STATE OF THE UNION
For all that went wrong with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008-09, there's plenty to get excited about following a productive offseason.
It started May 11 when General Manager Brian Lawton officially named Rick Tocchet the team's coach -- eliminating that interim tag that had been attached to his name since he took over on Nov. 14, 2008, following the dismissal of Barry Melrose. Tocchet led the club to a 19-33-14 mark over the remaining 66 games of the regular season. The Lightning were competitive despite the fact Tocchet was forced to dress 50 players -- including 22 defensemen -- while losing 351 man-games to injury. And let's not forget that 18 of Tampa's losses last season occurred in overtime or the shootout.
"Under a difficult situation, he did a great job," Lawton said of Tocchet.
Rookie Steven Stamkos, who was held without a goal in 15 of his first 16 games, scored 21 goals and tallied 42 points in 63 games under Tocchet. There's no reason to believe the No. 1 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft won't pick up where he left off.
But Lawton was determined to upgrade a defense that allowed 3.28 goals per game last campaign, 27th in the League. While Tampa possesses some young talent on defense -- Matt Lashoff, Matt Smaby and Ty Wishart come to mind -- there's always room for a veteran presence. That's what Lawton got when he signed Mattias Ohlund to a seven-year deal on July 1.
Lawton also signed rugged Matt Walker and mobile Kurtis Foster, re-signed Lukas Krajicek and acquired David Hale from Phoenix. But the big prize came when he picked Sweden's Victor Hedman with the second pick in the Entry Draft.
"I thought they were great additions," Stamkos told NHL.com. "Management and coaches identified what we needed and went for it. I played against Hedman in international tournaments and he's a stud, and Ohlund is one of the best defensemen in the League. I met Ohlund and (Matt) Walker while doing some PR stuff and they are both great guys. They came into an organization they know didn't do well last year but still want to be a part of a turnaround and that's great."
"I thought they were great additions. Management and coaches identified what we needed and went for it."
-- Steven Stamkos on the offseason additions of the Lightning
"(The concussion) was one of those injuries where I played with it for a couple of months and thought it would go away, but it just got worse and worse," Smith told tampabaylightning.com. "I felt that if I wasn't at my best, I would be better off to not be in the game. I feel a lot stronger and healthier now than I did back in March and I'm just working towards September."
Lightning goaltending coach Cap Raeder was also pleased with youngsters Riku Helenius, Dustin Tokarski and 2009 draftees Michael Zador and Jaroslav Janus at the team's Young Guns Camp in July.
Lightning captain and four-time NHL All-Star Vincent Lecavalier missed the last five games of 2008-09 after undergoing surgery to fix the wrist injury that hampered him for most of '08-09, He should be at full strength for his 11th NHL season. Martin St. Louis, Stamkos, Ryan Malone and Jeff Halpern also return to fortify the offense.
Last month, Lawton bought out the contract of wing Vinny Prospal and named Rick Wilson associate coach. Wilson, who had spent the previous 16 seasons with the Dallas Stars, will work primarily with the defense.
Some good did come out of the Lightning's injury-plagued season: Management and coaches were able to evaluate several of their prospects on the big stage.
Forwards Radek Smolenak, Paul Szczechura and Ryan Craig and defensemen Matt Lashoff, Vladimir Mihalik, Matt Smaby, Kevin Quick and Ty Wishart were all forced into duty for coach Rick Tocchet at some point during the 2008-09 campaign. With many young players gaining valuable ice time and others working their way up the organizational ladder, player personnel director Jim Hammett is confident the Lightning are headed in the right direction.
"I think there's always work that needs to be done and we have some positions that need to be stronger, but I believe we were able to fill several areas through the draft," Hammett told NHL.com. "We were really happy to get Hedman with the second pick because he fills a big hole for our hockey club. More importantly, he'll be a mainstay on our blue line for years to come. His hockey sense and skill are tremendous."
