2009-10 Team Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

Updated: September 28, 2009, 10:02 PM ET

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Victor Hedman, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, is expected to start the season in the bigs.

10 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE LIGHTNING

You could hardly read a story about the Lightning in the past year or so without reading the words "chaos" or "circus" or "laughingstock" or another similarly unflattering comment.

It didn't get any better this summer as co-owner Len Barrie was beset by allegations of impropriety in his business dealings away from the game and essentially erased from the team's day-to-day operations, leaving former partner Oren Koules as the steadying hand at the top. At least that's what the NHL is hoping for -- as opposed to another embarrassing ownership fiasco playing out in the coming months.

But behind the scenes, Koules and GM Brian Lawton quietly have assembled a much better defensive team than last season's foundering squad. Add that to an already impressive offensive roster and you have a Lightning team that should surprise many with a return to the playoffs.

Coach Rick Tocchet doesn't deny last season's problems. "We weren't considered the model franchise," he told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "You admit your mistakes and you move on."

Here are 10 things you need to know about the Lightning this season:

1. Blue line
Get it? Blue, as in had the blues or were black and blue. The Bolts used an incredible array of defensemen last season, with 22 individuals appearing in regular-season contests. "I think we signed a guy to a one-game contract," Tocchet quipped.

Part of that turnstile approach to personnel was just bad management -- why force Dan Boyle out in exchange for Matt Carle, then ship Carle to Philadelphia for crazed Steve Downie and a defenseman, Steve Eminger, who ends up as a free-agent signee in Anaheim this summer? That makes no sense.

But there were also shoulder injuries to critical pieces such as Paul Ranger and Andrej Meszaros, both of whom were lost for much of the season. If both can return to form  and there is no indication at this stage that they won't -- the Lightning will boast an impressive blue-line corps.

2. Two big men
Apart from the prospect of better health -- and it could hardly be worse -- one main reason for optimism in Tampa, and specifically optimism about the team's defense, is two significant additions to the blue line. First, the Bolts landed Victor Hedman with the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft. There was a school of thought that the Swedish defender was in fact the best player available. He likely will line up alongside another big Swedish defender, Mattias Ohlund, whom the Lightning signed moments after the free-agent market opened July 1. Ohlund will be a steadying presence for a defense that ranked 27th in goals allowed per game and will be a fine tutor for Hedman.

"He's the real deal. He's been one of our best defensemen in camp," Tocchet said of Hedman.

It used to be that 18-year-old defensemen were rarities in the NHL, but with the success enjoyed by Drew Doughty in Los Angeles and Zach Bogosian in Atlanta, Hedman won't be playing out of type when he starts chewing up minutes for the Bolts.

3. Killers of penalties
Health and better defensive personnel should go a long way in helping improve the Bolts' woeful penalty killing, a unit that ranked 26th overall. Another way to improve the penalty kill will be to stay out of the box; the Lightning led the league in total penalties by a wide margin.

"It's Hockey 101," Tocchet said. "We had a lot of hooking penalties. We never had the puck. We were always chasing guys with the puck."

4. Home cooking
The Lightning were a dreadful 12-18-11 at home last season, by far the fewest home wins in the NHL. The revamped blue line should help that record as moving the puck out of danger was a major hurdle for the team in 2008-09. Tocchet said it's no longer a major surprise to see a tape-to-tape pass from the defensive zone.

5. Firepower
The Bolts' offensive stats are more than a little misleading. Yes, they finished tied for 24th in goals per game, but captain Vincent Lecavalier was never at full strength as he rushed back from offseason shoulder surgery. Former Penguins power forward Ryan Malone got off to a slow start with his new mates, then missed time at the end of the season with injury. And Steven Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, didn't start to find his sea legs until the second half of the season.

Now, Stamkos looks ready to build on his strong second half (he had 13 of his 23 goals in the last quarter of the season), Lecavalier is healthy and the Bolts have added consistent point producer Alex Tanguay. Throw in Stephane Veilleux, who has surprising skill, and the Lightning should be back among the conference leaders in goals. Stamkos has been "dominant" in training camp, Tocchet said.

6. Net result
You've got to love Mike Smith. The lanky netminder was so determined to keep playing after finally earning his spurs as a starter that he failed to disclose to coaches or trainers that he had suffered a concussion for, oh, about a month. OK, so maybe it wasn't a particularly smart plan, but Smith certainly doesn't lack for chutzpah. The good news for the Bolts is Smith is apparently healthy and ready to go, and Tocchet is prepared to let him run with it -- provided he returns to last season's form.

"I'm a big Mike Smith fan," Tocchet said. "He really wants to take his game to another level. He wants to play a lot of games."

