These are exciting times in the Tampa Bay hockey world. A new owner in Jeff Vinik, a new general manager in Steve Yzerman and a new coach in Guy Boucher have fan excitement up at the highest levels since the team brought the Stanley Cup home in 2004.
But will it translate to success on the ice? Everybody expects the team to improve from a year ago, thanks to the addition of Simon Gagne and the continued growth of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, among other things. With help from several fantastic Bolts bloggers from around the Web, we take a look at Five Burning Questions surrounding the 2010-11 team.
John Fontana - Raw Charge: If you look at things on paper, you can nod your head and come to the conclusion that Ellis is a bit of an upgrade over "Frank" Niittymaki. At worst, it could be looked at like a lateral move - Ellis has played 110 total NHL games and in his career has amassed a 2.64 Goals Against Average, a .912 save percentage and 10 shutouts over three seasons of play for the Nashville Predators. Niittymaki, by comparison, has played in 210 NHL games and racked up a 2.98 GAA, a .903 save percentage and only 5 shutouts to his name.
But paper only tells us so much. There's also the sideshow stories that follow players around: Their baggage. Niitty's issue that haunted him coming into camp in the 2009 preseason, was his streaky play over the course of his career and the questions about the health of his hips (which he had surgery on in the past). Ellis' issues dogging him before the regular season are questions of health (weight maintenance and endurance caused by in-game weightloss) and questions of character after his Twitter fiasco. While there have been first-amendment defenses of Ellis saying what he had (and applause for a non-clichéd dialog from him through the network), the truth remains that Ellis assassinated his own character with careless comments to a listening public.
That event should not effect his game, but it will effect our perception of him for better or for worse. This type of issue wasn't in place with Antero Niitttymaki.
Right now, it looks like a lateral move - from Niittymaki to Ellis - and the perception is that Mike Smith is still the #1 starter in Tampa Bay (even with his current hand injury keeping him out of action). If Ellis can overcome his issue of keeping hydrated and keeping weight, while playing on par to his career averages, he could wrestle away the starting role from Smith in the eyes of management... Something Niittymaki failed to do. That would show him to be an improvement over Niittymaki.
2. Steve Downie had been known as a reckless commodity up until last season, when coaching and teammates worked with him to settle him down. Are his reckless ways truly behind him?
Chad Schnarr - Bolt Prospects: Steve Downie will always have a reckless side to him; that's what makes him Steve Downie. He's going to play with an edge, and despite what outsiders may think, there aren't many guys who put their team and teammates on a higher pedestal than Steve Downie. However, even though he seemed to settle down last year - and for all his faults Rick Tocchet was excellent with Downie - he still had over 200 penalty minutes. New coach Guy Boucher has said the team PIM will go down, there will be no fighting in training camp, and already briefly benched Downie in his first exhibition game for taking a bad penalty. The education of Downie will continue this year, with the primary lesson being timing. Coaches say they'd rather have to tame a guy than train a guy to have an edge, so the key for Downie moving forward will be to be able to make the correct choice as to when he shows his wild side. You don't want to take away his aggressiveness, physicality, ability to get his nose filthy, and willingness to defend a teammate ... but you don't want the penalties at inopportune time.
Downie has shown a respect for the NHL level and especially Tocchet and his veteran teammates. Because of that respect, he hasn't gone off the deep end like he did in his early years. He no doubt respects new GM Steve Yzerman (who doesn't?), and is mature enough to know to respect Boucher. The thing to watch is how Downie responds to Boucher's teaching process the more serious it gets. If he's scratched because of multiple bad penalties, how does Downie respond? Does he correct the mistake, or let frustrations get the best of him? If he's embarrassed, he could explode, but 1) Boucher has a master's in sports psychology and will know when to change tactics, and 2) Downie is surrounded by enough experience and character to respect the process and therefore should continue to be a valuable and unique asset to the Lightning this season.
3. Vincent Lecavalier's goal scoring has dissipated the past three seasons, from a high of 52 in 2006-07 to a low of 24 last year. Can Vincent find his scoring touch again?
Don't Trade Vinny: Short Answer: Yes.
Many factors have gone in to Vinny's goal totals going down. He's had to rehab injuries. He had a revolving door of (mostly) inefficient line mates last season. And, well, he didn't exactly see eye to eye with the previous management/coaching staff. All of these seem to be non-issues this season.
He had a "clean up" type knee surgery earlier in September, but that required him to miss no time. The shoulder and wrist injuries of the past are indeed in the past. He may take a few games to get his legs back, but his upper-body should be in tip-top shape.
