The Tampa Bay Lightning prepare to drop on their 2013-14 season up in Boston Thursday night, and the schedule early on does not afford the luxury of many soft matchups. In the first several games, the Bolts will take see Bruins and Blackhawks and Pens, (Oh my!), as well as the Kings and Wild. Given that, we should have a good feel for what this Lightning squad is all about come the time we send our little tax-exemptions out into the night to extort various sugary treats from the neighbors.
So as we prepare to skate forth into the opening act of the new NHL campaign, here are a few quick thoughts…Lightning Flashes, if you will… on things to look for from the Bolt early on this fall.
Lightning Flash No. 1 – Coach Jon Cooper: When Coach Cooper was tapped to be Tampa Bay’s new head coach last March he inherited a bit of a mess. But that’s usually the case whenever there’s a mid-season change behind the bench. Now he’s had the ability to guide the Lightning through his first training camp with them and shape the team that he wants to enter into his first full campaign as an NHL head coach. How the team responds early on will have much more to say about his effectiveness than the few weeks spent with the Bolts last spring.
Lightning Flash No. 2 – Defense: Tampa Bay’s defense was their Achilles heel last season, causing their goalkeepers to take as many shots to the face as a Madeira Beach retiree with coupons to a Botox clinic. In fact, the 425 goals allowed in the past two seasons are the most in the NHL during that time. However, the only big change that GM Steve Yzerman made to improve his blueline was the acquisition of assistant coach Rick Bowness. He’ll concentrate his efforts on team defense and the penalty kill. Yzerman’s thinking is that the personnel will benefit from the type of coaching the Vancouver Canucks received for the past several years with Bowness.
Lightning Flash No. 3 – Victor Hedman: He has already proven himself worthy of the Bolts using their 2nd overall pick on him in the 2009 draft. His offensive prowess has continued to improve, putting up almost as many points last season in 44 games as he did the previous year while appearing in 61. But now is the time for Hedman to make that big step from promising young talent into the beast of the blueline that he needs to and can become.
Lightning Flash No. 4 – Between the Pipes: Anders Lindback had a less-than-impressive first season in Tampa after being acquired from the Nashville Predators. The 25-year old Swede appeared in 24 games last season, going 10-10-1 with a 2.90 GAA and .902 SV%. Likewise, Ben Bishop, who turns 27 on November 1, went 3-4-1 with a 2.99 GAA, .917 SV% and a shutout after being traded from the Ottawa Senators last April. Combined the two have all of 107 NHL games worth of experience under their pads. But the duties between the Lightning’s pipes will fall on their shoulders going into the 2013-14 campaign. Yzerman and his head coach both feel their young netminders will benefit from better play in front of them. For as Coach Cooper put it recently, “You can’t rely on your goaltender to make every single save for you.” That was certainly the case last season, but they’ll have to be counted on to improve at least as much as the defense does.
Lightning Flash No. 5 – Valtteri Filppula: He’s been asked to come in and try to fill the skates of Vincent Lecavalier…yeah, no pressure there. Regardless, Filppula was a solid acquisition by Yzerman in the wake of the departing superstar. He had the best offensive production of his career the last time the NHL schedule went to 82 games, netting 23 goals, 43 assists with a +18 rating. During that same 2011-12 season, Lecavalier scored 22, assisted on 27 and finished a -2. Tampa Bay also gained 4 years in youth in the Vinny-to-Filppula transition. The big question is how quickly can he assimilate into the Tampa Bay fold and get comfortable playing alongside of his new linemates.
Lightning Flash No. 6 – Martin St. Louis: He’s the biggest little man in the league but the question is, which St. Louis will we see in the first two dozen or so games…the one that led the NHL in overall scoring last season, (60 points in 48 games), or the one that saw a 25 drop-off in points production during the 2011-12 campaign from the one prior to that? Until the D gets its act together the Bolts are going to need to find as many goals as they can, and Marty St. Louis needs to continue to be one of their most potent offensive threats.
Lightning Flash No. 7 – Power Play: Last year the Lightning were able to strike successfully on 19.0% of their power play opportunities. That doesn’t exactly send the needle of the Suck-O-Meter spinning off its axis mind you, but it needs to be better. This is especially so if the defense plays to the same level it did last season. If they are going to make a return to playoff contention, whenever they are on the man-advantage they’ll need to attack the goal with the same frequency and enthusiasm as Rosie O’Donnell does an open buffet.
Lightning Flash No. 8 – Steven Stamkos: He’s proven to be all that and a bag-O-po-TA-to chips in his first five NHL seasons. Stamkos’ 29 goals last season was bested only by Alex Ovechkin’s 32. To put that in perspective that type of production extrapolated over an 82 game season comes to 50 goals. Impressive as that it, it is still be ten less than the year before. The first overall pick in the 2008 already has 208 regular season goals in his first 373 games and 13 more points than his career game total. So, the question is not if he’s going to produce offensively, but just how many times he’s going to illuminate the lamp.
Lightning Flash No. 9 – Steve Yzerman: In case you haven’t caught on yet, I feel the Tampa Bay Lightning will be just fine on the offensive side of the ice. It’s the play in their own end as well as in goal that create cause for concern. Yzerman has gambled this shall improve with more experience and better coaching. But time will be the ultimate judge on the success here. The question though is… how long will Stevie Y wait for his patience to yield fruit? If the Bolts are still giving up goals at an alarming rate come the holidays then he just might think twice about doubling- down on the same bet and will then give consideration to making some moves.