Also joining the fray is former Flyers netminder Antero Niittymaki, who was the goaltender of the tournament at the 2006 Olympics, winning a silver medal for Finland.

7. Vinny in the house … for good
Apart from battling the lingering effects of offseason shoulder surgery and a wrist injury that also required surgery after last season, Lecavalier went through an excruciating season wondering whether the uncertainty in ownership would lead to his being dealt before a no-trade clause went into effect on July 1.

No matter what anyone says, Lecavalier was in play, but the unofficial deadline passed and he now looks to finish his career in Tampa Bay. Perhaps that peace of mind -- and his good health -- will see Lecavalier bounce back after last season's disappointing 67-point campaign. The Lightning captain put up 92 and 108 points, respectively, in the previous two seasons and is eyeing a return to that level of production. If he succeeds, the playoffs won't be far behind.

8. Intestinal fortitude?
The Lightning ranked dead last in the NHL last season in collecting points when scoring first. Things were even worse when they didn't score first, as they went 9-30-9 when giving up the first goal (28th in the league). Whether it was injury or the distractions of the gong show that surrounded the Lightning, Tocchet figures that experience should help galvanize the group and make the team more resilient.

9. A scheduling note
Every team wants to get off to a good start, but it is imperative for the Bolts, who play 11 games in the first four weeks of the season, to prove to themselves and their fans that they have truly put last season's disaster behind them. The Lightning will know which way they're headed by Halloween.

10. Olympic exposure
The Lightning could be well-represented in Vancouver as both Lecavalier and heart-and-soul forward Martin St. Louis are good bets to make the Canadian team and Ohlund will be looking to help the Swedes defend their gold medal. A good start will help Malone's case with Team USA. Meszaros and Lukas Krajicek are good bets to make the Slovak and Czech squads, respectively.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.


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TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

EXTRA CREDITS
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IN REVIEW
• Record: 24-40-18
• Division: Last in the Southeast
• Conference: 14th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify

SCOTT'S PREDICTION
• We picked the Lightning a year ago as our "A Team Can Dream" team for the season. We were just a little early, that's all. The Lightning will jump into second place in the Southeast and head back to the playoffs.



SOUTHEAST DIVISION PREVIEW

COACH'S CORNER

Tocchet

Rick Tocchet
Experience: Entering first full NHL season
Record: 19-33-14
Playoffs: N/A
Stanley Cup titles: 0

• It's hard to judge what kind of coach Rick Tocchet is based on his work last season after taking over when ESPN analyst Barry Melrose was fired after just 16 games. But rest assured, players will know from the outset this fall who is in charge and what is expected from the rough-and-tumble former NHLer.

This season, though, Tocchet said there are no excuses. "We're on the clock now," he said.

Unlike last season, when there was a lot of talk about what the team might accomplish (going to the playoffs, etc.), Tocchet said the Bolts are all about trying to win back the trust of the fans through proving it on the ice.

"We want to get in the news in a more positive way than a negative way," Tocchet said.

Better personnel and better health will go a long way in revealing Tocchet's true abilities as a coach.

STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE IT

F -- Martin St. Louis
• He is the team's de facto captain and a fitting mentor to linemate Steven Stamkos.

F -- Steven Stamkos
• The sky is truly the limit for the 2008 No. 1 draft pick.

F -- Ryan Malone
• Grit, good hands -- and a lot to prove as he hopes to make the U.S. Olympic team.

D -- Mattias Ohlund
• Solid veteran presence will be the perfect mentor for the Bolts' other franchise draft pick, Victor Hedman.

D -- Victor Hedman
• The 2009 No. 2 pick had a lot of people thinking he was the best player available and immediately turned heads at the Lightning camp.

FANTASY TAKE

Ovechkin

Best Bet: Vincent Lecavalier, F: You think defensive and goaltending woes have suppressed the Ottawa Senators' values? Have a look at where some of the Lightning ended up in our rankings. We can't justify giving Lecavalier a solid plus/minus while the Bolts still lack a credible goaltender and defense. So even though we think he'll return to the 80-point level, his value is dragged down enough by that plus/minus that he shouldn't be relied upon as a top fantasy option despite being an elite offensive player.

Risky Move: Stephen Stamkos, F: Stamkos is going to be a star starting in 2009-10, but that star will be suppressed in ESPN leagues because of the drag in plus/minus and ice time. The sophomore should have no trouble taking the next step to near point-per-game status, but on a team with no consistency defensively there will be drawbacks to his value. Stamkos had 31 points in his final 38 games. Consider him a No. 6 fantasy forward for now.

• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit

INSIDE THE PROJECTIONS

Tanguay

Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.

Read where Alex Tanguay and the Bolts rank in ESPN The Magazine and Puck Prospectus' Inside the Projections Insider

VOTE NOW!

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