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Many layers to Bolts' latest struggles

Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are still the two staples in Tampa Bay. Scott Audette/NHLI/Getty Images

TAMPA -- The temptation is to paint the entire Tampa Bay Lightning season with the same broad brush.

Color it laughingstock, disaster or just plain wacky; but, in the end, color it a disaster.

But to do so would not do justice to a picture that is far more complex, all angles and subtle bits and pieces and shadows and corners. Think Salvador Dali with skates and a wrong-handed stick and you get an idea of the elements at play in this market, where, not so long ago, they held a Stanley Cup parade, where its team has found itself with a crisis of credibility and at a crossroads in terms of redefining itself.

"It's been frustrating," offered the team's best player this season, Martin St. Louis. "Last year [when the team finished 30th] was hard, but I accepted it because I didn't think we'd be where we are right now," the team's emotional leader told ESPN.com this week.

To find out where they are, start at the top and head south.

The Lightning are 17 points out of a playoff berth and looking at another draft lottery pick, with the third-lowest point total in the NHL. They announced Thursday their two best defensemen, Paul Ranger and Andrej Meszaros, are gone for the season, in need of shoulder surgeries that will require some six months of recovery time. Their top two goaltenders, Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig, are also injured.

"Obviously big expectations, and it just never happened," said veteran forward Mark Recchi, who was signed in the offseason to help provide some ballast to a revamped Lightning team that was looking to make a splash under new ownership.

Recchi, who just turned 41, has exceeded expectations with 37 points, and will almost certainly be dealt by the March 4 trade deadline.

Asked where the team has come from since the start of the season, Recchi looks genuinely puzzled.

"I don't know," he said. "Obviously, it's been a tough year. It's been a tough year; I'm not going to lie. It's been an interesting year. A lot of learning curves going on."

Talk to NHL GMs and executives and mention Tampa Bay, and you get an almost universal response: "What a [insert colorful, profanity-laced descriptor here]."

That's the problem with perception: It sometimes becomes reality.

Throw in various reports or rumors about the team's crumbling financial situation, and you'd think this was a team that's at the front of the line when it comes to near-death experience.

Rumors persisted they were on the verge of missing payroll and in default of bonuses owed to captain Vincent Lecavalier. Not so. At least not according to one of the team's owners, Oren Koules, who presumably should know how much money he has in his bank account.

We are sitting with Koules in the St. Pete Times Forum, watching No. 1 draft pick Steven Stamkos rifle shot after shot into the top corners of a goal after most of his teammates have departed the ice on the morning of a game against Chicago.

Koules, earnest and passionate, points out facts that sometimes get overlooked when his team is discussed.

First, the team pays virtually no rent to Hillsborough County, which owns the facility. They receive 100 percent of parking revenues and concessions, and not just for hockey, but everything that rolls into the Forum. They own the naming rights to the arena, plus two parcels of land adjacent to the downtown arena.

Koules' outside interests do not include real estate investments or other areas that would have been devastated by the global economic downturn. His television show, "Two and a Half Men," is hugely successful and then there's the series of "Saw" movies, which continue to do boffo business and have made Koules a wealthy man.

"People say I'm broke. I'm not broke," he said. "I'm OK."

Koules' partner, Len Barrie, might have issues with his development project in British Columbia (reports surfaced last month that Barrie was set to sell the massive resort/residential development to interests in Dubai for $500 million, reports Barrie subsequently denied), but league sources insist this team isn't in danger of going the route that the Phoenix Coyotes have gone.

The Coyotes, of course, are expected to lose as much $40 million this year, and the NHL and owner Jerry Moyes are beating the bushes looking for someone, anyone, to take the team off Moyes' hands, while the NHL is being consulted on every business move the financially strapped team makes.

Koules won't discuss the Lightning's losses, but they are believed to be roughly 25 percent of what the Coyotes are going to lose. That's a lot, but not devastating. Not yet, anyway.

"Are we making money? No. But are we bleeding like most people think we are? Of course not," Koules said. "Here's what bothers me: Nobody asks."

The other thing that often fails to be considered is that Koules, Barrie and their group were the first ownership group to walk through the NHL's doors after the William "Boots" Del Biaggio III fiasco in Nashville. That meant the group was subjected to rigorous scrutiny. They aren't going to run out of money any time soon. At least, they shouldn't.

"It's hard," Koules acknowledged. "Because the only thing you get from the fans is you're an idiot."

So does that mean all is sunny in Tampa? Ah, no.

This is a team that was the shining example of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's vision of a 30-team league in which -- even with the sound of the waves in the background -- hockey could grow and thrive.

After the Bolts won their seminal Stanley Cup in a seventh game in 2004 -- a night that saw an estimated 20,000 fans that didn't have tickets gather outside the Forum to watch the game projected onto the side of the parking garage -- they saw their season-ticket base swell to more than 14,000. They sold out every regular-season and playoff game in 2005-06 and the first 13 home games in 2006-07.

