New Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has noted that the Lightning need to improve their organizational depth. Achieving this goal will take smart decisions by Yzerman and others in the front office, but they will find that they have plenty of pieces from which they can build upon.
The Lightning have a good mix of proven NHL commodities under contract and young players with vast potential in the pipeline, as well as a strong draft class in 2010 and free agency period in which they can bolster their minor league system and pick up NHL-ready talent. The main areas where the organizational depth can be found are in the solid core of top-level NHL talent under contract, six strong goalie prospects in the minor league system and long sought-after stability in the front office.
Perhaps the primary area where the depth of the Lightning can be seen is in its roster of proven NHL players, including four of five forwards who scored 20 or more goals last season and four top defensemen under contract. Restricted free agent Steve Downie is the only one not inked for next season, but he was tendered a qualifying offer and is expected to return.
Last season the Lightning relied on a core of five forwards which included Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and Downie to provide the majority of goal scoring for the team. All five were 20-goal scorers, with Stamkos leading the charge with 51. The group’s production is comparable to the core of goal scorers for the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, which included six 20-goal scorers. Where the Blackhawks unit stood out though was in their secondary goal scoring. The Hawks boasted five players who scored 10-20 goals while the Lightning only had one, Alex Tanguay. The Bolts will likely be looking for secondary scoring options in free agency, as well as counting on young forwards in the system to possibly make a splash in the NHL. With this improved scoring depth, the Lightning can create a more balanced, potent offensive attack.
The Lightning also have a solid core of defensemen under contract for next season and beyond. Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker and 2009 second overall pick Victor Hedman all are likely to remain in Tampa for the foreseeable future, allowing the organization to focus on signing key restricted and unrestricted free agents. This stability on the blue line seemed unlikely only a year ago when in the 2008-09 season when the Bolts used a total of 22 defensemen during the tumultuous season.
What many consider to be the Lightning’s greatest area of depth is goaltending. Mike Smith is under contract for one more season and the team added Dan Ellis to a two-year contract on July 1. Others from a wealth of strong backstoppers in the minor league system include 2009 draftees Michael Zador and Jaroslav Janus, as well as top prospect Dustin Tokarski. Former NHLer Karri Ramo as well as prospect Vasily Koshechkin are expected to play in Russia next season.
Koshechkin is an interesting prospect for Lightning fans to keep an eye on. The 27-year-old went 17-7-2 for the Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the Continental Hockey League while recording a .932 save percentage and a 1.84 goals-against average. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound goalie was recently listed No.7 in The Hockey News’ “Top 10 KHLers We’d Like to See in the NHL.” With such a large number of highly-rated prospects in the system, the Lightning may be able to lean on their goaltending depth for years to come.
The other aspect of organizational depth for the Lightning that has come only recently is stability in the front office and coaching staff. With new owner Jeff Vinik, general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher far fewer question marks remain within the organization than a couple of months ago. Although these are only three pieces of the large front office staff, the decisions that they will face in the coming weeks will go a long way towards building a deeper, more stable organization.
Other positive signs for the Lightning that show the potential depth and quality of all aspects in the organization are some of the behind the scenes personnel, such as scouting. Head Amateur Scout Darryl Plandowski and his team continued a trend of success at the NHL Entry Draft on June 25-26 in Los Angeles. In the 2008 and 2009 drafts, the Lightning made the most of their high picks, selecting Steven Stamkos at No.1 overall and Hedman at No. 2 respectively. They also selected other promising prospects with their later picks, drafting talent such as wingers Carter Ashton, Richard Panik and Alex Hutchings, center James Wright, and goalies Zador, Janus, and Tokarski. With more successful drafts, the Lightning will find themselves with a flowing pipeline of talent replenishing its NHL roster and creating the type of depth that could give the organization an extended period of success.
Since becoming the General Manager on May 25, Steve Yzerman has stressed the importance of organizational depth for the Lightning’s future. With the talent that already exists on the NHL roster, smart roster moves in free agency, another strong crop of talent acquired through the draft and the stability gained from new faces in the coaching staff and front office, Yzerman’s vision of organizational depth for the Lightning may soon become a reality.