Hedman leads the parade of five promising youngsters capable of earning some time with the big club in 2009-10:
Victor Hedman -- He has the size, strength and offensive instincts the Lightning so desperately need on the back end. While Hedman certainly won't be an immediate savior -- he'll have to become acclimated to the NHL way of life -- expect him to earn more ice time as the season progresses and he gains more confidence.
Ty Wishart -- This could be the season the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder earns significant playing time. He'll compete for a roster spot at training camp and, according to Hammett, would be one of the first call-ups if he doesn't earn a spot from the outset.
Dustin Tokarski -- The Lightning signed goalie Antero Niittymaki in the offseason to be the backup to starter Mike Smith, but they're not forgetting about Tokarski. He was impressive during the team's prospects camp in July, and his calm demeanor between the pipes is certainly an influence on his teammates. He was named MVP of the Memorial Cup in 2007-08 after recording a 4-0 mark with a 1.72 goals-against average and .953 save percentage for Spokane of the Western Hockey League.
"(Tokarski) has a pro style, where it's positioning and blocking," Lightning goaltending coach Cap Raeder told tampabaylightning.com. "His demeanor is perfect."
Dana Tyrell -- Following surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee suffered last winter during a warmup game at the World Junior Championships -- when he knocked Sweden's Victor Hedman to the ice -- Tyrell will likely spend this season in Norfolk of the AHL. Lightning assistant Wes Walz felt Tyrell actually appeared a bit quicker this season at the team's prospects camp.
Kevin Quick -- Quick will begin the season in the AHL with Norfolk, where he played 18 games on defense in 2008-09. He also played six games with the Lightning and is regarded as an offensive threat in transition. He added 20 pounds in the offseason and really impressed the coaches at the Young Guns Camp in July. He could be one of the first call-ups if the team requires a fill-in along the blue line.
For the second straight season, the Lightning drafted the best player at the position they needed most.
One season removed from nabbing center Steven Stamkos with the first choice in 2008, Lawton was certainly glad to see Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman available at the No. 2 spot this year.
"It's always nice to have a whack at it through the draft and have an opportunity to select a player of (Hedman's) caliber who could potentially help in a reasonable time frame," Lawton said.
Here's a breakdown of Tampa's seven picks at the 2009 Entry Draft in Montreal:
Victor Hedman -- The 6-foot-6 Hedman spent last season with MoDo of the Swedish Elite League, where he earned Rookie of the Year honors as an 18-year-old after scoring 7 goals and 21 points in 43 games. The native of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, represented his country in each of the previous two World Junior Championships, winning a silver medal both times.
Carter Ashton -- Ashton's ability to score from in tight enabled the 6-3, 205-pound wing to record 30 goals and 50 points last season for the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League. Ashton's father, Brent, played 998 NHL games with nine teams. The fact the Lightning traded up to select Ashton means they see a lot of potential in him.
Richard Panik -- Panik will join the Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League next season after playing 15 games for Trinec of the Czech Super League in 2008-09. Panik also appeared in seven games for Slovakia at the 2009 World Junior Championships.
Alex Hutchings -- At 5-foot-10, 173 pounds, the 93rd pick doesn't necessarily have great size but he's extremely nimble on his skates. Hutchings scored 34 goals and had 68 points for the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League.
Michael Zador -- A goalie prospect from the Oshawa Generals of the OHL, the Toronto native posted a .901 save percentage and 3.65 goals-against average in 18 games. His most memorable hockey tournament to date was the 2008 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge when he won a gold medal with Team Ontario.
Jaroslav Janus -- Janus struggled behind a weak Erie defense in the OHL, finishing with a 3.24 goals-against average. But he still earned top honors for goaltenders at the 2009 World Junior Championships while playing for Slovakia.
Kirill Gotovets -- The 183rd selection, a 5-11, 175-pound defenseman out of Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota, will attend Cornell University following one more season of prep school.
"I wanted to come to the USA to play last year (at Shattuck) because it's impossible to go to school and play hockey in my country (Belarus)," Gotovets told NHL.com. "Here it's a good opportunity to get a good education and also to play for a good team and maybe, one day, play in the NHL."