We are 27 days from the Montreal Canadiens season opener, and just 11 days from their first preseason game. We continue to countdown the final standings of the Atlantic Division, and today we take a closer look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, who will find themselves in fifth place at the end of the season.
The standings, from bottom up now look like this:
5th: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning failed to make the postseason for the second consecutive season, tumbling in the standings to a 28th overall finish. Since reaching game seven of the Eastern Conference Final in 2011, Tampa’s defensive and goaltending struggles have them on the outside of the playoff picture two years in a row.
The Tampa Bay Lightning bought Vincent Lecavalier out of his contract, and they now enter a season without Vinny for the first time since selecting him first overall in 1998. Winger Benoit Pouliot also moved on via free agency, and though he has bounced all over the NHL in recent years, he posted a solid 20 points in 34 games with Tampa.
The near last place finish in the standings led to drafting offensive phenom Jonathan Drouin out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the third overall pick in the NHL draft. The Lightning also signed Valtteri Filppula when free agency opened on July 5th, which should soften the blow of losing Lecavalier.
Tampa scored the fifth most goals in the NHL last season, with 148 in the short 48 game schedule. Even without Vinny, Tampa returns the top two scorers from a year ago, in veteran Martin St. Louis, who is the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner, and super sniper Steven Stamkos, who has already proven at just 23 years of age that he is the most dangerous goal scorer in the world.
The dazzling duo will possibly be joined by the top point per game scorer from the Canadian Hockey League, as 18 year old Jonathan Drouin will make his NHL debut. Behind what will surely be the highest scoring line in hockey, Tampa will receive plenty of depth scoring from Filppula, Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell, as well as youngsters Alex Killorn, Brett Connolly, Vlad Namestnikov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik.
It is a plethora of offensive riches that is the envy of the hockey world. It is also the reason the Lightning were able to send another young scoring winger, Cory Conacher to the Ottawa Senators for goaltender Ben Bishop at last year’s trade deadline.
Ben Bishop paid his dues in the minors, playing parts of six seasons in the American Hockey League. First, with the St. Louis Blues farm team in Peoria, and later with Binghamton, the baby Sens. Battling the likes of Jaro Halak, Brian Elliott, Jake Allen, Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner for ice time, Bishop was never given the chance to get in a groove in the NHL, even though his AHL play was outstanding, particularly in the past three seasons.
Now that he is a member of the Lightning organization, Bishop’s minor league days are behind him. Ben will split the crease with the gigantic Anders Lindback, and though neither of them posted incredible numbers last season, they will be able to share the crease in such a way that rewards whoever is closer to the top of their game at any given point in the season. This battle for playing time should see both goaltenders sharp from the beginning of the season, and don’t be surprised if Bishop eventually emerges as an excellent option.
The biggest problem with the Lightning organization this season will be their blue liners. Victor Hedman continues to develop, though not as quickly as Lightning management would have hoped when they selected him second overall in 2009. Matt Carle was brought in via free agency from Philadelphia, and had a solid, if not spectacular first season in Tampa. He scored just under half of a point per game, and maintained an even plus minus, while being the Lightning’s most used defender in all situations.
Beyond those two, Eric Brewer and Sami Salo had decent seasons, but are nearing the end of their careers, and have regressed over the past few seasons. Salo had his best luck with injuries in a decade, so it will be difficult for him to duplicate his impressive year.
The bottom pairing work will be left to youngsters Keith Aulie, Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr. It is not a terrible group of defenders if everyone can stay healthy, but there is no veteran depth that will be able to step into the top four and calm the inevitable chaos that is an 82 game schedule.
Bottom line is, this is the exact same group that struggled last season, they are just a year older now. That may be good news for Hedman, and possibly Barberio and Sustr, but the wrath of time may catch up to Brewer and Salo over a long season.
The lineup, boasting incredible offensive depth will begin the season looking like this:
Drouin Stamkos St. Louis
Killorn Filppula Purcell
Malone Namestnikov Connolly
Pyatt Thompson Palat
There is no question that the Tampa Bay Lightning will be among the NHL’s highest scoring teams in 2013-14. A tandem of Bishop and Lindback likely won’t be up for the Jennings at the end of the year, but they should combine for some great goaltending.
The defense however, is unchanged from one that allowed far too many shots, chances and goals last season. To expect the exact same group to be much improved this season is nothing but wishful thinking.
The Lightning are in fine shape for the future, with so many young scoring prospects, and Andrei Vasilevski soon to push the goaltenders for starts. But it appears to be more of the same, as they do not have any stud defenders making their way through the pipeline.
Tampa will be able to outscore their opponent on many nights this season, but until they address their needs on the blue line, they will stay in the bottom half of the Atlantic Division.