With new ownership, first-time GM Steve Yzerman and an entirely revamped coaching staff led by first-time NHL coach Guy Boucher, all the excuses the Lightning needed to buy some time to jell were in place -- especially considering the team was coming into the season off a three-year playoff drought.
But all those excuses went out the window after the Lightning piled up 103 points, their best point total since 2003-04 -- when they captured the Stanley Cup.
Not content with just making the playoffs, Tampa Bay put together a postseason streak that saw the Lightning come within one game (and one goal) of playing in the Stanley Cup Final.
|r. malone||s. stamkos||m. st. louis|
|t. purcell||v. lecavalier||s. downie|
|n. thompson||d. moore||r. Shannon|
|d. tyrell||b. jones||a. hall|
|e. brewer||m. ohlund|
|v. hedman||p. kubina|
|b. clark||m.a. bergeron|
|b. gervais||m. gilroy|
|ones to watch|
|f mattias ritola|
|f carter ashton|
|f richard panik|
"If we don't get back to where we were and go even further, it will be disappointing for us," forward Teddy Purcell said.
"We have a lot to build on," added forward Nate Thompson. "And our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. This year, that's our ultimate goal. I think every guy on the team would feel the same way."
Tempering the enthusiasm falls to Boucher.
"If you think that because you were close last year that you will be close this year, that's not how it works," he said. "We'll have injuries, we'll have some lows. And there is another part of the equation -- all the other teams in our conference have improved. Every time you think a month or two in advance, you're not on the right track. Last year was all about being better today than we were yesterday, so if we change that philosophy, we're not even going to come close."
The core of forwards the Lightning roll out each night is the envy of many teams. Vincent Lecavalier, the team captain, is entering his 13th NHL season, all with Tampa Bay. He had his 11th straight 20-goal season in 2010-11, and the nagging injuries that slowed him for the opening months of last season all are healed.
Martin St. Louis, despite turning 36 during the offseason, works hard to stay in great shape and his enthusiasm for the game hasn't lessened, nor has his skills; his 68 assists last season were a career-best.
As he enters his fourth season, Steven Stamkos has established himself as one of the top goal-scorers in the NHL. He tied for the League lead with 51 goals in 2009-10 and was second with 45 goals last season.
OUT: Sean Bergenheim, LW (free agent, Panthers); Cedrick Desjardins, G (free agent, Avalanche); Simon Gagne, LW (free agent, Kings); Randy Jones, D (free agent, Jets); Mike Lundin, D (free agent, Wild); Matt Smaby, D (free agent, Ducks); Mike Smith, G (free agent, Coyotes)
Ryan Shannon, a free-agent acquisition from Ottawa, likely will find himself with plenty of playing time on one of the top two lines by virtue of the speed and scoring touch he has flashed during training camp.
The grinders formed a steady group last season with timely contributions and relentless forechecking that made open ice difficult for the opposition to find. Adam Hall led the team with 152 hits and won 55.0 percent of his faceoffs record. Thompson led the forwards with 81 blocked shots and scored a personal-best 10 goals. The well-travelled Dominic Moore seemingly has found a home in Tampa after setting a career-high with 18 goals while carrying the load during short-handed situations.
There is heated competition to round out the forward lines, as returnees Blair Jones, Mattias Ritola and Dana Tyrell battle newcomers Tom Pyatt, added as a free-agent from Montreal, and rookie Brett Connolly. The sixth pick of the 2010 Entry Draft, Connolly, 19, will have to go back to his junior team, Prince George of the Western Hockey League if he doesn't make the roster -- but his play in camp and through the first three preseason games (a goal and 2 assists) has kept him with the Lightning.
"In order for him to stay he's going to have to play very well," Yzerman told the St. Petersburg Times. "We're going to give him every opportunity until we decide or he shows he can't handle it. But he continues to get better and looks real good out there."
Connolly's fate is the hinge on which several roster options swing. If Lightning opt to include Connolly, they are likely to open the season with14 forwards and seven defensemen. If Connolly is sent back to junior hockey, look for Tampa Bay to keep 13 forwards and eight defensemen. There are eight defensemen on one-way contracts, so opting to send one to AHL Norfolk would involve exposing a player to waivers.
Tampa Bay returns a seasoned, experienced corps, highlighted by two notable acquisitions made midway through last season.
Marc-Andre Bergeron joined the team via free agency and filled a vacancy as a power-play quarterback. Previously, the Lightning had tried several forwards and defensemen in that spot, without success.
LIGHTNING 30 IN 15 RELATED STORIES
Brett Clark, beginning his second season with Tampa Bay, proved valuable as an offensive weapon last season, occasionally deployed in front of the opposition net on power plays, and leading all Lightning defensemen with nine goals and 31 points.
Victor Hedman continues to develop under the tutelage of veteran Mattias Ohlund. Hedman led all Lightning defensemen with 23 assists and increased his rookie point total by six points to 26. While Ohlund's offensive numbers have declined, his defensive skills remain steady. He was second on the team with 136 blocked shots and third with 135 hits last season. Pavel Kubina was a big contributor to the Lightning's success last season and should continue to thrive.
The departure of Mike Lundin to his hometown Minnesota Wild has opened a spot on the blue line that likely will be filled by newcomer Matt Gilroy, a free-agent signee from the New York Rangers. Gilroy has offensive skills and is considered a good puck mover. The Lightning will look for his work in the defensive end to improve.
Should the Lightning opt to carry eight defensemen to begin the season, the final spot likely would be filled by Bruno Gervais, acquired from the Islanders in the offseason.
GAA: 2.59 | SVP: 0.914
Tampa Bay will ride Roloson as far as it can, but if he falters, veteran Mathieu Garon will be ready. Garon, signed during the summer as a free agent, has proven his worth as a backup who can be counted on to step in. In 36 games with Columbus last season, he had a 2.72 GAA.
Waiting in the wings is the designated goaltender of the future, Dustin Tokarski, who backstopped Norfolk to the AHL playoffs last season with a 2.65 GAA.