By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
Like an unwelcome house guest, the Tampa Bay Lightning just kept hanging around last season. They were on the fringe of the playoff hunt until the final three weeks of the regular season. After a 3-3 tie with the Canadiens on March 22, the Lightning were 25-32-10-3 and within striking distance of the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Had Tampa Bay won that game, it would’ve been within eight points of Montreal for the last playoff berth. But the Lightning allowed the tying goal with 6.2 seconds left in the third and never recovered, embarking on a five-game losing streak. They slumped home with a 2-8-1-1 record in the final 12 games to finish 18 points out of the playoffs. But in a season of tremendous turmoil, it was considered a moral victory to be in the hunt that long.
The Lightning focused their offseason efforts on improving their depth. General manager Jay Feaster wanted to bring in a top-six forward and a top-four defenseman. What he got via trades were role-players Ruslan Fedotenko from the Flyers and Brad Lukowich from the Stars. Fans were irate that the team traded the No. 4 overall pick for Fedotenko and a second-rounder (which they then traded for Lukowich), but the Lightning believe the best is yet to come for the young Russian winger.
"We believe he's a player who can play in our top two lines," Feaster said. "When you are a franchise in a smaller market, with smaller revenue streams than the big boys, our job is to find the underutilized talent elsewhere. When we got Fredrik Modin from Toronto, he wasn't a top-two line guy and hadn't scored 20 goals. We believe the same thing is true with Fedotenko. He played strictly on the third line in Philly and got no power-play time whatsoever. So playing on a scoring line here and playing special teams, we believe he can be a 25-goal guy."
Feaster realizes the team’s future -- and perhaps his job security -- is linked to the performance of its two key offseason additions.
"I'm certainly willing to let my reputation rise and fall on those two guys," Feaster said. "We added two very good hockey players. We discovered some underutilized talents, and they can both be more than what they were allowed to be with their old franchises."
Brad Richards, C -- The Lightning’s most consistent center isn’t 1998 No. 1 overall pick Vincent Lecavalier; it’s 1998 No. 64 overall pick Richards.
Of the 1998 draft class, only Lecavalier (183), Scott Gomez (181), Alex Tanguay (176) and Simon Gagne (173) have more points than Richards (124). But while Lecavalier has played four NHL seasons and the other three have played three years, Richards has just two NHL seasons under his belt. And what a consistent two years they've been. Richards has yet to miss a game and posted nearly identical numbers: 21 goals, 41 assists and 14 penalty minutes as a rookie, and 20 goals, 42 assists and 13 penalty minutes last season. Does anyone see 19 goals, 43 assists and 12 penalty minutes in his future?
Actually, it’s doubtful he will fare that poorly, assuming Modin and Martin St. Louis stay healthy. His preferred wingers missed a combined 57 games last season. Barring a huge turnaround season from Lecavalier, Richards is likely to top the Lightning in scoring for a third consecutive season, given how often he has the puck and the fact that he was 19th in the league with 251 shots on goal last season.
Locker room chemistry -- Lecavalier got off to a rough start last season and never recovered. The Lightning signed Lecavalier to a new four-year deal on opening night of the regular season against the Islanders on Oct. 5, ending a contract holdout that caused him to miss training camp and the preseason. Lecavalier was stripped of his captaincy, as the team opted to go with a triumverate of alternate captains (Lecavalier, Modin and Tim Taylor). After returning to the lineup in time for the third game, Lecavalier went 10 games before scoring. In a funk, he and his agent approached the team about a trade.
Lightning owner Bill Davidson overruled general manager Rick Dudley, who had talked with Colorado about a blockbuster involving Tanguay, Chris Drury and others, and also reportedly had a deal in place with Ottawa for Radek Bonk, Sami Salo and Jason Spezza. The owner-general manager-head coach-star player tension hung over the team for three months before Dudley resigned in February. (He has since moved cross-state as general manager of the Panthers.)
"We didn't do Vinny any favors with how we handled it," Feaster said. "I thought he was outstanding the way he handled it. He was a true gentleman, a class act, never used the media. He had an off year and yet he still scored 20 goals for the third consecutive season, so imagine what he'll be with a full camp and a fresh attitude this season. I know that in order for us to be successful, we need Vinny to be the player he’s capable of being."
For Tampa Bay to right the ship and begin its ascent into a playoff contender, the relationships in the locker room will have to be strong from the start. Head coach John Tortorella acknowledged this offseason that he and Lecavalier still have some issues with each other, so a happy relationship between the two would greatly benefit the organization.
What do they do if Nikolai Khabibulin gets hurt?
The Lightning had a capable backup in Kevin Weekes, but he was dealt to the Hurricanes for Shane Willis and Chris Dingman two weeks before the trade deadline. Journeyman backup Kevin Hodson is now the No. 2, but he last played in the NHL on Feb. 8, 2000 (and was out of hockey entirely last season), when he gave up eight goals to the Sharks in an 8-0 loss. Hodson had a 2-7-4 record with a 3.67 goals-against average and a lackluster .856 save percentage backing up Dan Cloutier. Behind Hodson is 21-year-old Evgeny Konstantinov, who was ordinary last season with ECHL Pensacola after struggling in 2000-01 with IHL Detroit. Konstantinov is expected to spend this season playing for AHL Springfield.
"We have to stay healthy in goal," Feaster said. "Fans are nervous when you go with a No. 2 goalie who hasn't played in two seasons. I realize that, but if Khabibulin goes down and is gone for a significant amount of time, we are in deeper trouble than Kevin Hodson or Kevin Weekes or any backup goalie could help us with. It's one of those things that always keeps you awake at night. Whatever superstitions you have, you make sure you work them through as it relates to that one."
The Lightning could look to the NHL Waiver Draft on Oct. 4 for some help, with the Ottawa Senators appearing to be the most likely source of netminding aid. Barring a training-camp trade, Ottawa won’t be able to protect Patrick Lalime, Jani Hurme and AHL first-team All-Star goalie Martin Prusek. With Lalime a cinch to be protected, either Hurme or Prusek could be there for the taking when the Lightning come up early in the selection process. Hurme went 12-9-1 with a 2.39 GAA and .907 save percentage as Lalime’s backup, while Prusek was 18-8-5 with a 1.83 GAA and .930 save percentage with Grand Rapids.
With skilled centers Richards and Lecavalier likely entrenched on the Lightning’s top two lines for a few years, Tampa Bay needs some guys to do the dirty work. And this Bobby Holik clone certainly fits that bill. Svitov plays a tough, occasionally dirty style that agitates opponents. But don’t discount his offensive ability. With his size and strength, Svitov can get to the net and clear space in the slot. He also has been compared to Canucks center Trevor Linden, who has averaged 22.6 goals per season during a solid 14-year career.
The Lightning hope Svitov can contribute to the big club this season, but some time in the minor leagues could be helpful for his long-term development. Tampa Bay shares its AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass., with the Phoenix Coyotes. And Coyotes owner Wayne Gretzky named his old buddy Marty McSorley as the Falcons’ coach this summer. If the Lightning want Svitov to learn to be a gritty pest, few people are more qualified to teach him than McSorley, he of the 3,381 career penalty minutes, third-most in NHL history.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.