TBL.com: Having made the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past four seasons, what do you think the keys will be for the Lightning to be there again – challenging for another Stanley Cup – in 2007-08?
Jay Feaster: We need to get off to a strong start and be focused right out of the gate. Obviously we need to get solid performances by our top players. There are no secrets on our team. In order for us to win, our best players must be our best players. We need some of our players to have "bounce-back" type years and we need the new players we've acquired to buy-into our system and our team concept. We also need to get consistent goaltending from both of our goalies. The real key to competing for the Stanley Cup will be winning the Southeast Division. That is never an easy task, but if you go back to our strong playoff runs in 2002-03 and our Stanley Cup year of 2003-04, we got off to great starts both seasons and we won the Division, ensuring no worse than a 3rd seed overall in the Eastern Conference.
TBL.com: Atlanta became a playoff team last season, Carolina’s one year removed from winning the Cup and Florida and Washington upgraded their rosters this summer. How do you think the Lightning will match up with their Southeast Division rivals this coming season?
JF: While the Southeast Division rarely receives any credit, particularly on a national level, it is a very tough division with quality hockey teams top to bottom. There are no easy games in the division. We are going to have to be ready right from the start of the season as we open with four of our first six games against division foes. The bottom line is that in order for us to "win" the division we have to "beat" the division. That means that we MUST have a superior record against those teams in our own division. Otherwise it will be that much more difficult to win the division. I like the way we have matched up in the past and I think we are even better prepared this season because of our depth and some of our off-season acquisitions.
TBL.com: Let’s discuss the future since the 2007 NHL Entry Draft took place in Columbus a few weeks back. You had stated you wanted to improve the organization’s offensive depth going in. How did you fare?
JF: We are very pleased with the results of this year's NHL Entry Draft. We drafted a total of seven forwards who all fit the same kind of description, for the most part - excellent skaters, good hockey sense, the ability to finish. We feel very good about being able to restock the shelves, so to speak, at the forward positions. We also selected a smooth skating defenseman and a very good young goalie prospect, so we feel our future is bright.
TBL.com: Were there any players selected in Columbus who might be able to take the fast track to Tampa Bay?
JF: I don't anticipate any of the players we drafted this past June to be skating in the NHL for a few years. In some cases we drafted players who are still in high school and have a year of prep school to complete. You always like to "hope" for that one player who will make the jump, but we are not counting on that at present.
TBL.com: Strengthening the caliber of players in the organization at the American Hockey League level seems to have been a focus of free agency. How do you feel about how the roster of the Norfolk Admirals is shaping up as the Lightning enters its first season as their parent club?
JF: I honestly believe that we are as deep as we've been in quite some time and we have really solid, quality AHL veteran depth. Craig MacDonald is a tremendous AHL player and he has almost 200 games of NHL experience. He will compete for a spot on our NHL roster. Norm Milley and Kyle Wanvig have seen time with us in Tampa, as has Blair Jones. Mathieu Darche is a sniper at the AHL level and may find a real home playing within our system. On the backend, Dan Jancevski is a true character player and a leader who is knocking on the door at the next level. Bryce Lampman is someone we think is very close to playing regularly in the NHL right now. Jay Leach brings real toughness and leadership on the blueline as well. When you add these components in with some of our young prospects, we believe we have the makings of a solid team in Norfolk.
TBL.com: Now, shifting the focus to the current Tampa Bay Lightning, how do you feel you’ve been able to address the team’s needs since Free Agency began July 1?
JF: We are very pleased with what we've been able to accomplish thus far in the off-season. I take it back to the time period just before July 1st, actually, and include the acquisition of Chris Gratton, who we believe has become the ideal third-line center, and the signing of Jan Hlavac. Our European scouts have been very high on him the past two seasons and we think he will find a home in our system. Michel Ouellet is a power play guy who can finish and because he has some history with Brad Richards we look forward to seeing whether there is some strong chemistry there. Bringing back Brad Lukowich gives us five solid NHL defensemen who can get the puck to our forwards in transition, and that makes us a much better hockey team. Overall, these signings combined with our depth signings, has us feeling very good about what we've accomplished thus far.
