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30 in 30: Lightning look for return to playoffs

by Mike G. Morreale

It's hard to imagine how the Tampa Bay Lightning finished out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth time in six years despite having the NHL's top two point-producers last season.

But it happened. At age 38, Martin St. Louis with 60 points became the oldest player to win the Art Ross Trophy, and linemate Steven Stamkos finished second with 57. But their production contributed little to the success of the team; the Lightning finished 28th in the overall standings at 18-26-4.

Offense wasn't the problem: The Lightning ranked third in the NHL averaging 3.06 goals per game. But they couldn't keep the puck out of their net, allowing 3.06 goals-per game to place 26th. A 6-1-0 start to the shortened season was followed by a 7-16-1 skid that cost coach Guy Boucher his job after two-plus seasons. Boucher's dismissal came one day after the Lightning fell behind by four goals in the first period of a 5-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators to drop to 13-17-1.

Part of the problem was the Lightning allowed opponents to score first in 35 of 48 games. The Lightning were terrific in blowouts (10-3 in games decided by three or more goals), but poor in one-goal games (5-16; the five wins were the fewest of any team).

It certainly wasn't what general manager Steve Yzerman envisioned entering the season, particularly when he felt he had bolstered the team's defense with the acquisition of goalie Anders Lindback and the signings of free-agent defensemen Sami Salo and Matt Carle.

"We believe last year was somewhat of an anomaly in that the work-shortened season made things very unpredictable," Yzerman said. "You have players that have great stretches or really poor stretches, and I feel over the course of an 82-game season, everything kind of evens itself out."

Yzerman named Jon Cooper, coach of the American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse, as the eighth coach in Lightning history one day after firing Boucher. The change didn't help; Tampa Bay went 4-8-3 under Cooper, who had led the Lightning's prior AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, to the Calder Cup in 2012.

Yzerman made his first major move of the offseason June 27 when he opted to use a compliance buyout on captain Vincent Lecavalier. The four-time All-Star, drafted No. 1 by the Lightning in 1998, helped the franchise win its only Stanley Cup in 2004 and scored a franchise-high 383 goals; he had 10 last season. The decision to buy out Lecavalier will cost the Lightning $32 million over 14 years, but it saved more than $7.7 million in salary-cap room for this season.

With veteran goaltender Mathieu Garon not re-signed, there figures to be a battle for the No. 1 job between 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop and 6-foot-6 Anders Lindback. Yzerman acquired 26-year-old Bishop in April from the Senators in exchange for forward Cory Conacher and a 2013 fourth-round draft pick. Nine months earlier he brought in Lindback, 25, from the Nashville Predators. Bishop got most of the playing time after coming to Tampa Bay and received a two-year contract extension.

Yzerman signed center Valtteri Filppula, right wing Geoff Walker and 2013 first-round draft pick Jonathan Drouin on July 5 to bolster the lineup. Filppula, who can play center or wing, was not signed to fill the void left by Lecavalier, according to Yzerman.

"Val is a totally different type of player than Vinny," said Yzerman, who knew Filppula from their time together with the Detroit Red Wings. "He's a good, solid, all-around complete player who checks and wins faceoffs. We can score goals, but we need to become a better defensive team, and Val is the type of player who can play that game, in all those situations."

There's no question training camp and the exhibition season will help Cooper gain a better grasp on potential lineups. For instance, are left wings Ondrej Palat and Pierre-Cedric Labrie, along with centers Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson ready to take on bigger roles? Can Drouin, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, have an immediate impact?

Drouin's playmaking skills could earn him a spot with Stamkos (29 goals, 57 points) and St. Louis (17 goals, 60 points) on the top line.

"It's possible that we'll have one-third of the forwards playing on opening night who weren't full-time players last year, and that includes [Filppula]," Cooper said. "There will be a different look up front."


Additions: RW Geoff Walker, C/LW Valtteri Filppula, D Drew Olson.

Subtractions: C Vincent Lecavalier, D Brendan Mikkelson, RW J.T. Wyman, LW/RW Benoit Pouliot.

UFAs: G Mathieu Garon.

Promotion candidates:
RW Brett Connolly, RW Nikita Kucherov, LW Jonathan Drouin, D Andrej Sustr.
Defensively, Cooper likely will keep Victor Hedman and Sami Salo as his top pairing, followed by Carle and Radko Gudas, who was one of the biggest surprises of an otherwise disappointing season. After the top four, it gets a bit dicey; there's 34-year-old Eric Brewer, along with several young players in the mix, including Andrej Sustr, Mark Barberio, Slater Koekkoek and Nikita Nesterov.

Rick Bowness, hired as an associate coach in June, will help provide Cooper with a foundation and stability on the back end. Additionally, Yzerman hired former University of Denver coach George Gwozdecky in August as an assistant coach in charge of the forwards and the power play.

"Our defense is relatively going to remain the same … we may have a few players coming up from the minors, but they've got fire and those young legs," Cooper said.

Keep in mind the Lighting made six picks at the draft on June 30: five forwards and a goalie. Yzerman said he feels the defense he has in place and those in the system are capable of getting the job done.

The Lightning were one victory away from the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. Two-plus years later, they're picking up the pieces after back-to-back non-playoff seasons. But Yzerman said any setbacks the team hits are temporary.

"I'm encouraged by what is happening here … it does take time and there are bumps in the road," Yzerman said. "I went through a 20-plus year career as a player [in Detroit] and we eventually got to where we wanted to go. But there are always unforeseen circumstances, like injuries or setbacks, along the way. You just have to stick with the plan."


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