Tampa Bay Lightning Season Preview
Record Last Year: 38-36-8
Goal Differential: -46
Team 5v5 Fenwick: 48.31% (20th in NHL)
5v5 Sh%: 9.9%
5v5 Sv%: .899
PP SF/60: 41.5 (28th in NHL)
PK SA/60: 53.4 (25th in NHL)
With the season set to begin a couple days, it's now a good time to see what the other teams in the NHL have been up to over the last six months and how the Carolina Hurricanes stack up against them. One team that Carolina had some problems with in the past is the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning are known as the team that knocked Carolina out of the playoffs on the last game of the 2010-11 season and followed it up by defeating them 5-1 on opening night the next season. These two teams did have some good battles last year, though as they ended up splitting the season series with three wins a piece.
That aside, the Lightning are coming off a very disappointing season after making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals the previous year. You can see from the stats above that the Bolts were a pretty bad team in just about all areas. They did get some good shooting luck from their top-two lines that helped them win a few more games than they probably "should" have when you consider how poor their goaltending and defensive play was. If the Lightning want to get back to the playoffs, they will need to rely on more than just Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Teddy Purcell striking gold everytime they shoot the puck because that will only get you so far when your goalies are stopping less than 90% of the shots they face at even strength.
Their GM, Steve Yzerman, was smart enough to recognize this over the summer as the Lightning had a pretty underrated off-season and appear to be a better team on paper than they were a year ago.
Who's in? Anders Lindback (G), Matt Carle (D), Sami Salo (D), Matt Taormina (D), BJ Crombeen (RW), Benoit Pouliot (LW), Kyle Wilson (C)
Who's Out? Ryan Shannon (RW), Brett Clark (D), Mike Commodore (D), Bruno Gervais (D), Dwayne Roloson (D)
The Lightning had an overall net gain this off-season, as none of the pieces they lost provided much value and some of the players they added should play big roles. Matt Carle and Sami Salo should be much better than Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina were in the top-four while Benoit Pouliot and BJ Crombeen gives Tampa some needed forward depth. Head coach Guy Boucher is known for feeding his bottom-six to the wolves, so I'm not sure how well Pouliot and Crombeen will do if they aren't protected, as neither are used to playing in those circumstances. It is a slight upgrade from what they had last year, though.
The biggest upgrade Tampa Bay made was in net when they traded for Predators back-up goaltender Anders Lindback. With only 38 games of NHL experience, Lindback is far from being proven but I find it hard to believe that he will be worse than Dwayne Roloson and his .886 save percentage were for Tampa Bay last year. The Lightning should be at least 1-2 wins better than they were last year if they receive league-average goaltending from Lindback, which makes this acquisition worth what they gave up for him (Two second round picks + AHL player). Whether or Lindback actually gives them that remains to be seen, but the Lightning needed goaltending help and Yzerman made the move to acquire it.
Reasons for Optimism
New Goaltender, New Hope
As I mentioned earlier, if the Preds get even average goaltending from Lindback then they should be a couple wins better than they were last year. This is mostly an testament to how putrid Roloson performed, but the Lightning have struggled with goaltending ever since Nikolai Khabibulin left. Their fanbase knows all about how much bad goaltending can sink a team's hopes and anything somewhat better will go a long way if the rest of the team improves along with it. Lindback is still largely unproven but he doesn't have to be Jonathan Quick for the Lightning to have any chance at the playoffs, he just needs to be good enough.
After a horrible start, Tampa Bay actually made a relatively strong push in the second half of the year and one of the reasons for that was their excellent top-six led by Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Stamkos is the best goal-scorer in the NHL and he has been improving his play at even strength the last couple of years. I mentioned that he and his linemates got the benefit of great shooting luck and that is definitely true as he, St. Louis, Purcell, Malone and Lecavalier had 5v5 on-ice shooting percentages over 10%. I've previously written about how Eric Staal has impacted his linemate's shooting percentage at even strength and there is a good chance that Stamkos and possibly St. Louis fit into the same category, given their on-ice shooting percentages have been high for years.
Regardless, Tampa Bay was able to outscore some of their issues last year and they can continue to do so next year with the same cast returning. The only member of the top-six who they probably want to see more out of is Brett Connolly, who had an underwhelming rookie season but he is still only 21 and will improve with time and experience. I would also be on the lookout for Cory Conacher to get a shot with one of the top-two lines sometime this year. He was one of the Norfolk Admirals best players last season and is a proven scorer in the AHL. They may look to him to boost their top-six if Connolly continues to struggle.
New Look Defense
Tampa Bay's horrific goaltending was mostly to blame for their -46 goal differential last season but their defense was also quite bad. They had a solid defense pairing in Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman, who were forced to do virtually all the heavy-lifting but after that it was a mess. Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark were destroyed night in and night out while their third pairing consisted of guys who had to be protected. Adding Matt Carle and Sami Salo gives them two players who can play in the top-four and provide an immediate upgrade over Kubina & Clark. Both are also capable of playing tough minutes and taking some pressure off Brewer & Hedman so they won't be forced to do everything like last year. Speaking of Hedman, he has quietly developed into a solid shutdown defenseman at the age of 21. His offense hasn't quite come around yet but the defensive side of his game is right where it needs to be. Having a second defense pairing that is actually capable will go a long way in helping Tampa's defense.
Causes For Concern
Aging Martin St. Louis
Many consider Martin St. Louis to be an "ageless" wonder since it appears that he hasn't lost any touch in his game despite being in his late-30's. His boxcar numbers have remained good throughout his career, but St. Louis' ability to drive the play forward has declined quite a bit. He came out in the red in even strength shot differential last year despite being fed soft minutes on the top-two lines and that has to worry some people when it comes to his ability to maintain his strong scoring numbers. Then again, getting to play with Stamkos and Purcell will probably keep St. Louis' assist total high even if his underlying numbers continue to decline. There have been a lot of players who have been able to be productive in the latter stages of their careers, so it's not a given that St. Louis will decline but it's something to be on the watch for.
The Lightning look like a better team on paper but that doesn't mean they will be and they are placing a lot of hope in unproven assets. The biggest one is obviously their new goaltender, Lindback since he will probably have the most say in whether or not they make the playoffs but there are a few others. The acquisition of Salo could turn out very well if he stays healthy, but everybody knows Salo's injury problems and that he is due to miss at least 10 games per season. If/When he gets hurt, that will force one of the guys from their bottom-pairing to step up into tougher minutes and that may turn out poorly. Then there's their top-six that was largely driven by high shooting percentage last year. As great as Stamkos is, shooting percentages are still mostly driven by luck and Tampa Bay could find themselves in trouble if one of their top players goes through a slump, especially in a shortened year.
Boucher usually gives all the tough-minutes to his bottom-six and lets his star players feast on other team's depth lines and most of the offensive zone starts. This isn't a bad method if you have capable depth forwards who can at least push the play forward a little, but this wasn't the case for the Lightning last season. Adam Hall, Nate Thompson, Tom Pyatt and JT Wyman weren't exactly ideal shutdown options as they were destroyed territorially last year. I mentioned earlier that the Lightning brought in BJ Crombeen and Benoit Pouliot to give them more depth on the bottom-two lines but who knows how they will perform if Boucher deploys the forwards in a similar fashion.
The Lightning have improved but they still have plenty of concerns on their roster. The good news for them is that the same thing can be said about every team in the Southeast and just about every team in the East hoping for a playoff spot. The bad news is that one of the Lightning's biggest question marks is in net and that may end up having the biggest impact on where they will finish in the East this season.