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Improved 'D' will help Lightning strike in '09-10

by Mike G. Morreale
The Tampa Bay Lightning are primed for a turnaround this season. And when you consider the moves Lightning General Manager Brian Lawton made to upgrade the NHL's 29th-ranked team in 2008-09, it's easy to see why.

The roster reshuffling came to a head on Sept. 1 with the signing of forward Alex Tanguay. Prior to nabbing one of the League's premier puck distributors, however, Lawton spent the majority of the summer upgrading a defense that yielded 3.28 goals per game last season. Five players were added, including first-round draft pick Victor Hedman and veteran Mattias Ohlund.

It should also be noted that in addition to Hedman, Tampa's next pair of '09 draft picks -- wingers Carter Ashton (29th overall) and Richard Panik (52nd overall) -- opened some eyes in training camp.

Following a little prodding by Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, Alex Tanguay determined that Tampa Bay was the best fit. The move gives the Lightning five legitimate scoring threats on the first two lines, including Tanguay, Lecavalier, St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Steven Stamkos.

That group combined for 124 goals, including 38 on the power-play, and 279 points in 2008-09. Despite missing 32 regular-season games and a pair of playoffs games with the Montreal Canadiens due to an injured left shoulder, Tanguay said he is fully recovered and raring to go. Expect coach Rick Tocchet to keep the line of Malone, Stamkos and St. Louis intact to open the season, leaving Lecavalier to center Tanguay and some lucky right wing.

Actually, there's a very good chance 2005 first-round draft pick Steve Downie could be the answer.

"He came into camp in shape, he's done everything we asked this summer and we'll see where he goes from there," Tocchet said.

Downie, who was suspended 20 games while with Tampa's American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk last season after being accused of striking an official on the shin with his stick, appears ready to turn over a new leaf. Also in the mix to ride shotgun with Lecavalier are Carter Ashton, Stephane Veilleux, Richard Panik and, of course, St. Louis.

Jeff Halpern, sidelined 30 games following right knee surgery last November, could earn the role of third-line center. Beyond that, there's no telling where the team's secondary scoring will come.

Veilleux, who played a third-line role in Minnesota last season, could receive spot duty along the second line while assuming some offensive responsibility. The hard-hitting Evgeny Artyukhin was traded to Anaheim for left wing Drew Miller -- the younger brother of Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller -- and right wing Radim Vrbata was dealt to Phoenix for enforcer Todd Fedoruk and defenseman David Hale.

Then there's Michigan's Adam Hall, a third-line player who had 85 hits and won 50 percent of his faceoffs in 2008-09. Lawton also acquired left wing Martins Karsums from Boston last March and re-signed him to a one-year deal last month.

After finishing 30th in the League on defense in 2007-08, the Lightning improved just slightly to finish 27th last season -- it was an area Lawton targeted since his team's second-straight sub-.500 campaign. He wasted little time in proving that point by selecting Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman with the second pick in the '09 draft.

In Hedman, Lawton acquired the best defenseman available on the board. And at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Hedman has the potential to become an impact player at a position the club so desperately needed. He has looked steady in the preseason while logging plenty of ice time.

"It's always nice to have a whack at it through the draft and have an opportunity to select a player of (Hedman's) caliber who could potentially help in a reasonable time frame," Lawton said.

Lawton didn't stop there either. On July 1, he signed veteran Mattias Ohlund to a seven-year deal. Additionally, Lawton signed rugged blue liner Matt Walker and the mobile Kurtis Foster, re-signed defender Lukas Krajicek and traded for Phoenix defenseman David Hale.

Then there are the returnees to the blue line for Tampa in 2009-10, including Paul Ranger, Andrej Meszaros and Mike Lundin. Ranger and Meszaros were cleared for contact at the start of training camp after each underwent arthroscopic surgery in April to repair a torn labrum in their left shoulder. Ranger missed 40 games last season and Meszaros was sidelined the last 30 games. If healthy, both players will add to an improving back end.

Entering training camp, Ohlund, Ranger, Meszaros and Hedman were locks to make the final cut prior to the season opener in Atlanta on Oct. 3.

All indications are that incumbent starter Mike Smith will be ready for the regular season.

Smith played through the effects of post-concussion syndrome last December before being shut down for the season Jan. 30. He has shown no ill effects during the preseason.

Smith was re-signed to a two-year deal by the Lightning in February and has a career 2.53 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 98 games with the Dallas Stars and Lightning.

"It's been a half a year, so it's been a long time off," Tampa goaltending coach Cap Raeder told the Tampa Tribune earlier this month. "But (Smith's) worked very hard. He looks pretty sharp at times, so we'll look at the consistency. To me, he's been fine, and I really like his attitude. He's very focused and he has a purpose when he comes out even for practice."

Just in case, however, Antero Niittymaki was signed and prospects Dustin Tokarski and Riku Helenius are waiting in the wings.

Contact Mike Morreale at

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