If the story of the Tampa Bay Lightning this season sounds familiar, that's because it is -- only this time the organization seemingly got it right.
Tampa Bay entered the 2008-09 campaign as maybe the most fascinating team in the NHL. It had a new ownership group, a first-time general manager and a coach that generated a lot of debate.
There was plenty of hope but that season and the next quickly unraveled. The coach, Barry Melrose, was fired after 16 games in 2008. The general manager, Brian Lawton, was let go after two seasons. The principle owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, had control issues that ended in a messy divorce.
Jeff Vinik bought the team from Koules and Barrie and after last season ended he hit the reset button. The club made two high-profile hires -- legendary player Steve Yzerman to be the general manager and rising star Guy Boucher to be the coach.
As Tampa Bay's season nears the midway point, it looks like both decisions were home runs. Yzerman retooled the roster around an already talented core of players and Boucher has implemented a system that was considered both innovative and uncertain to work -- but it clearly has.
Tampa Bay defeated division rival Washington on Tuesday night to claim sole possession of first place in the Southeast and cement its place as one of the surprising stories in the first half of the NHL season.
"I think there were expectations this year, but the last two years were pretty tough," Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier said. "With Guy Boucher coming in, I think everybody believed right away that we could do well with the new system. Everything on the ice was very different, but you could tell right away everyone was going in the same direction and everybody is doing the right thing and we've had some success.
"It is great. This organization is a first-class organization. Mr. Vinik is doing everything he can to be good to the players, the families, the community -- he is really building something special in Tampa. Obviously with Steve Yzerman coming in and the new coaching, it has really been great. Everybody is really enjoying it and when you're winning everything is a lot better, too."
Added forward Ryan Malone: "If you look at who came in with the changes at the top and the coaching staff have turned things around and that's what you see now. I think we had the players before but were just kind of missing some direction, or maybe some miscommunication here or there. I think we got it figured out right now, and hopefully we keep growing."
Yzerman inherited a roster that had plenty of elite talent but was incredibly top heavy. For the past two years the Lightning have had great offensive players such as Lecavalier, Malone, Martin St. Louis and rising superstar Steven Stamkos, but other teams took advantage of their issues with depth up front and overall quality on defense and in goal.
The new general manager put together quite the offseason makeover. He shipped pricey defensemen Matt Walker and Andrej Meszaros to Philadelphia in separate deals and landed Simon Gagne in return. Yzerman bulked up the defense corps with free agents Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark.
Depth at forward was addressed with the additions of Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim. A pair of goalies -- Dan Ellis and Cedrick Desjardins -- was brought in as well.
Stamkos and St. Louis have been all-star caliber players this season and are both in the top three in the League in scoring, but the team's depth has also played a vital part in the resurgence.
"You definitely look and see those guys at the top of the League in points and everything and they do get a lot of the points for us, but we've come together as a team," Malone said. "We're a lot deeper than we have been in the past, so more people have been chipping in. Coach definitely uses all four lines to the advantage of everybody and tries to get the best out of everybody. Everybody has kind of found clear roles and is trying to do the best at what they do. It has been great for everybody."
The one big weakness for the Lightning to this point in the season had been the goaltending. Incumbent Mike Smith and new challenger Ellis competed for playing time but neither has performed to his capabilities.
So Yzerman showed he's not going to be afraid to aggressively pursue solutions to potential problems. Tampa Bay added veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson on Saturday from the New York Islanders and on Tuesday he shut out the Capitals -- a team that had torched the Lightning for 12 goals in the first two meetings this season.
"Right now for me as coach it is just get out of his way," Boucher said of Roloson. "That will be my way of approaching it. We welcomed him, we showed him a few things that we do and what kind of culture we've got here, but the reality is he's going to figure it out as we go along. We can talk all we want, but for him right now it is just focus on this one game and focus on what he normally is doing. That's why we got him. It is not like we're bringing in a guy to change him. We're bringing in a guy because we like what he is doing, and so certainly we don't want him to come in here and change the way sees things or does things."
A big question at the beginning of this season is how would NHL players react to Boucher's coaching style and his system, and could it be successful at the game's highest level? Boucher won big in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and was the coach of the year in the American Hockey League, and he could be halfway to adding a Jack Adams Trophy to his collection.
There were similar questions about another coach in the Southeast Division a few years ago who was getting his first chance at this level. Washington coach Bruce Boudreau won the Jack Adams right off the bat and has three division titles in as many seasons to his credit.
"The practices were pretty scary at first -- I'm not going to lie," Malone said. "It was just something that was a little different. It is very structured and intense and there is no wasting time, you might say. Everything has a reason and a point to it, so you make sure when you're doing something it is at full speed. 'You are always choosing everyday to get better.' That is his saying. There are no days off and he's pushing everyone. That's a good thing."
That Tampa Bay has neared the midway point of the season with such success is pretty amazing considering the injuries to key players -- Lecavalier, Gagne, Steve Downie and Mattias Ohlund have all missed between nine and 19 games -- and the sometimes shaky goaltending.
When the Lightning were mostly healthy at the beginning of the season they started the year 7-2-1. Now that everyone except for Downie has been back the past few weeks, they have lost once in regulation since Dec. 7. The addition of Roloson could make an already surging team even more formidable, and shutting down the Capitals was a sneak peek at how the offensively-gifted Lightning could also be a complete product.
"Far from where we want to be -- that's plain and simple," Boucher said. "There are too many things we need to get better at. It is just one more day for the process for us -- that's what it is. Everybody is looking at standings and stuff but that is the last thing I am looking at."
Added Stamkos: "We've got to prove this isn't a fluke how our season has gone so far and that we're going to be here for a while and stick around near the top of the conference. We've got to be confident and at the same time realize that if we play our game, we are going to be up there because of our work ethic."
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer