Tampa Bay Lightning Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
We interrupt this lovefest to bring you the harsh reality of professional sports.
Tampa still was basking in the afterglow of the Bucs' Super Bowl title when the Lightning reached the postseason for just the second time in franchise history. A thrilling first-round series win over the Capitals was followed by a five-game ousting by the Devils.
The Lightning faced the reality of the business side of things this summer when unrestricted free agent Vaclav Prospal shunned Tampa Bay's five-year, $13.75 million offer to sign a five-year, $17.5 million deal with Anaheim. Prospal finished 15th in the NHL in scoring with 79 points, which led the Lightning.
"In the NHL these days, you don't get surprised by too much," center Brad Richards said. "When we went and got Cory Stillman, you could kind of see it coming that something might not work out. We still had hopes that they would get both of them signed -- that would've been really good. That's the business of hockey right now, and other teams go through the same thing every year."
With a playoff race and 12 postseason games under their belts, the Lightning are poised to defend their first division crown in what could be a surprisingly competitive Southeast Division.
Tampa Bay will have its deepest team ever, with plenty of position battles taking place in training camp and the preseason. Former 30-goal scorer Fredrik Modin is likely to take a lesser role as head coach John Tortorella tries to work Nikita Alexeev and Finnish rookie Eero Somervuori into prominent roles on the top two lines. Modin could end up as trade bait if the team decides it needs to bolster the top four on the blueline.
Newcomer Cory Stillman will start on Vincent Lecavalier's left side, while Richards and Martin St. Louis will remain together as a pair on the second line.
"I think some of our young guys who have been here for two or three years finally got a taste of the playoffs and a little bit of an understanding of where the fun in the game is," Tortorella said. "That's the time of year. It certainly whets your appetite and we have a new challenge this year, so we are going to attack it."
The Lightning should be good enough to make their second consecutive postseason appearance, but back-to-back division titles will be a tougher goal to accomplish.
Vincent Lecavalier, C and Brad Richards, C -- The Lightning's top two pivots both had career years and were big reasons why playoff hockey was back in Tampa.
Lecavalier finally got back on track with the potential that he flashed in a 67-point season in 1999-00. And as impressive as Lecavalier's career-best 78 points were, the fact the he finished even in plus-minus after going minus-88 in his first four seasons represented the biggest advancement in his game.
Richards continued to emerge as the team's quiet leader. Likened to Joe Sakic by Feaster, Richards became a dominant playmaker in his third season by recording 57 assists, 34 of which came on the power play. His deft passing was a big reason Lecavalier, Prospal, St. Louis and Dan Boyle all had career years.
Even with the two clear-cut young stars that they are building around, the Lightning don't want to stray from Tortorella's rigid team concept. It took four full seasons to get Lecavalier to buy into it, so they want him to keep thinking about individual goals and superstardom as an afterthought to team success.
"The thing about this hockey club is that it's a team without one go-to guy," Feaster said. "We were the only team in the NHL with four players who scored 70 or more points. And I think that's exactly where we expect it to be again. We have two legitimate scoring lines, and I think we are going to continue to see balanced scoring. We are expecting every one of those players who had career years last year to step it up another notch."
"We have to be the guys," Richards said. "We're young players, but young is not really an excuse anymore. I'll be in my fourth year and Vinny is his sixth year, so we're starting to know what it takes to be a good players. Both of us have to be a lot more consistent because the team is building around us."
The Lightning believe Lecavalier made great strides last season to fit into the team concept. Prior to Tortorella taking over in January of 2001, Lecavalier had the run of the place with Steve Ludzik as head coach. Ludzik allowed Lecavalier to call his shots as to what role he played on the power play and who he played with. It took fighting through some tough times with the occasionally abrasive Tortorella to bring Lecavalier back into the team fold.
"Everybody expected so much out of Vinny at such a young age, and sometimes it takes a little time," Tortorella said. "He's got some players around him that are trying to help him now. We all know what talent level he has, but Vinny took a major step in his maturity last year. He's starting to understand more about the intangibles of the game and the preparation and concentration end of it. I give him a lot of credit. He continues to find his way, but I still think there is plenty more there and it's just starting."
It hasn't always been easy for Lecavalier and Tortorella, but now that the two understand and accept each other, it's looking like they both will be in Tampa for a long time to come.
Defense -- The Lightning were so desperate for defensemen at the trade deadline that they claimed Janne Laukkanen off waivers from the Rangers and acquired Marc Bergevin from the Penguins. Laukkanen appeared in just two regular-season games and two playoff games for the Lightning after returning from a rib injury, while Bergevin played in only the regular-season finale and was traded back to Pittsburgh on May 12. The Lightning didn't give up anything from their NHL roster to acquire these two ordinary veterans, but it reeked of a desperate move at the time ... and still does five months later considering the team was unable to upgrade its blueline corps via free agency.
