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Lightning wasted no time in retooling

Wednesday, 09.03.2008 / 9:00 AM / Season Preview

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

To say the Tampa Bay Lighting took their last-place finish in the NHL standings to heart would most certainly be the understatement of the year.

In fact, the 71-point showing in 2007-08 provided all the motivation the organization would need to embark on the busiest summer in its 16 seasons in the League.

The transformation began June 20 at the 2008 Entry Draft in Ottawa when the Lightning officially picked Steven Stamkos with the No. 1 selection. Three days later, a new eight-man ownership group, headed by Hollywood producer Oren Koules and former NHL player and current real estate mogul Len Barrie, was announced.

On June 24, former Los Angeles Kings coach and longtime ESPN analyst Barry Melrose was named the team's sixth coach.

Then things got real interesting when Pittsburgh forwards Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall were signed, forward Vaclav Prospal inked a multi-year contract, goalie Olaf Kolzig signed a one-year deal and unrestricted free agent wing Radim Vrbata was given a three-year contract. On July 4, the club dealt defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich to San Jose for defenseman Matt Carle, prospect Ty Wishart, a first-round pick in 2009 and a fourth-round choice in 2010.

The defensive posturing continued on Aug. 29 when the Lightning traded Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and a 2009 first-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for restricted free-agent blue liner Andrej Meszaros. Meszaros was subsequently signed to a six-year deal the very next day.

Additionally, veteran wing Mark Recchi then signed a one-year contract before Vincent Lecavalier was given an 11-year extension through 2019-20. If that wasn't enough, this season will mark the first time in franchise history that the Lightning will open a season overseas, in Prague on Oct. 4-5 against the New York Rangers.

Goalies

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
2007-08 SEASON STATS

Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 71
(15TH eAst/29th NHL)
Change from 2006-07 -22
Home Points 43
(12th eAst/25th NHL)
Away Points 28
(15th eAst/30th NHL)
For the first time in his career, Mike Smith will enter a season knowing the starter's role is his to lose. Smith, 26, was acquired from the Dallas Stars at the Feb. 26 trade deadline as part of the Brad Richards deal. Smith appeared in 13 games with the Lightning in 2007-08, posting a 3-10 record, 2.79 goals-against average, .893 save percentage and one shutout. Prior to being acquired by the Lightning, he was 12-9 with a .906 save percentage and 2.46 GAA as the backup to Marty Turco in Dallas.

Tampa also signed the veteran Kolzig, 38, away from Washington. In 54 appearances with the Caps last season, Kolzig went 25-21-6 with a 2.91 GAA and .892 save percentage. In 711 career games, Kolzig has 301 victories, 35 shutouts, a 2.70 GAA and .906 save percentage.

Finnish goalie Karri Ramo made 22 appearances last season, finishing 7-11-3 with a 3.03 GAA and .899 save percentage. The 22-year-old Ramo is a likely replacement if Smith or Kolzig suffer an injury.

Defense

The Lightning finished dead last in goals allowed last season, yielding 3.24 per game. The defense, which will certainly benefit from a more explosive offense this campaign, returns Shane O’Brien, Paul Ranger, Mike Lundin and Matt Smaby. Ranger finished tied for the team-lead among defensemen with 31 points and was tops along the blue line with 10 goals and second on the team with 118 blocked shots.

O’Brien was second on the team with 128 hits and fourth with 42 takeaways. Lundin (65 blocks), who was named to the NHL YoungStars Game during NHL All-Star Weekend in Atlanta last season, should play an even greater role this winter.

Meszaros should provide the Lightning another offensive presence on the back end. The 22-year-old first-round draft choice in 2004 by Ottawa played all 82 games with the Sens last season, finishing second among the team’s defensemen with 36 points while ranking third on the club in blocked shots with 100 and fifth in average ice time with 21:02.

While summer acquisitions Carle and Wishart cannot be looked upon as replacements for departed veterans Boyle or Lukowich, look for Melrose to ease both youngsters into the defensive rotation.

"I'm hoping to become a top-four defenseman here in Tampa," Carle told NHL.com. "I don't think there are too many guys capable of replacing a Dan Boyle or Brad Lukowich, but collectively the defensive unit must work together to elevate its overall game. There's going to be some good competition in training camp."

Carle suffered the proverbial "sophomore slump" last season in San Jose, scoring just two goals and 15 points in 62 games. He's hoping a change in scenery will help resuscitate his game.

"It's tough to place a finger on one reason why I struggled, but there were high expectations and I was hoping to really build off my rookie season (11 goals, 42 points) but it just never happened," he said. "But I'm a guy who looks at the positives and I've learned from last season and am determined to take that next step."