TBL.com: You tried to acquire Chris Gratton for a few months before you got the deal done. Why do you feel he’ll fit in so well as he Lightning’s third-line center?
JF: Chris is a very caring and very sensitive man. He puts so much pressure on himself to succeed and to please those around him. When he is asked to be "the man" he puts even more pressure on himself. We don't need him to be "the man." As I told him when we acquired him, we aren't looking for him to be the lead singer - we already have a few of those on this team. We simply need him to be part of the band and lend his talent to the mix. He is outstanding on face-offs, he is a solid penalty killer, he is willing to stand in front of the net on the power play, and he stands up for himself and his teammates. He is a big body and he is tough to play against. I honestly believe that he has evolved and developed into the ideal or prototypical third-line center in the NHL. Not many teams in the League can roll out three starting centers the quality of Lecavalier, Richards and Gratton!
TBL.com: Do you foresee a trade or free-agent signing to bring in a new goaltender for the Lightning, or will Johan Holmqvist, Marc Denis and Karri Ramo likely be fighting it out at training camp?
JF: The three goalies under contract, (Holmqvist, Denis and Ramo) will battle it out in camp for the two spots on the roster. We will not carry three goalies and as we've always done here, the two best will stay, regardless of contract status, draft status, etc. We expect Marc Denis to rebound from this past season and we also expect Holmer to be even better. Toss in the fact that Ramo wants to play and play NOW at the NHL level and I think the goaltending position will be the battle to watch once camp opens.
TBL.com: What role do you see Brad Lukowich filling on this year’s team, and is he a different player now than he was in 2003-04 when he helped the Lightning capture the Stanley Cup?
JF: Brad is a very smart player and he is an excellent shot blocker. He can also make a good first pass out of the zone and that is so important in terms of getting the puck to our forwards in transition. He is also a colorful "character" within the room, and that's important also. Our personality wasn't the same coming out of the lockout. Losing Luke and Andre Roy...we were a very quiet team, a tense team at times. With Andre back in the fold, and Luke, and a colorful personality in Shane O'Brien joining the mix I like our "personality" more than I have the past couple of seasons.
TBL.com: On defense there are four bona fide NHLers currently under contract. Assuming Paul Ranger will be back with a new contract, will there be a training camp battle for the 6th and 7th spots among the likes of Matt Smaby, Dan Jancevski, Vladimir Mihalik, Jay Leach, Andy Rogers, Mike Egener, Bryce Lampman and David Schneider?
JF: We are debating internally right now how we want to handle the 6th D-man spot. We will get a new deal done with Ranger and that will give us five quality NHL D-men. All of the players you listed will have a chance to nail down that 6th spot in camp and we are also still reviewing our options in terms of signing an experienced veteran defensemen at a low one-way number. The discussions continue within the Hockey Operations Department and with the coaching staff; however, regardless of what we decide, our camp is always about opportunity, and even if we sign another veteran to a low one-way it won't preclude one of the two-way contracts from stepping up and making our team. All you have to do is look at last year when Andy Delmore and his one-way contract were sent to the AHL and Doug Janik and his two-way deal stayed with us.
TBL.com: In addition to Gratton you added Michel Ouellet through free agency and signed former NHLer Jan Hlavac to improve the options for the top two lines. Do you expect to add any more scorers prior to training camp?
JF: At this point in time we do not anticipate adding more scoring power. We honestly believe that we have the firepower offensively and we think we will continue to get solid offensive contributions from our backline. As you know, Filip Kuba came in here last season and experienced a career year offensively, and Shane O'Brien has some decent offensive upside to his game. Luke likes to jump up in our system and can contribute the odd goal, and Paul Ranger is just scratching the surface of what he can contribute to our offense.