The season-ticket base has slipped to somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000, and recent reports in the St. Petersburg Times indicate the team has given away 2,500 tickets per game to recent home contests. Like many NHL teams, the Lightning are in the process of lowering ticket prices for next season with some season-ticket packages expected to drop 10 percent.

The Lightning's marketing department is also trying to be more creative in packaging tickets (e.g., selling tickets that include parking and food and/or drinks) to entice more fans to games. The team recently told arena employees they would have to pay to park at the arena. The team pays $250,000 for land used to park near the Forum.

Part of the decline in fan support and revenues is traceable to the economy and the fact the team finished dead last in 2007-08.

But there is no doubt mistakes made since the new ownership group took over have hurt the team's credibility.

There was the bad press over the team's heavy-handed attempts to move defenseman Dan Boyle shortly after he signed a contract extension. The fact the team now lacks a top-notch puck-moving defenseman has contributed in no small way to its 23rd ranking in goals per game.

The three-year, $9 million deal given Radim Vrbata didn't work out, considering he was so miserable the team begged him to return to the Czech Republic.

Koules is candid about the mistakes, though.

Asked what he's learned, he joked that their mistakes have been "expensive."

"There are some deals I regret, but that happens to everybody," he said.

The new owners can be excused for their exuberance (the moves they made were designed to spark excitement in a fan base that was starting to erode), but they cannot be excused for ignoring history.

Championship teams are built from the ground up; often slowly, often painfully. It's how the Lightning became champions, and it's how teams like Washington, Pittsburgh and Anaheim were built. And teams that try to do it on the quick -- like Pittsburgh, Boston and Chicago tried to do coming out of the lockout -- have proven consistently that such a strategy is fatally flawed.

"We tried the quick fix," Koules said.

The new owners brought in a slew of new faces in the offseason, including Stamkos, veterans Recchi and Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, Adam Hall, Meszaros and Vrbata in the hopes the collection would find instant karma with established players like Lecavalier, St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal. Instead, the group never jelled. And with new GM Brian Lawton also getting a late start, players came and went at a dizzying pace, adding to the carnival atmosphere around the team.

The Lightning leads the NHL in roster moves, with 43 different players having suited up for game action this season. Injuries have played a role in the inflation of that number, but it's not the only factor.

There was also the furor over whether the team was shopping Lecavalier. There was a lot of discussion of semantics, but the bottom line is that there was some discussion about Lecavalier's availability, and the Montreal Canadiens were believed to be the team most interested in the talented center's services.

Any team that doesn't at least engage in blue-sky discussions about any player on their roster is selling themselves short, but the way the situation was handled did little to dispel the notion that Lightning owners were cash-strapped and looking to get out from under Lecavalier's new 11-year deal worth $85 million. It appears Lecavalier will remain with the Lightning, as will St. Louis and Malone.

Then, there was the misguided hiring of ESPN analyst Barry Melrose to return to coaching for the first time since the end of the 1994-95 season. The experiment ended in Melrose being fired just 16 games into the season. "That's 100 percent my fault," Koules said.

As one player told ESPN.com, the team ended up being a month and a half behind every other team, essentially starting from scratch in mid-November.

Still, the Melrose firing might have led to the coach who is able to lead them out of the wilderness. Rick Tocchet, along with the return of Mike Sullivan as an assistant, has established consistency and accountability on a team that had little. Players speak glowingly of Tocchet's demeanor and his high standards for preparation and execution.

"Structurally, we're a lot better," Recchi said. "The young guys are getting better."

The team has shown improvement, even as it has struggled with injuries to top players. Since Dec. 23, the Lightning are 12-11-3.

Stamkos, the subject of so much discussion earlier in the season when Melrose suggested he wasn't ready to play in the league, has suddenly begun to hit his stride. He scored three goals against Chicago this week for his first NHL hat trick. He is also the only first-round pick of the Lightning currently on their roster other than Lecavalier who was drafted first overall in 1998.

Since Tocchet's ascension from assistant to head coach, the Lightning are averaging 2.68 goals per game, up from 2.06, and have seen their penalty killing improve more than three percentage points.

With the playoffs a distant dream for the second straight year after four straight postseason appearances, Tocchet is in the midst of evaluating which players are still coming to work prepared to play and which players have folded their tents. He doesn't necessarily like everything he's been seeing.

"I don't think we're at the level I want them to be at," he said. "That's the harsh reality."

After returning from what amounted to a two-year suspension for being involved in an illegal gambling operation while an assistant in Phoenix, Tocchet is trying to accelerate his own learning curve as a head coach.

Sometimes that means not staying mad, even though he has had reason to be mad on many nights.

"For me, what I've had to learn is not to take it personal," he said.

As a player, Tocchet compensated for a modest amount of talent with an overwhelming desire to succeed. He worked to bring consistency to his game so he could play every night.

"Now I have to find that as a coach," he said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.