Lightning: Five Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
Was the Lightning's stunning run to Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals against eventual Cup champ Boston a real indication of where this team is at? Or was last season's significant step backward a better indicator of the team's actual place on the evolutionary curve? Folks, we're about to find out as GM Steve Yzerman hasn't stood still, hoping last year was simply an aberration. He added a number of key pieces -- a new starting goaltender, two top-four defensemen and a couple of everyday depth forwards -- to a lineup that already includes the game's most dangerous goal-scorer in Steven Stamkos and one of the game's all-time great emotional leaders in Martin St. Louis. "I'm very enthusiastic with Steve Yzerman's work over the summer," head coach Guy Boucher told ESPN.com recently. "We had issues that we wanted to address."
1. Net Addition
No bigger move was made by Yzerman than the acquisition of former Nashville backup Anders Lindback, who was pried away from Nashville for two second-round picks, a third-round pick and Sebastien Caron (the Lightning also received forward Kyle Wilson and a seventh-round draft pick). The tall Swede -- he's the second-tallest goalie in the league at 6-foot-6 -- learned at the knee of Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne and Mitch Korn, who is one of the top goaltending instructors in the game. The Lightning also like his athleticism. Not that goaltending was the sum total of all of the Lightning's issues last season when they allowed a league-worst 3.39 goals per game, but if Lindback can prove he's ready to assume No. 1 goaltending duties and deliver quality starts, the explosive Lightning offense should keep them in the hunt for a division title and/or a playoff berth. Lindback appeared in 16 games last season, so there's not a huge body of evidence to suggest his top end. Still, he turned in a respectable 2.42 GAA and .912 save percentage. It will be interesting to see how Boucher handles Lindback's playing time. Mathieu Garon, recovered from an injury that cost him the last month of the season, provides more than adequate backup goaltending.
2. Carle To The Rescue
The Bolts weren't particularly proficient on either side of the special teams fence, but there's no reason a squad with Stamkos, St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell should have a power play that ranks 25th in the league, as was the case a year ago when they finished tied for eighth in goals scored per game. One addition who may help in that department is the return of Matt Carle to the Lightning fold, as the smooth-skating defenseman signed a six-year deal with the Lightning worth $33 million. He was first acquired by Tampa from San Jose in the Dan Boyle deal in July of 2008 but was dealt to Philadelphia, where he enjoyed significant success mostly playing with Chris Pronger. Carle isn't necessarily a flashy presence but solid with the puck at both ends of the ice. He should help in the transition game, as well as on the power play. He led the Flyers in average ice time a year ago with 23:01 a night. He's also played in 45 postseason games in the past three springs, including a trip to the finals with the Flyers in 2010. Joining Carle on the blue line will be longtime Vancouver Canuck Sami Salo, who has a heavy shot and loads of experience. Look for Salo and Victor Hedman to play together while Carle and veteran Eric Brewer should give the Lightning a much more balanced defensive look than a year ago.
3. Sky's the Limit
What's the top end for the game's most gifted sniper? Stamkos, who won the Rocket Richard Trophy with 60 goals last season and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP, continues to shoulder his way into the discussion of the game's best players. And given his superb conditioning -- thanks to former teammate and fitness guru Gary Roberts -- the fact Stamkos didn't play much during the lockout, except with his dad's beer league buddies, shouldn't be an issue. In a 48-game slate, what's Stamkos's top end? 40 goals? More? More to the point, what is he capable of if the Lightning can find their way back to the postseason? Boucher praised Stamkos's focus on team goals as opposed to individual accolades. "That's Steven Stamkos. He figures out stuff," Boucher said. "He's constantly doing everything in the right order."
4. Filling Up The Deep End
If there has been criticism of the Lightning over the years it's been for their lack of organizational depth. That is slowly changing as there are a handful of young players who could quickly become important pieces of the evolving Lightning puzzle. The Lightning's AHL affiliate in Norfolk went on an absolute tear last season in winning the franchise's first championship. The move to Syracuse this season hasn't hurt the team one bit as they continue to hold down the top spot in the AHL's Eastern Conference. Among the players to watch are former AHL MVP and rookie of the year Cory Conacher; another top sophomore Tyler Johnson, who was tied for fourth in AHL scoring at the time of this writing; AHL defenseman of the year Mark Barberio; and Brett Connolly, who was the sixth overall pick in 2010. "They're stacked down there with guys," Boucher said.
5. Crunch Time?
The yin to the yang in terms of what's been going on at the AHL level is that Crunch head coach Jon Cooper is going to get an NHL job. It's simply a matter of when and where. Two years ago, Yzerman hired another hotter than hot coaching prospect in Boucher, whose lively, passionate take on the game made him an instant hit with players and the press. Last season, perhaps some of the shine came off as the team took a step back in the standings. It's not going to help matters that if the Lightning struggle, there will be a lot of people wondering if Cooper's first NHL gig will actually be with the big club in Tampa. Best way to keep those rumors at bay, of course, is to win a bunch of games right out of the chute.
Prediction: It may be in the seventh or eighth hole, but we like the re-vamped Lightning to return to the postseason.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering third NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
New Addition: Anders Lindback
In need of an upgrade in the crease, the Lightning acquired Lindback, the latest in a long line of impressive netminders developed by the Predators. The Swede allowed 32 goals in 16 appearances last season, posting a 2.42 GAA and .912 save percentage, considerably better than what Tampa Bay got from Dwayne Roloson, Mathieu Garon or Dustin Tokarski. It would stand to reason that he'll be the undisputed starter at the outset of the season, but it remains to be seen what effect Guy Boucher's system has on those figures. What we do know is the Lightning should continue to be one of the league's top-scoring teams, giving Lindback the opportunity to rack up some wins if he can handle things on his end. He'll be available as a No. 2 in fantasy drafts, but could wind up as a low-end No. 1 if things fall right.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Lightning:
• June 14: Signed G Riku Helenius.
• June 15: Re-signed RW Adam Hall and RW J.T. Wyman.
• June 15: Acquired G Anders Lindback, C Kyle Wilson and a 7th-round pick
• June 23: Acquired LW Benoit Pouliot from Boston for RW Michel Ouellet and a 5th-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
• June 27: Re-signed D Brendan Mikkelson.
• June 28: Re-signed D Brian Lee.
• June 30: Re-signed D Keith Aulie.
• July 1: Signed D Sami Salo.
• July 4: Signed D Matt Carle.
• July 6: Signed D Matt Taormina.
• July 10: Re-signed RW Teddy Purcell.
• July 10: Acquired RW B.J. Crombeen and a 5th-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
• D Bruno Gervais (unrestricted free agent, signed by Philadelphia)
• C Trevor Smith (unrestricted free agent, signed by Pittsburgh)
• G Sebastien Caron (traded to Nashville)
• D Brett Clark (unrestricted free agent)
• D Mike Commodore (unrestricted free agent)
• G Dwayne Roloson (unrestricted free agent)
• RW Ryan Shannon (unrestricted free agent)