TBL.com: Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis obviously had fantastic seasons in 2006-07. Are you confident Brad Richards will bounce back from what he himself considered a sub-par season?
JF: There is no doubt in my mind that Brad will bounce back! No one cares more than Brad, no one works harder, no one prepares more diligently. That's the beauty of our team...we have so many guys who care passionately about the team, about winning and about helping us win. Vinny, Marty, Brad, Danny Boyle...these are all high character guys and they set the example. Brad Richards is a winner and he struggled with a lot of things last season. He put so much pressure on himself, and yet, when you look at it, if we had a winger who could finish on his line, or if he had his old linemates of Fredrik Modin and Marty playing with him, I think his point totals would have been pretty close to his "normal" numbers. As it was he fell one goal shy of his career high. Trust me, there are any number of things that keep me awake at night worrying about the hockey team...Brad Richards having a bounce back year this season is not one of those things that causes me to lose sleep. You can bank on Brad!
TBL.com: Former Boston Bruins head coach Mike Sullivan will bring a new voice to John Tortorella’s coaching staff this season. Why is he the right guy for the Lightning?
JF: Mike shares a common vision with Torts in terms of how the game should be coached and how the game should be played. They have a history together and a shared commitment to team first. That is what Sully is all about...the team first, the team concept, and winning by adhering to that team concept. At the same time, having been a head coach in the NHL, Sully will not be afraid to challenge Torts and question things, which is good and healthy in a relationship. You need someone who can look at Torts and ask him why he's doing something a certain way, or who can look him in the eye and suggest he might have better results trying it a different way. There is a great deal of trust and mutual respect between the two. When you think about it, during the hockey season, once camp opens until the final playoff game in June, we hope, the coaching staff spends more time with each other than they do their families. Given their history and their backgrounds and that shared vision I am confident that the creative juices will flow and our team will be the beneficiary of their work product.
TBL.com: Is there anything else you’re hoping to add to the team as it stands now?
JF: We are always looking for ways to improve our hockey team. We really like where things stand right now, but we still have some decisions to make as we move forward. We need to re-sign Ryan Craig prior to his arbitration hearing and we need to make a decision on whether to add another veteran D-man. At the same time, we will speak with other teams and see whether there may be ways to improve, but overall we are ready to open camp and let the battles begin. As I keep trying to remind our fans, while other teams and the media, especially, are talking about this unrestricted free agent or that big-name free agent, the fact remains that we have four of the very best players in the NHL right here in Tampa. Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards and Dan Boyle are All-Stars, they are the kind of elite, premier players that the media would be drooling over were they unrestricted.
Think about it...if we hadn't signed St. Louis to a long-term deal coming out of the lockout he would have been an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2006...coming off a Stanley Cup win, the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross! Who would have been one of the highest profile UFA's that summer? Marty St. Louis! Or how about Lecavalier? What if Vinny had filed for salary arbitration following the lockout so that he would play 05-06 under a one-year contract and then become unrestricted in the summer of 2006 at the unprecedented age of 26?! Would he have been the highest profile UFA of the bunch last summer? Or Brad Richards? Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, four 20-goal seasons in the NHL, two seasons of 70-plus points and one 90-point season, averages almost a point per game in the playoffs over his career? If we hadn't re-signed him last year and he was unrestricted this summer do you honestly think that we'd be talking about chasing some of the "high profile" names who have signed this summer? We would be talking about the race to sign Brad!
Lecavalier, Richards, St. Louis and Boyle are the high profile players we took care of keeping right here in Tampa so that other teams could NOT cherry pick them away from us in free agency. That's a long-winded way of saying that we have the pieces in place, we have the core together and we've kept that core together, and that core is why we've made the playoffs four straight years! Only three other teams can boast a longer string of consecutive playoff appearances, and we look forward to chasing consecutive playoff appearance number five starting September 13th at Training Camp in Brandon! Hope to see you there!