"I'd still love to have someone who is a legitimate quarterback back there on the power play," Feaster said. "Janne Laukkanen is going to come in and help us in that regard, but if there was a way to get a top-four defenseman who could chew up 22 or 23 minutes per game and could legitimately quarterback the point on the power play, that would be real nice. We are deep up front, but again the blueline is still a spot [for concern]. I don't know if you ever feel good enough on defense."
Dan Boyle had a spectacular season, more than doubling his previous career high of 26 points by recording 53. The 5-foot-11 offensive-minded Boyle scored eight goals and 19 assists on the power play, but he and Pavel Kubina were Tampa Bay's only power-play contributors among rearguards. The Lightning expect Kubina to get back on track offensively after a down year, but even with Boyle and Kubina helping out in the offensive zone, Tampa Bay could use another defenseman who likes to join the rush and contribute on special teams.
Tortorella admits he would like another quality body to work into the mix, but acknowledges the fiscal reality of having to watch the team's bottom line.
"As with 29 other teams, defense is always a concern," Tortorella said. "I know Jay is looking. We do have a budget, as all of the teams do, and we have to find the right piece. It may come up to the last day of the preseason to see if something is there. Maybe it doesn't. All we can do as a coaching staff and as a team is whoever is here when we open up against Boston, we are going to try to play under a strict team concept and do the best we can."
Laukkanen will be asked to fill that role for the time being, but his 42 power-play points in 407 career games leave a little to be desired. It's a safe bet that Feaster will pursue another blueline via a trade or in the Waiver Draft in an attempt to upgrade this ordinary unit.
Is there are goaltending controversy in Tampa?
Absolutely not. Well, not yet at least.
Tortorella's decision to play John Grahame in Game 5 at New Jersey was indeed an attempt to motivate Nikolai Khabibulin, but the Lightning plan to have The Bulin Wall in the crease on opening night and for the bulk of the work in the 2003-04 regular season.
"I believe Nik's not happy about the situation and I never expected him to be happy about it," Tortorella said. "If he was happy, then I'd really be worried. But that's part of the game. Sometimes when a coaching staff feels you're just not on, the staff has to make a decision about what is best for the hockey team. That game, that night, that series, we felt that was the right decision. We live by that, and that's how we are going to make our decisions throughout the year."
The Lightning clearly are thrilled to have Grahame as a top-notch backup to Khabibulin, and Grahame probably will play close to 30 games. Khabibulin has played 7,682 minutes the past two seasons, and looked worn down by the time the playoffs rolled around. He was ordinary in the first four games against the Devils, allowing three goals in each game. The only victory he got in the series was in Game 3 when his teammates picked him up with four goals.
"Last year, when we started the season with Kevin Hodson as our backup, [Tortorella] didn't have a lot of confidence in him," Feaster said. "As a result, I think Nik knew that and felt that pressure of knowing that he had to play every night because Torts wasn't content going with the backup. But now, I think we're going to have a much more rested and refreshed Nik Khabibulin because Johnny Grahame is going to get into games."
The Lightning seem to be handling what could be a sticky situation with aplomb, but the first time Tortorella gives Khabibulin the hook in favor of Grahame, look out, because a full-fledged controversy would be born.
"I don't want to call Grahame a backup," Tortorella said. "I think he's a 'push' guy right now because he's going to push Nik to get better. I don't know where it is in their contracts where it says that I can't be pushed to a higher level by another guy. I haven't seen the writing in contracts where they are exempt from that. So that's what we have there."
Eero Somervuori, LW, 5-10, 185 pounds
The Lightning drafted Somervuori six years ago and attempted to sign him, but he chose to remain in his home country and developed into a star forward in the Finnish Elite League. Tampa Bay finally got him to sign this summer and is hopeful that he will be able to play the wing on one of its top two lines. Somervuori could be tried on right wing the top-line pairing of Stillman and Lecavalier, but likely will end up playing his natural left wing position with Richards and St. Louis. He and St. Louis would form a deadly quick pair of wingers, though their lack of size may be a bit of a defensive liability.
"Eero is a guy we are anxious to see what he can do and what kind of a player he's going to be," Feaster said. "He'll bring some excitement to us. He's a very good skater with dynamic acceleration, and he can finish, too. He's been playing pro and has been one of the top guys the last couple of years in Finland, so he's going to be fun to watch. The biggest question is the adjustment to the North American game."
The 24-year-old played eight seasons in the Finnish Elite League, ranking eighth last season in points (45) and 11th in goals (21). His best offensive season came in 2001-02 when he put up 25 goals and 23 assists.
"I want to stay, get some experience and learn North American hockey," Somervuori told the St. Pete Times this summer upon signing with the Lightning. "Now I get my chance. I hope I can take it."
The Lightning will give the diminutive Finn a long look in training camp and would be disappointed if he doesn't win a spot among their top six forwards.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.