At first glance, the Tampa Bay Lightning would seem to have little in common as a franchise with the Detroit Red Wings.
While the Red Wings are an Original Six team with a storied history, including four Stanley Cup victories in the past 13 seasons, the Lightning have only been around since 1992 and have enjoyed modest success, winning a pair of Southeast Division titles and a Cup of their own in 2004.
But during an off-season overhaul that started with the front office and extended behind the bench and to the personnel on the ice, the Lightning made what could turn out to be a defining move in their history by bringing in a face synonymous with hockey in the Motor City over the past several decades.
Steve Yzerman, one of the great players in NHL history and captain of three Red Wings championship teams (1997, 1998, 2002), was named Tampa Bay's new general manager on May 25. Yzerman's post-playing career as an executive gained steam after he was named GM of Team Canada and his troops went on to capture gold at the Olympics in Vancouver.
Yzerman quickly got down to business, hiring a fresh face of his own to be the coach. Guy Boucher has but a year of professional coaching experience under his belt, but as with Yzerman there seems to be little doubt he has the tools and know-how to succeed at his position. During his time with the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs and back to his days in the QMJHL, he built a reputation as an innovative thinker, and his appointment has stars like Vincent Lecavalier as excited to hit the ice as they've been in years.
Winning hockey games would keep things that way. The Lightning have missed the playoffs each of the past three seasons, though they challenged for a top-eight spot for much of last season before ending up eight points off the pace. Yzerman wants to return the franchise to its former glory, but holds back on promising a quick fix.
"When taking the job initially, I explained what my plan was, so to speak," he told NHL.com. "What I wanted to get to and how I want to get there. It takes time. I'm not coming in and promising a Stanley Cup in two years ... certainly if we're in that position, I won't refuse it. But these things take time. To build a program correctly takes time, and as long as we go about it the right way I think the educated hockey fan will understand that there is a process to this and there is some direction, and we're going in that direction."
A star has been born in Tampa. Steven Stamkos came on strong during the second half of his rookie season, but the jump he made as a sophomore was nothing short of an eye-opener. Stamkos (51-44-95) didn't just lead the Lightning in scoring, he tied Sidney Crosby for the Rocket Richard Trophy, awarded to the League's elite goal scorer. His 24 power-play goals were one more than his total goal output from his first season.
Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have represented the team's go-to tandem for more than a decade now. Lecavalier turned 30 in April and St. Louis 35 in June, but it's going to take a lot more than age to slow this duo down. St. Louis (29-65-94) set a career high in assists last season while equaling the second-best point total of his career, while Lecavalier (24-46-70) is capable of taking his game to another level under the new regime.
"Everybody knows when Vinny is at his top we have a main horse there that can do so many things," Boucher told NHL.com. "I've always believed in Lecavalier. I have seen him play at his best. I know the family. It's perfect for him for things to fall into place. He's a tremendous player and certainly the team will be able to follow him in anything he does well."
After the "Big Three” of Stamkos, Lecavalier and St. Louis, the Lightning can rely on the newly acquired Simon Gagne (17-23-40 in 58 games for Philadelphia), Ryan Malone (21-26-47) and Steve Downie (22-24-46) for secondary scoring. Malone is an established veteran while Downie, previously known more for his penalty minutes and a couple ill-timed suspensions, took a major step forward in developing his offensive game last season while still showing snarl with 208 penalty minutes.
Putting together a third line that can chip in points here and there will be a challenge facing Yzerman and Boucher during training camp. Dominic Moore (10-18-28 in 69 games for Florida and Montreal), Sean Bergenheim (10-13-23 in 63 games for the Islanders) and Marc Pouliot (7-7-14 in 35 games for Edmonton) are new additions who could fit into such a role.
Teddy Purcell (6-9-15), Paul Szczechura (5-2-7) and Nate Thompson (2-8-10) all return to vie for spots on the third or fourth lines. The Lightning also have veteran Adam Hall, who posted 10 points in 74 games for them in 2008-09 before spending all of last season in the AHL, where he had 16 goals and 41 points for Norfolk.
Kurtis Foster, whose 42 points last season were more than double the output of any other Tampa defenseman, left via free agency for Edmonton, but the Lightning hope the continued development of Victor Hedman will help make up for his loss.
The No. 2 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, Hedman enjoyed a solid rookie season. He routinely logged over 20 minutes of ice time and finished with 4 goals and 20 points, numbers that should only improve as he grows more accustomed to the NHL game and being a two-way player.
"The team is going to be overall better, and that should help him," Stamkos told the St. Petersburg Times. "But for him, he's going to be more comfortable. I know I felt more comfortable my second year. He knows his teammates. He knows his surroundings. He's going to be good. We're not worried about him."
Whenever the 19-year-old Hedman finds himself in need of guidance, he will have plenty of veteran support beside him on the Lightning bench. The team reacquired Pavel Kubina, a member of the 2004 championship team, from Atlanta, where he had 6 goals and 38 points. They also added Brett Clark (3-17-20 in 64 games for Colorado) and retain the services of Mattias Ohlund (0-13-13) -- those three players have a combined 2,176 games of NHL experience.
Candidates to round out the top six on the blue line include returnees Mike Lundin, Matt Smaby and Vladimir Mihalik and offseason acquisitions Randy Jones and Mathieu Roy. It appears Paul Ranger, who left the team early last season for personal reasons, will not re-enter the picture at this time.
Mike Smith is the holdover from this group. He played in 42 games last season, posting a 13-18-7 mark along with a pair of shutouts, a 3.09 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage.
When the other half of their goaltending tandem, Antero Niittymaki, split for San Jose, the Lightning replaced him with former Predators netminder Dan Ellis, who had seen his playing time in Nashville decrease with the emergence of Pekka Rinne. Ellis won 23 games with a 2.34 GAA three seasons ago.
Dustin Tokarski, 20, a fifth-round pick in 2008, saw action in a pair of games last season and provides valuable insurance if injury befalls either Smith or Ellis. Otherwise, expect about a 50-50 split of the goaltending duties once again, as neither has played in more than 44 games in an NHL season.