WHEN OREN KOULES
and Len Barrie took ownership of the club in June, they vowed to be aggressive
in rebuilding the franchise. They weren't kidding. In the first 10 days of free
agency the Lightning brought in 13 players—and that doesn't count No. 1 draft
choice Steven Stamkos. Important among the pickups are ex-Penguin Ryan Malone
and Radim Vrbata, who scored 27 goals for Phoenix. "I've never seen a team
make that many changes," says top center
Vincent Lecavalier (above), who
also spilled a little ink when he signed an 11-year, $85 million contract
extension. "It's not just players but everywhere in the organization. It's
like I got traded without having to leave Tampa."
roster has depth up front but will be extremely thin—and inexperienced—on the
blue line. "We're going to take our lumps early," says coach Barry
Melrose, another import (from the ESPN studio). "We'll make mistakes, but I
accept mistakes as long as you're trying to get better."
38-35-9, 11th in East
D Keith Ballard, D Nick Boynton, Coach Peter DeBoer, D Bryan McCabe, LW Cory
D Jassen Cullimore, C Olli Jokinen, Coach Jacques Martin, D Steve Montador, C
championships, as the old saw goes, but in the Panthers' case it's not likely
to be enough to even contend in this division. Goalies Tomas Vokoun (69 games)
and Craig Anderson (17) tied Anaheim's unit with a league-best .920 save
percentage last season, and in the off-season Florida acquired several veterans
to strengthen a defense that, with powerful
Jay Bouwmeester (above) at its
core, could be as strong as any in the Southeast.
Ah, but the
offense. With perennial top scorer Olli Jokinen having been dealt to Phoenix,
the onus falls primarily upon 25-year-old center Stephen Weiss and ascendant
23-year-old right wing Nathan Horton. Those two can make plays—Horton, in
particular, has 35-goal potential—but they'll have little support up front;
that makes continued production from Bouwmeester, a fine passer who also had 15
goals last year, essential.
The bottom line:
Florida's eight-season playoff drought is tied with the Blue Jackets' for the
longest active streak in the NHL—and there's no end in sight.