I hope you're all as excited about the upcoming Panthers' season as I am. My partner Denis Potvin has written a blog about the off season moves made by the Panthers and other teams around the NHL while I focus on moves made by the Panthers' Southeast Division foes.
As excited as we might be about the prospects of this coming season in South Florida, we have to realize that the Southeast Division (nicknamed the SouthLeast Division not long ago) has become extremely competitive. Success on the ice has led to stability: all five head coaches in the SE will be back (5 of the other 10 Eastern Conference teams will have new head coaches when the season opens in October!) The last two Stanley Cup champions (Tampa Bay & Carolina) are division rivals of the Panthers. Some of the best young talent in the game will face the Panthers in their 32 division games this season (Ovechkin, Staal, Kovalchuk just to name a few) as well as veteran superstars like Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards, Brind'Amour, Hossa and Kolzig.
Here's a look at the Tampa Bay Lightning:
2005-06 Record: 43-33-6, 92 pts (2nd in Southeast/8th in East-final playoff spot)
Playoffs: lost 1st round series vs. Ottawa in 5 games
First 10 games: started the season with a 5-3-2 record, including split of a home and home series vs. the Panthers
Last 10 games: finished the season 5-4-1 and held off late charges by Toronto, Atlanta and Florida
Strengths: The Big 3: Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis. While some may question the strategy of investing $20+ million in 3 forwards in today's salary cap world, it's hard to argue with the talent, hard work and confidence that this trio brings to the ice each night. Coach John Tortorella can spread these three over 2 or 3 lines or put them together for the power play and an occasional even strength shift. No team in the NHL can boast three forwards with this kind of talent and experience.
Weaknesses: Depth on the blueline. The Lightning lost 2 defenseman to free agency in Pavel Kubina (22 min per game) and Darryl Sydor (19 min per game). GM Jay Feaster has addressed this issue with some of the moves listed below. The other area that may be of concern for the Lightning is balanced scoring. Tampa did have six 20+ goal scorers up front last year, but the drop off was dramatic after the top 2 lines. Richards, Prospal, Lecavalier, St. Louis, Modin and Fedotenko accounted for 171 of the 218 goals (78%) scored by Lightning forwards....and Modin is gone in the trade that brought goaltender Marc Denis from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Goaltending was another weakness after losing Nikolai Khabibulin to free agency following the Stanley Cup year of 2004. John Tortorella's club never had the swagger they displayed in 2004 with their "Safe is death" philosophy and lack of confidence in their goaltending played a role.
Another area that must improve is the power play. There is no reason a team with this talent should only score the 19th most PPG's in the league.
Off season moves
The Lightning, as mentioned above, lost defensemen Sydor and Kubina to free agency. They've been replaced by Filip Kuba (FA from the Wild) and Luke Richardson (FA from the Maple Leafs). General manager Jay Feaster also added some depth and potential offense from the blue line with the signings of Andy Delmore (FA from the Blue Jackets) and Doug Janik (FA from the Sabres).
Up front, the Lightning hope that Andreas Karlsson (signed from the Swedish Elite League) and Nikita Alexeev (Tampa's #1 pick-8th overall in 2000) can bolster the 3rd and 4th lines.
The biggest move made by the Lightning is the acquisition of goaltender Marc Denis from Columbus. While it cost the Lightning a very good player in Fredrik Modin (31 goals, 23 assists, 12 PPG, +5), the deal addressed an issue that haunted the Lightning all of last year. Inconsistent goaltending was a theme all of last season and now Tampa believes they have the goalie to carry them back to contention.
Last season, Tampa Bay had the tough task of defending a Stanley Cup championship after a full season off due to the lockout. They managed to hang on to the last playoff spot in the East, but few people in hockey thought this was a championship caliber team heading into the playoffs. Can they get back to contender status? If Marc Denis can provide the goaltending they need, anything is possible. The Lightning also addressed their vacant captaincy with the announcement that veteran Tim Taylor will be the 8th captain in franchise history. Tampa had been without a captain since Dave Andreychuk retired.
I can't wait for the eight head-to-head meetings this season between the Lightning and the Florida Panthers!