The Tampa Bay Lightning entered this season with high expectations following their surprising 103-point performance in 2010-11 and coming within one game of advancing to the Stanley Cup final.
First-year GM Steve Yzerman earned considerable praise for his efforts in resurrecting the Lightning from the wreckage of its previous ownership and management, while coach Guy Boucher, master of the 1-3-1 system, was heralded for getting the most out of his over-achieving roster.
Yzerman made savvy additions last season, bringing back veteran blueliner Pavel Kubina via free agency and acquiring veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson, defenseman Eric Brewer and left winger Simon Gagne via trades.
He seemed to strike gold with minor additions such as defenseman Brett Clark, center Dominic Moore and left winger Sean Bergenheim, who all went on to play key roles in the club’s march to the conference final.
With rising superstar center Steven Stamkos forming a lethal one-two offensive punch with veteran right winger Martin St-Louis and a rejuvenated Vincent Lecavalier centering their second line, the Lightning appeared poised to build on last season’s achievements.
But with only 10 games remaining, the Lightning find themselves nine points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference and are all but assured of missing the 2012 playoffs.
Throughout this season, the Lightning struggled to rise above .500, with February being the only month they finished with an even record (7-7).
So what went wrong?
Goaltending was a significant issue. Yzerman gambled on 42-year-old playoff hero Roloson having one more year left in him, but by mid-season it was painfully obvious time had finally caught up with the aging veteran, who managed only eight wins in 32 games played, with a league-worst 3.77 GAA and .880 SP.
Yzerman opted not to re-sign backup Mike Smith and instead inked former Columbus Blue Jackets netminder Mathieu Garon to a two-year, $2.6 million contract.
As Roloson faltered, Garon got more starts. By early March Garon was on a hot streak, winning six of eight games and keeping the Lightning’s playoff hopes alive, until he was sidelined March 7 by a potentially season-ending groin injury.
Smith, meanwhile, signed a two-year, $4 million deal last summer with the Phoenix Coyotes, where he has rejuvenated his career by being among the league leaders in most goaltending categories. Yzerman’s decision to pass on Smith was his first serious management blunder.
It wasn’t just the goaltending that struggled for the Lightning, as their defensive game also suffered a significant decline.
Though they were tied for 21st overall last season in goals-against per game, the Lightning had the eighth-best penalty kill and gave up the sixth-fewest shots-against. This season, they’re 30th in goals-against per game, 27th on the penalty kill and 17th in shots-against per game.
Critics believe opponents have figured out Boucher’s defensive system, which suggests he’s been too inflexible to adjust.
The Lightning’s offense also suffered. Thanks largely to Stamkos’ second 50-goal season, they’re currently 10th in goals-for per game, but are also 24th overall on the power play and 26th in shots per game.
That’s down significantly from last season, when Tampa Bay had the sixth-best power play and generated the seventh-most shots per game.
Injuries also played a critical factor in the Lightning’s swoon. Key players such as Lecavalier, Garon, left winger Ryan Malone and defensemen Victor Hedman and Marc-Andre Bergeron were sidelined for lengthy periods throughout the season.
Yzerman has almost $47 million invested in 15 players for next season and while the Tampa Bay Times reported owner Jeff Vinik remains financially committed to building a winner, there might not be enough money to add a starting goalie, puck-moving defenseman and a top-six forward.
Improving the scoring depth and defense is necessary, but bolstering the goaltending will be Yzerman’s top priority.
Minnesota’s Josh Harding is the best of this summer’s UFA goalies. Having overcome career-threatening injuries, Harding had a solid performance with the Wild, but still lacks experience as a full-time starter.
Given the lack of quality goalies available via this summer’s free agent market, it’s believed Yzerman will pursue Vancouver’s Cory Schneider, L.A.’s Jonathan Bernier or Nashville’s Anders Lindback. Of the three, Schneider has the most experience, but like Harding, not as a full-time starter.
Another option is to target the St. Louis Blues, who carry two starting goalies in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, though Blues management will be reluctant to break up that tandem, so this route is unlikely.
With age creeping up on 36-year-old Martin St-Louis, Yzerman could also use the summer to bring in his eventual replacement.
A perfect option would be New Jersey Devils left winger Zach Parise if he tests the open market, but with more than $25 million tied up in Stamkos, Lecavalier, St-Louis and Malone, Yzerman would have to dump salary to afford an expensive talent like Parise.
With this season ending sooner than expected for the Lightning, Yzerman will have plenty of time to form his plans on improving his roster.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.