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Revamped Bolts could stir up Eastern playoff picture

9/26/2008 - NHL

In a league too often susceptible to inertia in many cases and paralyzing delusion about the state of rosters in others, the Tampa Bay Lightning's offseason moves -- from ownership down, to the bench and on the ice -- were at the very least attention-grabbing.

After Oren Koules and Len Barrie stormed in as the owners, bringing in Brian Lawton to run the show and Barry Melrose to take out the studio earpiece and return to coaching, it's tempting to get caught up in the excitement they generated.

No, it's more than tempting.

Besides, it was hard to accept that the Lightning were really that bad last season, when they stumbled in with a league-worst record (71 points) and a reputation as a bunch of dysfunctional underachievers, or as a team that couldn't measure up to the sum total of its individual parts.

The slide from the 2004 Stanley Cup championship, through two mediocre post-lockout seasons, to embarrassing ineptitude last season was complete. It was much more than a parade of failure through the crease after the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin.

What turned out to be the inordinate allocation of cap room to Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards -- and I say "turned out," because everyone was feeling their way through the first years of the system -- was only part of the problem, too.

It just wasn't working.

Because of more interconference games this season, and a likely balance of power tipped to the West, it might take only 90 points, or roughly the true .500 level, to make the playoffs. Even that would require a 19-point improvement for the Lightning. That's a quantum leap. It's an awful lot to ask. Many who concede or even passionately argue that the Lightning are heading in the right direction will scoff at that possibility, saying improvement has to come in increments -- and that the Lightning are at least a season away.

They're going to pull it off. This season. They're going to pull it off as if film producer Koules had hired a script doctor to rework a screenplay that, if filmed, would have been worthy of nothing better than a straight-to-DVD release -- and, after only a few hours of work, ended up with a script that had Sean Penn begging to both star in and direct it.

With Ryan Malone aboard, with phenom rookie Steven Stamkos jumping right in, with a more complementary roster to go with Lecavalier (now signed through the next appearance of Halley's comet), with decent goaltending from Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig, it should all be enough to get Tampa Bay back in the playoffs.

That's if the Lightning don't get jet lag and get off to a horrible start because of their two-game, season-opening set against the Rangers in Prague, Czech Republic.

Last week, I opined that the additions to the playoff field in the West would be Chicago, Phoenix and Edmonton, and they would replace Colorado, Minnesota and Nashville from the 2008 bracket.

This week, switching to the East, the Lightning's accession is the starting point in what will be only a slight shift in the balance of power.

The tricky part is that if Tampa Bay indeed is better and the highly entertaining Capitals continue their progression, it makes it tougher for the other semirecent Cup champion from the Southeast Division, the Carolina Hurricanes, to get back into the postseason.

But the reduction to six games between divisional opponents also comes into play, and makes it less daunting of a prospect for the Lightning and Hurricanes to recover in the same season.

Somehow, the Bolts and Canes both will be among the Eastern eight, and one of them might even advance far enough to enable the Canadian and Atlantic seaboard writers to recycle their lame stories about what a travesty it is to have hockey in Mayberry and a Tampa Bay region that didn't even care enough to turn over cars on the night the Lightning won the Cup at home in 2004.

In Carolina, the Hurricanes left Cam Ward alone on an island so often last season, he might have felt as if he should drink milk out of a hollowed-out coconut and spell out "SOS" with curling stones. And still, they were in the hunt for the division title -- and the No. 3 seed -- until the last second.

With a strengthened defense, that isolation won't happen as often, and if Ward doesn't show his gratitude with heightened effectiveness, it will be even less out of line to conclude not only that he didn't deserve the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006, but he's also going to be a so-so journeyman at best.

Who drops out to make way for the Lightning and Hurricanes?

Well, one of those dropouts almost certainly will come from the Atlantic Division, and I'll play my nearly annual game of assuming the Devils will regress -- Martin Brodeur or no Martin Brodeur. Seriously, that's not so much a knock on the Devils as a process of elimination, and an ultimate conclusion that the Flyers and Rangers will be good enough to jump over New Jersey this season.

And that leaves the Bruins, who overachieved just to make the playoffs last season but won't be back in 2008-09.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."