I’m not one to pile on when a team is down in the basement, but I can’t help being intrigued by the Tampa Bay Lightning right now. It’s almost amazing to think a team in this era can be as bad as the Lightning is when not trying to rebuild.
Sure, the Bolts finished last in the NHL in 2007-08, but nothing about the team’s summer spending spree suggested there was a long-term plan in place. In fact, the template seemed pretty simple: With the Bolts too top-heavy and reliant on Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis, the solution was to bring in No. 1 draft pick and all-round solid center Steven Stamkos to anchor a second line with free agents du jour Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata. When Jeff Halpern comes back from a gruesome leg injury, there’s even a solid third option should ‘Stammer’ falter.
Never mind the fact Malone and Vrbata were coming off the best seasons of their careers, which just happened to be contract years as well. And never mind that the real problem in Tampa Bay is the fact the team’s defensemen must labor intensively just to get the puck up to the forwards.
Right now, the Bolts can’t score. They are tied with Ottawa for the least amount of goals-for in the league, but have given up 25 more than the Sens and played two more games.
It’s not as if this group of forwards doesn’t have the ability. St-Louis has broken the 100-point barrier before, in a 2006-07 campaign that saw him pot 43 goals. Lecavalier had 52 goals and 108 points the same year, taking the Rocket Richard Trophy in the process. Stamkos tallied 58 times in his last year of junior, which should at least translate into 20 goals as an NHL rookie (witness Patrick Kane last year). Right now Stamkos is on pace for nine.
No, the problem is largely getting the puck to the forwards. From the first game of the season – the Prague game against the Rangers – it was clear the Bolts had little to no transition game. Right from the get-go, Lecavalier was looking backwards for passes that came close, but not to, his stick. And that’s no way to get an offense clicking.
Tampa’s brass – owners Oren Koules, Len Barrie and now-GM Brian Lawton – have a similar profile to new Vancouver GM Mike Gillis: no experience in an NHL team war room and taking over a franchise with needs. Gillis’ mission was easy: find some scoring up front (Pavol Demitra and Kyle Wellwood – check), buy a rabbit’s foot for your vaunted, but injury-prone defense (not perfect, but healthier than last year) and send Dave Nonis a very nice thank-you card.
The Bolts brain trust instead took a weak defense corps and made it weaker. Filip Kuba was traded for the younger Andrej Meszaros – with Alex Picard thrown in to make the deal more improbable – and Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich went to San Jose for Matt Carle and some futures. Carle, who does have puck-moving skills, was then sent to Philly for Steve Eminger.
For those of you keeping score, the Bolts essentially traded four NHL defensemen for two. They’ve since added Marek Malik and Jamie Heward, neither of whom come from the Paul Coffey school of offensive blueliners.
The Bolts may not have been trying to rebuild this season, but they certainly have found themselves surrounded by rubble, which happens when you have bricks, but no mortar.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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