2007-08 Team Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideAfter Tampa Bay failed to get past the first round of the playoffs in two straight seasons since the lockout, this looms as a pivotal season for the Lightning as we know them. With new ownership, including former Columbus GM (and sometimes coach) Doug MacLean, there might be more money in GM Jay Feaster's budget, but there are also significant expectations. It's hard to imagine Feaster, coach John Tortorella and the big four (Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle) all surviving another mediocre season. There will be no shortage of talk surrounding Boyle, who is widely hailed as one of the best underappreciated defensemen in the NHL. He'll qualify for unrestricted free agency next summer if the Lightning can't lock him down. Given salaries awarded to peers Brian Rafalski, Mathieu Schneider and Sheldon Souray this summer, Boyle will be pulling well in excess of $6 million annually on the open market. On the home front, the Lightning did more tinkering than anything this offseason, returning Chris Gratton and Brad Lukowich to the fold. Still, the question of adequate goaltending looms -- as it has since the end of the lockout. OFFENSE
So, you have two players who topped the 100-point mark: Lecavalier, who led the league with 52 goals, and St. Louis. That's good. Then, you have a drop-off of more than 30 points to Richards, who will be making $7.8 million in 2007-08. That's not so good. In all, the big four collected 140 of the Lightning's 253 goals, almost 60 percent of the team's totals. No one else on the roster had more than 15 goals, which means (A) as the big guns go, so go the Lightning; and (B) the Lightning need to do something about evening out their attack. By the end of the playoffs, the four stars seemed to run out of gas against the Devils in their six-game opening-series loss. To that end, Feaster re-signed Gratton to anchor the third line and chip in some power-play time. Veteran Jan Hlavac also will be expected to give offensive depth to the lineup and likely will start on the team's second line with Richards. Feaster also brought in former Penguin Michel Ouellet, who had 19 goals last season, 11 on the power play. The thinking is Ouellet, who once played with Richards in junior, will help jump-start Richards, who had to readjust to new linemates last season. Center Ryan Craig will be expected to build on his 14-goal campaign. DEFENSE
The Lightning have slowly revamped their defense, adding size and toughness. Although they'll miss Cory Sarich, now in Calgary, they likely will have only one defender, Boyle, under 6 feet. One thing is certain -- the team has to improve on its 24th overall defense if it hopes to qualify for the postseason for a fifth straight season. Paul Ranger is the next generation of defensive star for the Bolts and will have to take a step forward. Shane O'Brien played in 80 games last season as a rookie and will see his ice time jump from the 14:58 he averaged a year ago. Lukowich, who won a Cup with the Bolts in 2004, knows what to expect from Tortorella et al and will help smooth out the maturing process of players like O'Brien and Doug Janik. GOALTENDING
From the moment Nikolai Khabibulin signed with Chicago after the lockout, Tampa Bay has been unable to find a comfort zone in goal. There were times Johan Holmqvist looked the part, but he'll have to do better than the .893 save percentage he turned in his first NHL season. He'll start the season as the No. 1 goalie, and the expectation is he'll be more comfortable in his surroundings this season. He'd better be. Marc Denis, who was supposed to be the answer when the Bolts acquired him from Columbus for Fredrik Modin, is still with the Bolts, but in name only. Denis had a 3.19 goals-against average and miserable .883 save percentage. Immigration problems took him out of the mix for a short time, then, by the end of the season, he had run afoul of Tortorella often enough that he was banished to the press box for the playoffs. Karri Ramo was brought up as Holmqvist's backup, and he likely will get every chance to start the season in the same role. Feaster would like to move Denis, who has two years left on his contract at slightly more than $2.8 million annually. That might force Tortorella to use Denis -- if only to try to improve his market value. One thing is certain: There's never a dull moment between the pipes in Tampa. COACHING
No one will ever confuse Tortorella with, say, Jacques Martin. Tortorella lets it all hang out, calling it like he sees it even if it hurts people's feelings (that includes any and all goaltenders). Among the casualties this offseason was longtime assistant coach Craig Ramsay, who has moved on to an assistant job in Boston. Ramsay, who was seen as a buffer between Tortorella and the players, was replaced by former Boston coach Mike Sullivan. Still, anyone who doubts that Tortorella's still got it need only look at the Bolts' play in the second half. They rebounded to finish seventh in the conference and qualify for the playoffs with a stretch from Feb. 1 to March 10 in which they lost only four regulation games. Tortorella did ride his big guns into the ground by the time the playoffs came to a close, but, as the old saying goes, you dance with who brought you. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
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• Record: 44-33-5
• Division: Second in the Southeast
• Conference: Seventh in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in first round by New Jersey
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The former first-round pick will have to play very well to shed the "bust" label currently affixed to his jersey. But will he get enough playing time to make amends? Defenseman: Dan Boyle
Boyle's 63 points ranked fourth among all NHL defensemen last season. He also averaged 27:03 a night, fifth-most among blueliners. The scary thing is he could get better once he returns from wrist surgery. Scarier for Bolts fans? He could be gone at the end of the season. Forward: Vaclav Prospal
Is there a more mercurial player in the NHL? Vaclav Prospal has produced point totals of 79, 54, 80 and 55 the past four seasons. One good thing is that he appears to be due for another point-a-game season.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
The Lightning have proved to be a model franchise in a nontraditional market. Will new ownership, including bombastic MacLean, return the Bolts to Cup contenders, or does this represent a period of managerial mayhem and decline? Where They Will Finish
The Lightning will finish second in the Southeast Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Tampa Bay Lightning will finish this time around? Who will lead the Lightning in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!