There are a couple of up-and-coming teams I’m excited to see play this season. In the West, St. Louis looks like a team that can sneak up on a few foes. In the East, I can’t stop thinking about Tampa Bay.
Now I know the Lightning isn’t the most glamorous team, but I just can’t get over the feeling the squad is going to be much better than last season – like battling-for-the-playoffs better.
Take a look at Tampa’s top forwards. I know he’s coming off his worst post-lockout season, but Vincent Lecavalier is a superstar the likes of which few NHL teams can boast. Martin St-Louis, the 2004 Hart Trophy winner, is as good a second-tier winger as there is in the league. Coming off his performance at the World Championship, Steven Stamkos looks like the real deal. And Ryan Malone is fast becoming one of the better power forwards around.
But the biggest reason for excitement in central Florida’s hockey circles is the Lightning’s revamped blueline. And by revamped, I mean totally overhauled.
Last season, the Lightning used an amazing 22 defensemen and none had flashy numbers. Injuries were a huge problem – only Lukas Krajicek played more than 52 games – but an injection of skill was needed. Steve Eminger led the blueline in scoring with 23 points in 50 games and Cory Murphy was the only Bolt back-ender to tally as many as five goals.
An ugly mishmash is the best way to describe the 2008-09 Tampa D-corps. Running down the roster, Josef Melichar, Richard Petiot, Kevin Quick and Jamie Heward pop off the page. Not exactly household names.
But this year, things will be very different. During the off-season the Lightning went out and did exactly what it needed to do: find NHL-caliber defensemen.
New faces include Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker, Kurtis Foster (the most intriguing of the newbies), David Hale and the biggest Bolt of them all, No. 2 overall pick Victor Hedman. Even if Hedman experiences the growing pains most young defenders do upon entering the league, this is still a formidable group.
There are now 10 guys who will battle for the six or seven NHL jobs. The fight for playing time should come down to Foster, Hedman, Krajicek and Hale for the final two spots. That’s not a bad thing for coach Rick Tocchet, who can use the competition to get an early idea of who is willing to battle – or GM Brian Lawton, who should have some cheap chips to play as teams scour the market for blueline help later in the season.
Tampa’s biggest questions are in goal. Mike Smith will have to be fully recovered from his concussion problems and newcomer Antero Niittymaki must prove to be a decent backup if the Bolts are to have any chance of moving from 14th in the East to eighth or better.
But if Smith is healthy, the defense corps he returns to the ice with will be miles ahead of the one he left with last season. As well, this new group will be able to move the puck up ice in ways that could only be dreamed of last season, relieving the promising netminder of some pressure.
With the puck being Hedman-ed (sorry, couldn’t help it) to the likes of Lecavalier, St-Louis, Stamkos and Malone more effectively, the Bolts’ 2008-09 tied-for-24th offense will be much improved. The talent boost on the blueline will also give Tampa’s goalies a break. And an amped-up internal competition amongst the D-men is good for everyone involved.
All of that means nobody should count the Lightning out – not even out of the playoffs.
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