Forwards

Could the Lightning become this year's Washington Capitals within the Southeast Division?

With Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Malone, Vrbata, Prospal and Stamkos, it wouldn't come as a surprise. Lecavalier and St. Louis combined for 65 goals and 175 points last season.

The return of Prospal gives Melrose the option of reuniting the MVP Line (Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Prospal). Before his trade to Philadelphia on Feb. 23, Prospal, Lecavalier and St. Louis were the NHL's second-highest scoring trio, accounting for 80 goals and 202 points. The 33-year-old Prospal netted a career-high 33 goals in 80 games with Tampa and the Flyers in 2007-08. Lecavalier, who became the first player in franchise history to record back-to-back 40-goal seasons, led the team with 92 points, the second highest total in his nine NHL seasons, in addition to seven game-winners. St. Louis was second on the team with 25 goals and 83 points. Both Lecavalier and St. Louis recorded a team-leading 10 power-play goals.

Melrose could then roll out prized possession Stamkos as the center for Vrbata and Malone. Malone, who was the last player to leave his stall after the Penguins had been vanquished by the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, played in 77 games with the Pens last season, posting career highs with 27 goals, 51 points, 11 power-play goals and six game-winners. In 20 playoff games, he finished with six goals and 16 points.

Vrbata enjoyed a breakthrough season in Phoenix in 2007-08, setting career highs and finishing as the Coyotes' second-leading scorer with 27 goals and 56 points in 76 games. He also led the club with three shorthanded goals and ranked tied for third with seven power-play goals. He also scored five goals in seven games with the Czech Republic at the 2008 World Championships.

The Lightning offensive depth chart doesn't end there either, as Jeff Halpern (20 goals, 42 points), Jussi Jokinen (26 assists, 42 points), Michel Ouellet (17 goals, 36 points), Chris Gratton (21 points) and wily veterans Recchi (48 points) and Roberts (15 points) will also play vital roles.

Three reasons for optimism

* The fans of Tampa are going to adore rookie Steven Stamkos and it shouldn't be very long before he begins earning the respect of his new teammates. Don't be surprised if Stamkos fills the void left at second-line center since former Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Brad Richards was dealt to Dallas at the trade deadline last February.

"I realize it's going to be tough for me to come in as an 18-year-old against these men and shine right away," Stamkos said, "but I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get that roster spot for the whole season and continue to grow as a player."

He ranked second in the Ontario Hockey League last season with 58 goals and fifth in points with 197 in 61 games for the Sarnia Sting. His nine game-winners were tied for second in the OHL, his 23 power-play goals were third and his five shorthanded goals ranked tied for fifth.

* Look for new coach Barry Melrose to add some fervor and flair into Tampa's game. Melrose is a strong believer in outworking and outskating the opposition, finishing checks and forcing mistakes to create a quick transition.

"We have a good group, and an underrated group," the 51-year-old coach said of his new team. "Vinny (Lecavalier) is one of the five best players in the world. Marty St. Louis -- his passion, his speed, his courage -- what a role model for (Steven) Stamkos. I've always felt you intimidate by speed, talent, good defense and goaltending and that's the type of team I want here in Tampa."

* While much of the focus has been made of the upgrade on offense, don't be surprised if goalie Mike Smith establishes himself as one of the League's best goalies. Smith, who signed a two-year contract extension with the team in July, enters preseason with the knowledge a strong performance will earn him the No. 1 role from the outset for the first time in his career.

"Mike does have a bright future, has a great intellect for the game and wants to get better," said Stars' goalie Marty Turco, his former partner.

"It goes without saying that Mike has a bright future in the Lightning organization," Lightning Vice President of Hockey Operations Brian Lawton said. "It's important in our plan to have locked up Mike, along with Ollie (Kolzig), to solidify our goaltending situation this season and beyond."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.

Season preview

NORTHEAST

Boston
Buffalo
Montreal
Ottawa
Toronto

SOUTHEAST

Atlanta
Carolina
Florida
Tampa Bay
Washington

Central

Chicago
Columbus
Detroit
Nashville
St. Louis

Northwest

Calgary
Colorado
Edmonton
Minnesota
Vancouver

Pacific

Anaheim
Dallas
Los Angeles
Phoenix
San Jose




Quote of the Day

I'm just excited about the opportunity. I've been on the ice earlier than usual and in the weight room, pushing around a little more weights than usual. Every day I go into a workout with a smile on my face and ready to go. When you do have a little more responsibility, you want to take your lunch pail and get ready to work.

— Brian Elliott to Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch on being the Blues' No. 1 goalie