Four years after winning the Stanley Cup, the Tampa Bay Lightning
have gone from the top to the bottom. The Bolts finished dead last in the NHL in 2007-08, causing management to fire John Tortorella, the winningest coach in franchise history.
Tortorella had led the Lightning to four consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearances, their first Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup championships and two Southeast Division titles. The 2004 Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL's top coach established franchise records with 46 wins and 106 points in the '03-04 campaign, but the 2007-08 club didn't even come close to those numbers.
"This has been a very difficult decision because of everything that John Tortorella has meant to and done for this organization," Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster said. "Torts came to Tampa and not only built the foundation under our club, but he also changed the culture and raised the expectations, eventually leading us to the Stanley Cup in 2004. What he accomplished during his tenure in Tampa was nothing short of remarkable and our organization will always owe him our thanks, gratitude and deep respect.
"At the same time, we need to look to the future of the both the club and the organization, and we must make decisions with the future in mind. John was entering the final year of his contract and extending his contract was not a viable option. Having him enter and coach the season in a lame duck status was not something I was prepared to recommend to ownership."
Despite all Tortorella had accomplished in Tampa in such a short time, it would have been a hard sell for Feaster to recommend keeping him behind the bench. The '07-08 Bolts managed just 71 points and a 31-42-9 record, finishing last in their division and conference. Tampa Bay won only 11 games after the All-Star break and just six after the trade deadline in February. Management tried to shake up the club by dealing away some of its veterans, but trading Brad Richards, Vaclav Prospal, Jan Hlavac and Johan Holmqvist and bringing in Jeff Halpern, Alexandre Picard, Jussi Jokinen and Mike Smith wasn't the answer.
The Lightning closed February with a 5-5-2 record, then went 5-10-2 in their last 17 games. The only positive that came out of all the losing was that the Lightning won the draft lottery and retained the No. 1 overall pick it used to draft the gifted Stamkos.
“We envision Stamkos being a second-line center at present, and our scouts do believe that he is ready to make the jump to the NHL this year,” Feaster said. “Having said that, it is important that we exercise some caution here because we should not expect him to walk in and score 40 goals and record 100 points.
“The good news in Tampa is that unlike the situation that Vinny Lecavalier walked into as the first pick overall (in 1998), there are other star players on our roster who can help lead and show Stamkos the ropes.’’
In its history, Tampa Bay has selected first overall twice. With those picks, the team selected defenseman Roman Hamrlik in 1992 and Lecavalier in 1998.
Barry Melrose will take over for Tortorella, joining the club just says after Stamkos was drafted and new ownership took over the team. Melrose is determined to reestablish a winning tradition in Tampa Bay, which failed to qualify for the playoffs last season after finishing with just 71 points (31-42-9), the fewest in the League.
"I want to surround our team with guys who have fire and who hate to lose," said Melrose. "When we lose, this isn't going to be a fun place to be. I want guys that play hard every night, and I'm not talking about fighting or constant hitting, either. You can intimidate by speed, talent, good defense and goaltending and that's what I want out of this team. I want our fast guys and our tough guys to be intimidating."
Last season, Lecavalier and teammate Martin St. Louis did all they could to try and help the Lightning stay out of the NHL's basement. They accounted for 65 goals and 175 points during '07-08, the fifth-highest in the League among NHL teammates. Lecavalier led the team in scoring with 92 points on 40 goals and 52 assists — but the franchise center finished the season by getting hurt in the next-to-last game of the season against the Washington Capitals.
Lecavalier underwent surgery in April to repair damage to his right shoulder that was suffered when the shoulder was dislocated in the Lightning's 4-1 loss to the Caps. Lecavalier is expected to make a full recovery in 12-15 weeks following the surgery and is expected to be ready by the time training camp in September.
St. Louis finished right behind Lecavalier on the Tampa Bay scoring chart with 83 points, 25 goals and 58 assists, in 82 games. Ten of his 25 goals came on the power play, two were shorthanded and five were game-winners. Only Lecavalier (7) had more game-winner than St. Louis. When neither player scored a goal last season for Tampa Bay, the club posted a pitiful 10-26-4 record.
But lack of scoring wasn't the team's only problem. The Lightning defense gave up an average of 28.2 shots and a League-worst 3.24 goals per game. The Tampa Bay goalies did little between the pipes to help keep the puck out of their net, especially in the second half of the season. After coming over from Dallas in the Richards deal, Smith had juts three wins in 13 games for the Lightning, while rookie Kari Ramo went 7-11-3 in 22 games.