Every so often, the Tampa Bay Lightning
are reminded of the growing pains associated with a team looking to re-establish itself as a Stanley Cup contender.
It was only five seasons ago the club celebrated its first Stanley Cup. But back-to-back opening-round playoff ousters followed by consecutive fifth-place finishes in the Southeast Division have sent the organization back to the drawing board.
General Manager Brian Lawton
admits there's been a lot to like about this season's club. In fact, he's having more fun now than last season, his first on the job, when Tampa Bay finished with the second-fewest points in the League (66).
"The thing I've enjoyed most is the commitment of the players," Lawton told NHL.com. "I wasn't crazy about our group last year and that eventually seemed to manifest itself on the ice in wins and losses.
"This season, we've had our ups and downs, but I've absolutely enjoyed the group. I have a tremendous amount of respect for our players and the effort they've shown -- the level of professionalism they bring to the rink every day."
The Lightning currently are second in the Southeast Division with 22 points (8-4-6) -- the club's best start through 18 games since 2007-08, when it began the season 10-7-1. They've quietly put together a run of points in six consecutive games (4-0-2) and have gained points in 10 of their last 11 (6-1-4). It's no wonder Lawton is feeling pretty good these days.
On top of that, the team hasn't relied on the same old players for production -- such as veterans Vincent Lecavalier
and Martin St. Louis
. This season there are more names in the spotlight, such as Steven Stamkos
, the first pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, who leads the team in goals (13), points (21), power-play goals (6) and shorthanded goals (1). There's rugged winger Ryan Malone
, who was acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh in June 2008 and ranks second in goals (12) and points (19).
And we can't forget Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman
, the second pick in the 2009 draft, who is second on the team in ice time per game at 23:58 alongside fellow countryman and mentor Mattias Ohlund
, was signed last July.
"The play of our younger players has been a huge positive," Lawton said. "We feel the draft is really working for the franchise because when your young players are developing into core players, that's a sign you're on the right path. Hopefully, these guys will continue to develop."
In addition to Stamkos and Hedman, the club also has benefitted from the play of youngsters James Wright Steve Downie
, Paul Szczechura
and Andrej Meszaros
-- all under the age of 25.
The acquisition of forward Alex Tanguay
in August was critical in the eyes of Lawton, as he was the final offensive piece to the 2009-10 puzzle. He remains steadfast in that decision, too, despite Tanguay having just 4 goals. Lawton doesn't expect there to be another move, either -- at least not before the Olympics.
"For a club like ours, we'll do a majority of our work in the offseason," Lawton said. "That's why we added an Ohlund, (Matt) Walker, drafted Hedman and eventually brought in Alex Tanguay
as the last piece for us. I don't see us doing very much during the season. First of all, it's harder than ever to get things done during the season and secondly, I just like this group of guys.
"There have been some growing pains and some ups and downs, but overall there's been tremendous commitment night-in and night-out and that's what I'm looking for," Lawton said. "It's really a good group of guys and our coaches do an excellent job. We feel we've made progress the last two seasons."
One area the Lightning seemingly have cornered the market is goaltending, where, in addition to Mike Smith
and Antero Niittymaki
, Lawton is quick to point out the multitude of prospects waiting in the wings. They include Riku Helenius
, Karri Ramo
, Dustin Tokarski
, Michael Zador
, Jaroslav Janus
and 6-foot-5 Russian Vasily Koshechkin
"We love where we're at goaltending wise," Lawton said.
Lightning coach Rick Tocchet
, whose record is 27-37-20 in 84 regular-season games, hasn't been enticed to keep one particular line intact all season. Most recently, Stamkos has centered Tanguay and Martin St. Louis
; Lecavalier has been flanked by Malone and Szczechura; and Wright and Downie have worked on a third unit with Jeff Halpern
"Rick is doing a terrific job; he's a young coach but is committed," Lawton said. "He's dedicated to the players and that's very important because the coaches have to be the hardest-working people in the building and ours are."
Tocchet has been assisted this season by associate coach Rick Wilson and assistants Cap Raeder, Wes Walz
and Adam Oates
. Lawton isn't taking for granted the makeup of the staff and their ability to work together in helping to blend a group of veterans with fiery youngsters.
"We've got a tall mountain to climb and we realize we can't do it in one step," Lawton said. "We realize it's part of the process of building our team back to being a consistent playoff team. That's where we want to be. We want to continually challenge every year for the Stanley Cup and we believe we're headed in the right direction."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com