TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
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• Record: 31-42-9
• Division: Last in the Southeast
• Conference: Last in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• After starting the season with two games in Prague against the New York Rangers
, the Lightning return home and play five straight home games. For a team trying to shore up its relationship with its fan base and prove it's headed in the right direction, this is a crucial early test and could set a trend for the season -- good or bad.
Experience: 3 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• This may be the single most important factor in whether the Lightning can get up off the mat after finishing dead last a season ago. Melrose has been distanced from the game for more than a decade despite his regular television appearances on ESPN. Can he implement a system that will capitalize on his team's strengths? Can he manage his bench after being away for so long? More importantly, can he convince his players early on that he knows what he's doing and that he's not just a guy with a weird hairdo who somehow ended up teleporting himself from their television screens to their dressing room?
"I've talked to him a few times. I'm excited to see how he's going to be behind the bench. Just having someone different is going to be kind of weird because I've had the same coach for seven years, almost my whole career," Lecavalier said. "There's going to be an adjustment for the players, but I think we'll adjust quickly.
"I think for him, it'll be like riding a bike. I think he'll be fine. And for what he used to say on ESPN, I think he knows the game. So we're excited about that."
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE IT
F -- Vincent Lecavalier
Lecavalier helped legitimize the new ownership/management team by signing an 11-year contract extension in the offseason and remains one of the premier forwards in the NHL. His leadership will be key with so many new faces in the dressing room. Oh yeah, he'll need to register 90 to 100 points, as well.
F -- Vaclav Prospal
Prospal started last season in Tampa, warred with former coach John Tortorella and was dealt at the trade deadline to Philadelphia, and then signed a new deal with the Lightning in the offseason. Prospal has point-a-game potential, especially playing with old pals Lecavalier and St. Louis. He also has the potential to go stone cold as we saw in the playoffs when he went scoreless in the last 12 postseason games for the Flyers.
F -- Martin St. Louis
The former NHL scoring champ and league MVP saw his point totals drop to 83 last season from 102 the season before; he was minus-23 compared to plus-7 in 2006-07. One assumes he'll get back to having fun under new coach Barry Melrose and his numbers should bounce back toward triple digits.
D -- Matt Carle
Carle fell out of favor in San Jose with former Sharks coach Ron Wilson and was a healthy scratch at times last season. Carle had 42 points and was a plus-9 two years ago, leading all rookie defensemen in points. Last season, he slumped to 15 points and was minus-8. Can he regain his confidence and his scoring touch in Tampa? He will have to if the Bolts are going to sneak into the postseason.
D -- Andrej Meszaros
There is no disputing the tools the young Slovak possesses, but it's one thing to go from a team that had nice defensive depth (Chris Phillips
, Wade Redden
and others) to a team that has no defensive identity and on which you are expected to be a difference-maker. It's a tall order regardless of how good Meszaros might be.
Question: Can something approaching cohesion possibly come from a summer of such dramatic changes?
Yes. Maybe. Who knows? That's what makes the Lightning such a compelling story this season. There are certainly enough moving parts, on paper, to suggest they can make it back to the playoffs or, at the very least, be playing meaningful games in March. This will be a true test of Vincent Lecavalier's leadership, and players like Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts will have to shoulder the load, as well. There will have to be some good fortune to make it happen, but those things are possible. Or not.
Sleeper: Olaf Kolzig, G:
He spent the better part of the last decade on a losing franchise, and just when they looked to be on the verge of being contenders, he was shipped off. He has something to prove.
Bust: Vaclav Prospal, LW:
Ryan Malone is a better fit than Prospal as the Lightning's top left winger and that means Vinny will have to fight for time with Steve Stamkos instead of on the first line.
The Bolts are loaded on offense. We know Lecavalier and St. Louis will perform no matter what and Stamkos will be an asset and Calder candidate. But what of Radim Vrbata, Mark Recchi, Jussi Jokinen, Prospal, Malone, Gary Roberts and Michel Ouellet? All of them have legitimate top-six talent if put on the right line, but the trouble is, there are enough players here for three lines and not enough ice time for them all. -- Sean Allen
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