He's slated to play with Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone most of the time and Coach Guy Boucher has already stated that he'll be reunited once in a while with Marty St. Louis. If the top power play unit from the preseason (Vinny-Marty-Stamkos-Gagne-Kubina) sticks together for even most of the season, he's going to see some goals there almost by default.
But, I think the biggest issue of all is that he's finally happy with the management of the team again. His website lists Steve Yzerman as his favorite player, and he's stated his optimism of playing for Guy Boucher. Not to mention, he was more talkative in this offseason than I can ever remember. He's happy, and that should translate on the ice.
Now, don't get me wrong; athletes (and especially Lecavalier) get paid a lot of money to perform well under any circumstances. That said, if my manager was running the company into the ground, and my supervisor was asking me to be a janitor when I have qualifications as a researcher, I might stop trying as hard too.
Over the past three seasons, the Lightning are 39-33-37 in one-goal games, an atrocious .339 win percentage. What do they have to do to remedy this and improve?
Nolan Whyte - Frozen Sheets Hockey / Raw Charge contributor: This team has changed a lot over the past ten months. We've seen changes to just about everybody associated with the Lightning: the owners, head office, coaching staff, and damn near half the roster has changed, so I'm just going take this opportunity to absolutely wail on the 2008-2010 editions of the Tampa Bay Lightning. From the opening of OK Hockey's free agent frenzy in July of 2008, this team has been a weak, miserable club that couldn't execute or achieve the slightest shred of consistency.
Two things stand out over the last two seasons: the team's almost stunning inability to achieve consecutive victories, and its magical ability to surrender game-tying or game-winning goals in the last moments of regulation. These guys could not hold it together. They couldn't string together enough high-quality shifts to either get that last goal or stop their opponent's late attack, and as a fan it was demoralizing to witness.
So what do they have to do to improve in one-goal games? Well, patching together a better lineup would do wonders, and on paper they've done that over the summer. Last season, St. Louis, Stamkos and a much-suffering Vincent Lecavalier had to score near damn-near every goal because no one else was producing that much.
This year, at least there may be someone (specifically Simon Gagne) to pick up the scoring slack. He should be an improvement over Alex Tanguay's ten goals. Having holes at other positions adequately filled will make a significant difference as well. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Moore, Clark, Kubina, etc. You better not let me down. I refuse to be made a fool of again.
The more solid the overall lineup, the easier it is to move the puck ahead and wear away at the other team. The more solid the lineup, the better the team can maintain its system with cohesion. The previous edition of the team never looked cohesive. They looked disjointed, and I never heard a good theory about whether the team even had a system.
This year we have new players and a coach in Guy Boucher who is bringing in a new system. Maybe it will be enough to be a little more decisive in our play and we'll start to see some wins in the tough, close games. Maybe we'll see a bit more ruthless efficiency from our guys, and a little less "loveable loser."
As for the dozen or so shootout losses the team eats every year, there's not much you can do about that except bring in higher caliber offensive talent and hope for the best. What else can you do? Coach the shootout better? How? You never hear anybody say "He's so-so in a lot of areas, but he's a fantastic shootout coach." You send the guys out and hope they execute. Maybe some freaking confidence would help the shooters. And you know the best way to gain that confidence? By winning some games in regulation.
By two goals, if you please.
Are the playoffs a real possibility for this Lightning team?
Cassie McClellan - Raw Charge: Last season, with a coach that most of the team struggled under, the Lightning still almost made playoffs. If they had had even a tiny bit better record in one-goal games, or had the defense or goaltending been a little bit tougher, they might've squeaked into the first round. That's quite a feat considering that only two players on the team really thrived under former coach Rick Tocchet's tenure: Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie.
If that team could've almost made it to playoffs, then this team certainly should be able to make into the first round. The coaching staff, while still untried at the NHL level, proved to be more than competent at the AHL level. The forward corps have improved with the addition of Simon Gagne - a proven playoff performer. And the defense should also be better with Pavel Kubina's return to the Lightning as well as Victor Hedman being a year older and a year wiser. Goaltending may be a question mark for some, but if the defense has their stuff together then that shouldn't be much of an issue.
The question should be - why won't this team make playoffs this season? Because the only thing stopping them from the first round are themselves. And that isn't likely to happen under Yzerman's watch. They may fall out in the first round, who knows, but they should certainly be able to make it into the top eight in the Eastern Conference.