Looking back at the Lightning's productive summer, and taking some time off
The Tampa Bay Lightning still has work to do this summer. General manager Steve Yzerman is debating about adding an eighth defenseman to the NHL roster, and there is a third- or fourth-line spot open at wing that could be filled either through free agency or competition among the organization's up-and-comers. But even if things ground to a halt as is, there is no doubt Tampa Bay has had one of the league's best summers.
Consider what has been added to the front office by owner Jeff Vinik: CEO and minority owner Tod Leiweke, one of the most respected sports and entertainment managers in the business; general manager Steve Yzerman, who brought instant credibility to a reeling franchise and, as some of those who have signed with the Lightning have said, made the decision for free agents to come to Tampa Bay easier; assistant general manager and Norfolk GM Julien BriseBois, who was highly regarded in the Canadiens organization.
As for the on-ice product, Yzerman began by ridding the team of the overpriced and underachieving defenseman Andrej Meszaros (clearing $18.25 million in future contract obligations) and got a second-round draft pick in a trade with the Flyers; signed veteran defensemen Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark, center Dominic Moore and goaltender Dan Ellis. He also pulled off a huge trade in getting left wing Simon Gagne from the Flyers for defenseman Matt Walker. There are questions about Gagne's durability given his injury history. But with only one year left on his contract, and given his proved offensive ability, it is a worthy experiment, and might just be the help center Vinny Lecavalier needs.
There also were some good depth signings of players on two-way contracts, including forwards Chris Durno and Marc Pouliot, both of whom will make $550,000 if they are in the NHL.
Yzerman hired the hottest coach on the market this summer in Guy Boucher and gave the first-time NHL coach a seasoned veteran assistant in Wayne Fleming. But what might have been the biggest move of the summer was signing right wing Marty St. Louis to a four-year contract extension. That not only kept one of the Lightning's leaders in the fold, it sent a message that St. Louis, who a day after last season ended threatened to request a trade if he did not like the direction of the team, was on board with Yzerman's rebuilding program.
"I haven't been this excited to start a season in a long time," Lecavalier said.
Tim Leiweke perhaps summed it up best. Tod's brother might be a little prejudiced. But he also has NHL perspective as a governor for the Kings and a business perspective as CEO and president of AEG, a sports and entertainment company.
"Quite frankly, I think they have as good a management team as anyone in the league and anyone in professional sports," Tim said of Tampa Bay. "They're going to have an enormous amount of credibility. A lot of people are going to believe in the future of that franchise now, and when you look at the building blocks they have in place, including that little Stamkos kid, that's going to be a great franchise in very short order. So, I think Tampa is in for a great ride. The Lightning and that building are going to have great success. I'm envious of Tod because he gets the chance to work with two real character guys in Jeff (Vinik) and Steve (Yzerman).
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The goaltending still is unproven (we're still waiting for the Mike Smith from the first half of 2008-09 to show up), and the defense, while better, still has tons of question marks such as, can Mattias Ohlund bounce back from an injury-slowed but sub-par season? Will Lecavalier, who for the first time in three summers did not undergo surgery, and who finally will have some decent linemates, once again be a dominant player? And, really, can Steven Stamkos keep up the pace from a remarkable 2009-10?
For what it's worth, the preseason buzz is the Lightning should at least challenge for a playoff spot in the fairly even East.
Here is the projected NHL roster, thus far:
Goalies: Mike Smith, Dan Ellis.
Left wings: Simon Gagne, Ryan Malone, Johan Harju (one spot to fill).
Centers: Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier, Dominic Moore, Nate Thompson.
Right wings: Marty St. Louis, Steve Downie (when he signs), Niklas Persson, Adam Hall.
Defensemen: Pavel Kubina, Mattias Ohlund, Victor Hedman, Brett Clark, Mike Lundin, Matt Smaby, Matt Lashoff.
Finally, this blog is going to take a break for the next month or so. It will be updated when there is news, but I finally am getting some time off. I want to thank everyone who contributed to this effort for making it one of the most-read blogs, even in the summer, in the Times sports department. See you again when the season gets closer.