Lightning's season hinges on goaltending
Steve Yzerman is once again committed to defense.
Only days after Yzerman's Tampa Bay Lightning missed the postseason, the GM overhauled his team's roster, trading for a promising young goaltender and signing a slew of free-agent defensemen.
Paced by Steven Stamkos' 97 points and league-leading 60 goals last season, the Lightning also fielded four other 20-goal, 40-point players. But they finished last in the NHL with a 3.39 goals-against average. If last season proved anything, offense means little to a team if it can't protect its own end.
It's a lesson all too familiar to Yzerman. A prolific goal scorer early in his playing career, the former Detroit Red Wings captain experienced little playoff success in his first 10 seasons. Detroit rarely advanced past the first round — if it even made the playoffs at all.
Scotty Bowman took over as coach in 1993, transforming Yzerman into one of the game's premier two-way pivots and the Red Wings into an annual Stanley Cup contender. In the three seasons Yzerman captained a Cup winner, Detroit never allowed more than 200 goals in a season.
With that target in mind, Yzerman wasted little time implementing a defensive strategy.
Four days after the Stanley Cup final, Tampa Bay acquired 24-year-old netminder Anders Lindback. On July 1, the Bolts bolstered their blueline with veterans Sami Salo and Matt Carle, and added depth with the signing of Matt Taormina.
Tampa Bay's success in this lockout-shortened season hinges on its goaltending.
Understudy to two-time Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne in Nashville, Lindback enters with just 38 games of NHL experience. Over the previous two seasons, he's posted a respectable .914 save percentage and 2.53 goals-against average.
The Bolts are dedicated to the 6-foot-7 Swede manning their crease, but they're also concerned about pushing him too quickly, especially with a compressed schedule ahead.
"We're not asking him to be exceptional and play all the games," third-year coach Guy Boucher said. "He's a young goaltender who has played some games in the NHL and needs to play more. We're going to let him grow at his pace and have expectations that are realistic for him."
If Lindback's growth is slow, however, the Lightning are comfortable shifting Mathieu Garon into a full-time starting role. Garon took over as Tampa Bay's No. 1 goalie in December 2011 after 43-year-old Dwayne Roloson floundered. Garon steadied the Bolts after the new year, winning 12 of his last 17 decisions before a groin injury ended his season.
Tampa Bay, which gave up an average 30 shots per game in 2011-12, can also expect to get help from its revamped defense.
Joining Eric Brewer on the team's shutdown pairing is Carle, who spent the last three seasons honing his game in Philadelphia alongside hard-nosed veteran Chris Pronger. Carle averaged just over 23 minutes of ice time last season and ranked 15th among the NHL's top shot blockers.
The Bolts will also benefit from the addition of Carle's puck-moving abilities, which should mesh nicely with Salo's heavy shot from the point.
Tampa Bay's power play is poised to see a major improvement after finishing in the bottom six last season. Returning from injury are Victor Hedman and Marc-Andre Bergeron. With the mix of Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and breakout Teddy Purcell up front, Tampa Bay boasts nothing short of a Murderers' Row during the man advantage.
The same group should give the Lightning one of the better offenses in the NHL, although scoring depth may be lacking. Outside of Benoit Pouliot, who registered a career-high 16 goals last season in Boston, the Lightning will have to rely on a crop of youngsters to step up. But Yzerman seems hesitant to break up the team's minor league affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, which is dominating the American Hockey League.
A perfect example is Brett Connolly. The winger recorded 19 points in 68 games as a rookie with the Lightning last season, but did not receive an invitation to training camp. Yzerman indicated he'd rather see the gifted shooter get more ice time in the minors than receive less at the NHL level in a role that does not utilize his skill.
"I'm very comfortable where he is right now and pleased with his development," Yzerman said. "He's going to be a great player for us. He needs to play and play a lot. I can bring him here any time I want."
The Lightning hope Cory Conacher, the reigning AHL MVP, has the ability to perform at the NHL after one year in the pros. Another option is Tyler Johnson, who has 20 goals through 36 games with the Crunch.
Competing against all Eastern Conference opponents may not play to Tampa Bay's advantage. Although the Lightning posted the best intra-division record among their Southeast rivals, they posted losing records against the Atlantic and Northeast divisions. Nearly a quarter of their 84 points came against Western Conference opponents.
And for Tampa Bay, a second-half team last season, dealing with a shortened schedule with little preparation doesn't help either. It's a situation Boucher welcomes, though.
"We're already (in the) second half," he said. "For me it's not a threat. It's a challenge."