The Tampa Bay Lightning will certainly have their work cut out for them as they prepare to improve upon the second-best season in franchise history.
Not only did the team qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four seasons, but it advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2004 -- suffering an excruciating 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins in a Game 7 thriller.
In his inaugural season as general manager in Tampa Bay, Steve Yzerman proved to be worth every penny for new owner Jeff Vinik. From his decision to hire coach Guy Boucher prior to the season, to the trade he negotiated with the New York Islanders for goalie Dwayne Roloson
on New Year's Day, Yzerman seemed to push all the right buttons. While he was thrilled to be among the final four teams battling for the Stanley Cup in 2010-11, there's little doubt his club will have a larger bulls-eye on its back entering the 2011-12 campaign.
"I'm going to look back three, four, five years from now and assess whether I think we, as an organization, have done a real good job," Yzerman told the St. Petersburg Times. "Obviously, we're thrilled in year one to be where we are, but again, I want to look back in a few years and say, 'You know what? We've done a real good job. Our team is where we want it to be.' "
Yzerman resolved his biggest offseason priority on July 19 when he re-signed center Steven Stamkos
, whose 96 goals over the past two seasons led the League, to a five-year, $37.5 million deal. He also had other personnel decisions to make with regard to several free agents, including goaltenders Roloson and Mike Smith; forwards Teddy Purcell
, Simon Gagne, Sean Bergenheim and Adam Hall
; and defensemen Eric Brewer
, Marc-Andre Bergeron
and Randy Jones.
He'd lose four of those players (Smith, Gagne, Bergenheim and Jones), but did re-sign the others. Roloson, who went 10-5 with a 2.51 goals-against average in his first postseason since 2006, inked a one-year deal. Brewer, who led the Lightning in ice time per game (25:42) and blocked shots (51) in the playoffs, signed a four-year contract.
With the core group intact entering training camp, there's no reason to believe the Lightning won't be able to duplicate if not surpass last season's remarkable run.
Yzerman couldn't keep everyone, so he was forced to part ways with a few integral parts that had a hand in last season's postseason charge. Among the most notable were Gagne (Los Angeles), Bergenheim (Florida), Jones (Winnipeg) and Smith (Phoenix).
Gagne played in 63 regular season games with the Lightning last year, recording 17 goals and 40 points -- the fifth highest total on the team. In 15 playoff games, he produced 5 goals and 12 points. Bergenheim appeared in 80 games, registering 14 goals and 29 points. In 16 postseason games, he broke out with 9 goals and 11 points. Smith, meanwhile, appeared in 22 games last season, posting a 13-6-1 record with one shutout, a 2.90 GAA and .899 save percentage. In three playoff games, he went 1-1 with a 1.00 GAA and a .958 save percentage.
The team also cut ties with defenseman Mike Lundin, who signed with the Wild after parts of four seasons with the Lightning. He had 1 goal and 11 assists in 69 games and added 2 assists in 18 playoff contests.
Long before Yzerman put the finishing touches on the five-year deal to keep Stamkos, he was busy filling some holes incurred in the opening few days of free agency.
For starters, there was the void left when Smith signed with Phoenix. Yzerman quickly targeted Mathieu Garon
, who teamed with Roloson back in Edmonton in 2007-08 and parts of 2008-09. Garon played in 36 games with Columbus last season, going 10-14-6 with a team-low 2.72 GAA.
Two former Lightning players will be making their return to the team -- right wing Michel Ouellet and defenseman Richard Petiot. Ouellet, who played with the Lightning during the 2007-08 season, has spent the last two years in the German and Swiss Elite Leagues. Petiot played 11 games with the Lightning in 2008-09, notching 3 assists and 21 penalty minutes. He had 15 assists in 66 games with the Oklahoma City Barons, the Edmonton Oilers top American Hockey League affiliate, last season.
Yzerman also signed defenseman Matt Gilroy, who played in 58 games with the New York Rangers last season and posted 3 goals and 11 points. The 2009 Hobey Baker Award winner out of Boston University also had a career-best plus-5 rating in just his second NHL season.
Rounding out the list of free agent signees were forwards Trevor Smith, Tom Pyatt
, J.T. Wyman, Ryan Shannon
and Alexandre Picard. Pyatt played in 61 games with the Canadiens last season and recorded 2 goals and 7 points, while averaging 10:38 of ice time. He also ranked fourth among forwards on the team in blocked shots (34) and won 50 percent of his faceoffs (55-110).
Pyatt or Shannon, who spent parts of the last three seasons with the Ottawa Senators, could turn out to be the replacement for Bergenheim. Shannon notched career highs with 79 games played, 11 goals, 16 assists, 27 points and a plus-3 rating last season.
It would be a major disappointment if the Lightning didn't again challenge for top honors in the Southeast Division this season. It's been seven seasons, in fact, since the team last celebrated a Southeast title.
With a solid mix of veteran leaders and youthful exuberance, the team should continue its ascent up the NHL ladder. The fact is, behind a core group that includes Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier
, Martin St. Louis
, Tampa Bay has enough firepower to hang with the best the League has to offer -- something no one thought possible at the start of the 2010-11 campaign.
Stamkos has played in all 164 games during the previous two seasons. In 2010-11, he registered 45 goals, including 17 power-play goals, and 91 points. It's interesting to note, however, that Stamkos did score 40 goals in his first 54 games last season and managed just 5 over the final 28 contests. No one was quite sure of the reason for the drop-off, but rest assured, Boucher isn't too concerned about it heading into the 2011-12 campaign.
St. Louis captured his second consecutive Lady Byng Trophy last season, tallying points in each of his last nine games and in 15 of his final 17 to finish second in the League with 99 points (31 goals, 68 assists). He tied a franchise record for assists in a season and posted the second-highest point total of his 12-year career.
Defenseman Victor Hedman
seemed to come into his own within Boucher's 1-3-1 system. Hedman had 85 blocked shots, 54 hits and 48 takeaways, the second highest total on the team behind St. Louis. He also chipped in offensively with a career high 23 assists, 26 points and a plus-3 rating.
The Lightning also have a group of promising prospects hoping to impress in training camp next month. At the top of that list is right wing Brett Connolly
, the No. 6 pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, and right wing Carter Ashton, the 29th choice in 2009.
The club loaded up on Russians at the 2011 Entry Draft, taking center Vladislav Namestnikov
of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights with the 27th pick in the first round, followed by right wing Nikita Kucherov in the second round (No. 58) and defenseman Nikita Nesterov (No. 148) in the fifth round. It isn't expected that any of the three players would challenge for a roster spot in 2011-12, however. Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer