When Steve Yzerman took over the GM seat for the Tampa Bay Lightning two years ago, he knew he had a long-term project on his hands. A run to the Eastern Conference finals in his first season surprised even Yzerman, but didn't change his time horizon. A crash back out of playoff contention in 2011-12 was disappointing, but it also put Yzerman's task in perspective.
Yzerman's goal here is a sustainable competitor year after year like the organization he departed to take over the big seat in Tampa Bay. But in Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier he has two forward stars whose proverbial window is closing.
St. Louis, Lecavalier and 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos take the top three spots on the Lightning payroll, combining for over $21 million in annual cap hit. The time when young Stamkos is at his most dangerous while the aging St. Louis and Lecavalier still offer star performances is now.
To that end, Yzerman made three significant offseason moves that addressed the needs of a team that bled goals in 2011-12 -- a league-worst 3.39 goals against per game -- so much that its vaunted offense had no hope of catching up.
The big move, literally, was bringing in 6'6" Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators. Lindback is the latest to churn through the Nashville goalie factory, but it remains to be seen what he can provide in a full-time starter's gig. Regardless, the Lightning investment in Lindback is modest, with just two years at a $1.8 million annual rate committed. If he works out, he's a great move. If not, two of the Lightning's better prospects (Dustin Tokarski, Andrei Vasilevski) are in goal and will be in line to challenge for the job when Lindback's contract expires.
In the very least Lindback should be an improvement over Dwayne Roloson, who last season showed he could no longer carry a team at age 42.
The priciest move was on the blueline, where the Lightning paid the auction market price for unrestricted free agent Matt Carle. Six years and a $5.5 million annual rate were both huge commitments for the ex-Flyers defenseman (and he even becomes the first to take Dave Andreychuk's old number), but the upgrade was desperately needed.
Carle slots in to give the Lightning more options for tough minutes along with the blossoming Victor Hedman and should alleviate the burden on Eric Brewer. Though Carle adds yet another another left-shooting blueliner to the corps, the addition of Sami Salo replaces the right-shooting depth lost when the Lightning allowed Bruno Gervais to walk.
Those reinforcements were needed because Mattias Ohlund's career is in jeopardy after he missed all of last season with a knee condition that requires extensive rehab for him to have any hope of playing again.
Offense is the one area the Lightning felt secure, having finished in the top third of the league in goals for during 2011-12. The big three will continue to be the focal point, while Carle and Salo should increase the offensive contributions from the blueline.
Top 2010 draft pick Brett Connolly had a tough rookie year and isn't even a lock for a major offensive role yet, but at some point he's likely to deliver on his promise. The Lightning also acquired well-traveled winger Benoit Pouliot, a talented winger who found a role as a secondary contributor the last two seasons with the Canadiens and Bruins.
Still, the bulk of the load up front falls on St. Louis and Stamkos, though there's expecting both to repeat their 2011-12 seasons might be too much. Stamkos' 60-goal season was one for the ages and a lot to ask of any player, even one of his star status. St. Louis, meanwhile, was a big contributor to Stamkos' success but also failed to play all 82 games for the first time in five seasons, and his 74 points were his lowest since 2005-06.
That's hardly a knock on St. Louis -- on the contrary, it's a nod to his high standards. But the reality is the Lightning should be prepared for a decline as he reaches his late 30s. Nonetheless, their defense and goaltending were the major issues facing Yzerman this past summer, and his moves in that area should make the Lightning a more balanced team.