Tampa Bay Lightning season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:31 PM ET
ESPN.com

Tampa Bay Lightning

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

Why do we get the feeling that it's all or nothing for the 2004 Stanley Cup champions? Maybe it's because so many of the Bolts' eggs are tied up in small baskets, such as the three big guns up front. Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis all have the potential to put up 100 points or close to it. If they do, the Bolts are clearly Cup contenders once again. If, as was the case last season, the three struggle for prolonged periods of time, then the playoffs become a challenge -- as was the case last season. Given the economic constraints under which GM Jay Feaster is operating, he'll need a couple of players to come out of nowhere, a la St. Louis in 2003-04, to get back to Cup range. He'll also need his one major offseason acquisition, netminder Marc Denis, not to blow up in his face.

Offense: When the three amigos are cooking, they are a joy to behold because Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis each bring something different to the party. Although they don't necessarily play together (Richards and St. Louis generally play with Ruslan Fedotenko, and Lecavalier has pretty good chemistry with Vaclav Prospal), they are the heartbeat of the Tampa offense. When they struggled last season, the rest of the team struggled with them. And when they played better down the stretch, not surprisingly, the club followed suit. There is help, of course, in the form of Prospal, who's a surefire 80-point man. But Fedotenko, who looked to be on the verge of breaking out after a stellar 2004 playoff performance, needs to pump up the volume a bit after a 41-point effort last season. The Lightning will miss Fredrik Modin's 31 goals and Pavel Kubina's 38 points from the back end. The Bolts' power play was mercurial last season and must improve on its 23rd ranking if the team is to contend.

Defense: The Lightning gave up more goals than they scored last season and were one of only two playoff teams to have that distinction (the Habs were the other). That's not a recipe for Stanley Cup success. Part of that can be attributed to inconsistent goaltending and a penalty-killing unit that ranked 20th overall. But team defense is going to have to be better this season, a tall order given the patchwork quality of the Tampa defensive lineup. Paul Ranger was a bright spot as a rookie, and he'll have to eat up some of the minutes lost with Darryl Sydor's salary dump, although he'll miss the first part of the regular season with a broken foot. Veteran Luke Richardson was a pleasant surprise when he came over from Toronto at the trade deadline last season, and coach John Tortorella will need him to be a steadying influence. Andy Delmore, who improbably scored 34 goals in a two-year period in Nashville but has since fallen off the hockey map, will get another chance to find an NHL home.

Goaltending: What's with the goaltending, or lack thereof, was a familiar refrain in Tampa last season. Although John Grahame played extremely well in stretches (he had five shutouts), neither he nor veteran Sean Burke could provide enough stability to allow the Bolts to feel comfortable with Tortorella's up-tempo, aggressive style. Exit Grahame and enter Denis, who has toiled in relative obscurity in Columbus since 2000-01. Because Denis played in front of mostly shoddy defenses, it's hard to assess his skill level, especially given that he essentially lost his starting job last season to prospect Pascal Leclaire. If he is only average, the Bolts will miss the playoffs. If he thrives playing for a strong team, the Bolts are back in business. As for backup, well, let's just say Denis had better stay healthy unless Johan Holmqvist is the Swedish Miikka Kiprusoff.

Coaching: There might not be a more passionate, emotional coach in the NHL than Tortorella, and bless him for that. He wears his heart on his sleeve in the dressing room and with the media, which has left some with the impression that he's over the top. But players, especially the core that rode Tortorella's all-or-nothing style to a Cup win, are more accepting than might otherwise be believed. Tortorella's challenge will be in taking the lessons learned from last season's disappointing turn and using them to return the Lightning to contending status. It says here he has the coaching tools to do just that.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
6th They might not finish near the top of the conference standings, but the Lightning will be there when the dust clears at the end of the regular season. Second in the Southeast and sixth in the East.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock even. Fans remained loyal to the Lightning in spite of a difficult season, selling out every home game and the season-ticket base is an impressive 14,000-15,000. Tampa will have to improve this season or start to feel the pinch in attendance.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
The Lightning's Stanley Cup win two seasons ago might overvalue what actually looks like a thinner crop of fantasy performers. Goalie Marc Denis, whose numbers looked worse than his actual performance in Columbus, could be ready to shine as a No. 2 fantasy option. Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are all top-50 potential players, if not better, especially in Richards' case. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Lightning:
1. Vladimir Mihalik, 19, D, Red Deer (WHL)
Statline: 62 GP, 3 G, 9 A, 86 PIM
2. Andy Rogers, 20, D, P. George (WHL)
Statline: 21 GP, 0 G, 3 A, 51 PIM
3. Matt Smaby, 21, D, North Dakota (WCHA)
Statline: 45 GP, 4 G, 15 A, 109 PIM
4. Mike Egener, 22, D, Springfield (AHL)
Statline: 38 GP, 2 G, 1 A, 142 PIM
5. Doug O'Brien, 22, D, Springfield (AHL)
Statline: 74 GP, 7 G, 25 A, 70 PIM
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Tampa Bay Lightning
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record43-33-6 (92 points)
DivisionFinished second in Southeast
ConferenceFinished eighth in East
PlayoffsLost 4-1 to Ottawa in first round

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Vincent Lecavalier
Although Richards might be the most complete hockey player on the team, Lecavalier has the potential to explode offensively. He hasn't yet, but the Bolts would like to see it sooner than later.
Winger: Ryan Craig
If the new NHL is all about depth, Craig, who had 15 goals in 48 games as a rookie last season, has the potential to deliver much-needed depth to the Lightning lineup.
Defense: Filip Kuba
Much of the sense that Tampa will be competitive comes from the belief that Kuba can step in and fill both the defensive and offensive vacuum left by the departure of Kubina. It's a lot to ask.
Goalie: Johan Holmqvist
Although the goaltending show belongs to Marc Denis, Holmqvist's ability to provide 20-25 quality starts in his first exposure to NHL play will be crucial.

Key Moves
The Lightning gave up terrific two-way player Modin, who'd helped them win a Stanley Cup and been part of Sweden's gold-medal effort last season in Torino, to bring in Denis. It's the kind of gamble that makes or breaks a GM.

SportsNation
Rating the Lightning
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