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Rangers-Lightning Preview @NHL

In four years, the Tampa Bay Lightning went from Stanley Cup champions to a reclamation project. They also appear to have the pieces in place to make their journey back to elite status a quick one.

Featuring new ownership, a new coach and top overall draft pick Steven Stamkos, the Lightning kick off the 2008-09 season on Saturday in the Czech Republic with the first of two games against the retooled New York Rangers.

In 2004, Tampa Bay won its only Stanley Cup championship before recording two straight 90-plus point campaigns after the lockout. Last season, though, the Lightning (31-42-9) had the fewest wins in the league, and tied Los Angeles for last with 71 points.

New owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie immediately went about improving the club. They replaced fiery Cup-winning coach John Tortorella with former television analyst Barry Melrose, who returns behind the bench after a 13-year absence.

"I think what happened here is just a group that lost their passion," Melrose said. "You out-work other teams, you out-want other teams. When you lose that fire and lose that passion, it's very hard to compete in the NHL."

Melrose coached Los Angeles from 1992-95, and in his first season helped the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings to the Cup finals, where they lost to Montreal.

Stamkos, who had 100 goals and 97 assists in 124 games over two seasons in juniors, was the Lightning's prize for winning the draft lottery. Already projected as a second-line center, Stamkos said he's prepared for the high expectations that come with being selected first overall.

"Just work as hard as you can, compete as hard as you can and whatever happens happens," he said. "Usually if you're willing to do anything for the team, and anything to make yourself a better player, the result usually is going to be a positive one."

Having veteran leadership in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis around should help make Stamkos' transition to the NHL easier. Lecavalier (92 points in 2007-08) and St. Louis (83) combined for nearly 30 percent of the Lightning's scoring last season.

In July, Lecavalier - picked first overall by the Lightning in 1998 - signed an 11-year, $85 million contract that will likely keep the franchise's scoring leader in a Tampa Bay uniform for the remainder of his playing days.

"It's no secret how I feel about the organization, the fans and the Tampa Bay community," Lecavalier said, adding that "signing this long-term deal was an easy decision."

The Rangers, meanwhile, hope another roster overhaul will help them ultimately make a deeper playoff run.

Despite the additions of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, the Rangers (42-27-13) finished third in the Atlantic Division for the third consecutive season in 2007-08. They also were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight year.

That led New York to again make a splash in free agency with the additions of aging left wing Markus Naslund and defenseman Wade Redden. A trade with Columbus also brought enigmatic forward Nikolai Zherdev and center Dan Fritsche to the Rangers.

Naslund, 35, was a five-time All-Star with Vancouver and the runner-up for NHL MVP in 2003, but the Rangers will be trying to get Zherdev to live up to his potential. He averaged 45 points in four seasons after the Blue Jackets picked him fourth overall in 2003.

"He's got upside written all over him," Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. "We are trying to get younger, we are trying to get more talented and we're trying to get faster."

Among those gone from last year's squad are Jaromir Jagr and Sean Avery. A two-time Stanley Cup champion and one of the NHL's most prolific scorers, Jagr - who had a team-high 71 points last season - signed with the new Russian KHL one day after his split from New York.

Avery, one of the game's premier agitators, joined Dallas after New York apparently grew tired of his antics. In a first-round playoff game against New Jersey, Avery set up in front of Martin Brodeur and blocked the goalie's view by waving his hand and stick. The league outlawed the move the next day.

One constant that remains, though, is two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist in goal. He won 37 games for the second straight season in 2007-08 with a league-high 10 shutouts, the most by a Ranger in 81 years.

The Rangers and Lightning will play again on Sunday in Prague.

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