to-back efforts in which his American Hockey League squad advanced to the Calder Cup Finals, continues to instill a team-first, defensive mentality. During his tenure in the minors, Cooper’s most successful teams not only turned a significant goal differential, but ranked among the top 10 in goals-against.
If the preseason is any indication, Cooper’s re-molding appears to be taking shape. Tampa Bay finished the preseason with a 5-2-0 record. All but two skaters on the 23-man roster contributed points. And above all, the team finished with a plus-2 goal differential. The numbers may be small and not count for anything, but it suggests Tampa Bay’s players are buying in.
The surprising omission of offensive talents Brett Connolly and Jonathan Drouin from the team’s roster is also indicative of Tampa Bay’s desire to stress defense first. Connolly, who drew positive reviews from Cooper before being sent to Syracuse of the AHL, is likely to be an in-season call-up. Drouin will return to Halifax for another year of seasoning in juniors.
Seeing frequent barn burners at the Tampa Bay Times Forum may become rare, but if Yzerman’s plans continue to unfold as they are, wins will not.
Stamkos and St. Louis remain Tampa Bay’s most valuable offensive assets, but a desire to have both contribute a little more in their own end could lead to a slight drop in production. Additionally, the pair could be put on separate lines. It would not be surprising to see St. Louis split his time between Stamkos and newcomer Valtteri Filppula, and such a move could also help increase the productivity of Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell.
Even deeper on the depth chart is the dynamic trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik. The forwards played together in Syracuse last season and finished with a combined for 72 goals for the Crunch. Their chemistry showed during preseason action as the trio took care of all the scoring in Tampa Bay’s 3-2 overtime victory against the Florida Panthers on Sept. 26.
Tampa Bay will carry eight defenseman to start the season, including rookies Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr.
Given their inseparability during the preseason, Hedman and Salo may be the only set pairing at this point. Brewer and Carle, who led the Bolts in ice time in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively, round out the top four. Late-season call-up Radko Gudas played most of the preseason alongside Carle and is a likely candidate to see more ice time.
Keith Aulie and Barberio, who boast more pro experience than Sustr, will battle for the sixth spot, but there are sure to be nights where the Bolts will want the 6-foot-8 Czech’s body along the blue line.
Ben Bishop emerged from the preseason with slightly better numbers than teammate Anders Lindback, but it was not enough for him to claim the starting role outright. The Bolts are still expected to platoon their young, inexperienced netminders, adjusting for rest and streaks as needed.
Mattias Ohlund, who has not played since 2011 due to a serious knee injury, remains on long-term injured reserve in order to keep the Bolts under the cap. But it is worth keeping an eye on the defenseman solely for his financial situation given the fact he is owed a little less than $8 million over the next three seasons. If the defenseman retires — a decision Tampa Bay is leaving up to Ohlund — they’ll not only have a little more flexibility under the cap, but the cash to make a move to fill a need.
The league will shut down from Feb. 9-25 when a number of NHL players will take part in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Bolts who are potential candidates to play for their national teams include: Valtteri Filppula (Finland), Radko Gudas (Czech Republic), Victor Hedman (Sweden), Ondrej Palat (Czech Republic), Richard Panik (Slovakia), Martin St. Louis (Canada), Sami Salo (Finland) and Steven Stamkos (Canada).
Starting this season, Tampa Bay will be part of the Atlantic division, comprised of teams from the former Northeast Division (Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto), Detroit and intra-state rival Florida. The Lightning play 30 game against division rivals, 24 against Metropolitan Division teams and 28 against the Western Conference.
Tampa Bay has struggled against Northeast Division teams over the past three seasons, compiling a 23-28-4 record in that span. Even during the season in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, the Lightning were just 11-7-2 — good, but not outright dominant.
The Yzerman-Red Wings connection could spark a rivalry between the teams and turn those contests into more competitive battles than expected.
Though Tampa Bay did not face any Western teams due to last season’s lockout, the Lightning posted a respectable 25-20-9 record against out-of-conference foes in the three seasons prior. If the Bolts cannot make inroads in their own conference, strong efforts against the West could help them keep pace in the standings.
— Best case scenario: Fourth place, Atlantic Division — Cooper’s defensive corps jells immediately and either Bishop or Lindback emerge as a No. 1. A tighter defense makes it more difficult for opponents to keep pace with Stamkos and St. Louis. Palat, Johnson and Panik make a smooth transition from the AHL and NHL, giving the Bolts yet another formidable scoring line. Tampa Bay slides into a playoff spot.
— Worst case scenario: Seventh place, Atlantic Division — The inexperience of Bishop and Lindback hamper Tampa Bay’s ability to compete in a much tougher division. Stamkos and St. Louis continue to shoulder the offensive load as they have been, while others fail to pull their weight. Tampa Bay’s youngsters who have proven themselves at the AHL level struggle in their jump to the NHL.