After failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight year following a trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 2011, the Tampa Bay Lightning are undergoing a facelift.
Goaltending and defense proved to be the team's biggest issues in 2012-13, when the Lightning dropped to 14th in the East. That earned them the third pick in the NHL Draft, which they used to select forward Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Drouin figures to get every chance to spend the season with Tampa Bay.
One reason there's an opening is general manager Steve Yzerman made the tough decision to use one of his compliance buyouts on captain Vincent Lecavalier after 14 years with the organization.
Yzerman, entering his fourth season as GM, said changes had to be made after back-to-back disappointing seasons.
"We finished 28th [last season]," Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times. "We just can't continue going along with the same core. We don't have [salary-cap] space to do anything to really improve the team. We had two choices, really: Create some space and give ourselves the flexibility to look at other options, or just sit tight and just keep going along as we are."
He chose the former.
Here are six questions the Lightning face heading into this season:
1. How will the Lightning overcome the loss of Vincent Lecavalier? -- Since he scored 24 goals and 70 points in 2009-10 with the Lightning, Lecavalier's offensive numbers have declined.
"If we're going to be serious about change, this is something we had to look at doing," Yzerman said following his decision to buy out the captain June 27.
Though it wasn't an easy decision, the buyout was necessary in order to give the Lightning room to upgrade the roster and allow top prospects a chance to prove themselves. Tampa Bay should be fine offensively: The Lightning were third in the NHL with 147 non-shootout goals last season; Lecavalier scored 10 of them.
Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis will lead the offense again, and youngsters Brett Connolly, Richard Panik and Drouin figure to get the chance to step up in Lecavalier's place.
2. What is the biggest challenge facing coach Jon Cooper? -- In Cooper's first full season behind the bench, it's critical he have his players on the same page, especially when it comes to shutting down the opposition. The Lightning surrendered 147 non-shootout goals last season, putting them in the bottom five in goals allowed.
"If I could find a perfect marriage between the '80s Edmonton Oilers and the '70s Philadelphia Flyers, that's the way [my teams] play," Cooper told SI.com.
Cooper considers himself a players' coach who's more worried about how his team is playing than what the opposition is trying to do.
"I'm a huge believer in mastering your own game plan and letting everybody try and worry about you," Cooper said. "I don't put much stock worrying about other teams. Naturally, everybody has their systems, but ultimately if you can get your team to play your system better than the other team plays theirs, I think that weighs in your favor."
3. Who will succeed Lecavalier as captain? -- During Yzerman's state of the team address to season-ticket holders in July, the GM said Martin St. Louis still has a lot of seasons remaining in his 38-year-old body. Whether that's news to St. Louis remains to be seen, but Yzerman is hopeful.
The departure of Lecavalier, Tampa Bay's captain since 2008-09, leaves St. Louis as the lone member of the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup-winning team. St. Louis has been with the Lightning since 2000, and has 336 goals, 556 assists and 892 points in 910 regular-season games, and has always been the voice of reason in good times and bad within the dressing room. Getting the "C" would be an honor for a player whose No. 26 will be raised to the rafters of the Tampa Bay Times Forum soon after he retires.
The other possibility is Stamkos, the NHL's top goal-scorer during the past four seasons. Making Stamkos the captain would follow the trend of giving the "C" to the young, face of the franchise star.
Yzerman said the ninth captain in the organization's history is likely to be named during training camp. Don't be surprised if St. Louis is given the nod.
4. Who is the No. 1 goaltender? -- The competition between Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback begins in earnest during training camp in September. Yzerman acquired each goalies via trade and paid a big price, so neither figures to get preferential treatment.
Yzerman sent a pair of 2012 second-round picks, a 2013 third-rounder and goaltender Sebastian Caron to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Lindback, forward Kyle Wilson and a 2012 seventh-round pick in June 2012. Yzerman traded forward Cory Conacher and a 2013 fourth-round pick in exchange for Bishop, then signed him to a two-year contract extension.
5. Will first-round pick Jonathan Drouin remain with the team the entire season? -- The organization likes what it sees in Drouin. He brings great skill and hockey sense, and the fact Yzerman signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract five days after selecting him with the third pick in the 2013 NHL Draft speaks volumes.
Drouin skated in 82 games in two seasons for the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and had 48 goals, 134 points and a plus-43 rating. He played in 34 playoff games, connecting for 21 goals and 61 points and helping the Mooseheads win the Memorial Cup in May. There doesn't appear to be much left for him to accomplish in juniors.
The Lightning passed on the draft's top defensive prospect, Seth Jones, to take Drouin, so the odds of him being returned to the Canadian Hockey League following his nine-game trial with the Lightning would appear to be slim.
"He's a special player, but as far as making the team, that will be up to him and the coaching staff," Lightning development coach Stacy Roest told NHL.com. "He's good with and without the puck and sees plays develop before they happen."
Look for Cooper to experiment with Drouin on the top line alongside Stamkos and St. Louis. The coach might also use Drouin with free-agent signee Valtteri Filppula at center and Teddy Purcell on right wing.
6. Will the Lightning qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs? -- Tampa Bay appears to have a good mix of youth and experience in Cooper's first full season behind the bench.
To help him, Yzerman added veteran Rick Bowness as an associate coach and former University of Denver coach George Gwozdecky as an assistant. Bowness spent the previous seven seasons with the Vancouver Canucks as an assistant and associate coach, primarily working with the defense. The team reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in all but one of his seasons in Vancouver and appeared in the 2011 Cup Final.
"When you play a certain style and become successful at it, winning happens more than losing," Cooper said. "I like the energy our team will have and some guys have been around and have that fire in their eyes. Having Rick Bowness as an associate coach, working with the defense, will be great. All he has done is win wherever he has been."
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Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer