How the Lightning went from best to worst and how it can get better

The Lightning finished this season with its most regulation losses (42) since 2000-01, its fewest wins (31) and fewest points (71) since 2001-02 and out of the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
The fall from the 2004 Stanley Cup championship to the league's worst team has been dramatic and multifaceted. The fixes must address not only on-ice performance but managerial and ownership issues that put the franchise on the wrong path.
How did the Lightning fall so far so fast? How can it reverse the trend?


THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Bad goaltending

This season's young defense exacerbated a problem that cannot be overstated. It is awfully difficult to win with a goals-against average higher than 3.00 and save percentage significantly below .900 because you are so often playing catch-up. Tampa Bay hasn't been better than 18th in goals-against average since 2003-04 and this season was last at 3.22. It was last in save percentage the past two seasons, this season at .885.

Loss of confidence

How many times have players' heads dropped in here-we-go-again resignation after a bad goal? The team this season didn't win when trailing after two periods and lost 23 games, 16 in regulation, when entering the third tied or ahead. Eventually, it became self-fulfilling. It didn't take much adversity to put Tampa Bay on its heels, meaning instead of finding ways to win, players tried too hard not to lose.

The lockout

Perhaps no team was hit harder than Tampa Bay, which not only lost the season in which it would have defended the 2004 Cup but a year of service on key contracts. The result: Nikolai Khabibulin, Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Dan Boyle, among others, all of a sudden were free agents. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, young stars Lecavalier and Brad Richards could become unrestricted free agents much earlier in their careers. That led to big contracts and tough choices such as signing St. Louis instead of Khabibulin.

Bad personnel decisions

• Tampa Bay's goaltenders since Khabibulin include John Grahame, Sean Burke, Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist. Not a No. 1 among the bunch. But the trail of tears is longer. It was disastrous trading 30-goal scorer Fredrik Modin and goalie prospect Fredrik Norrena for Denis and giving him a three-year, $8.6-million contract that this season and next is dead money.

• Failing for two seasons to find Richards legitimate second-line help.

• Not trading potential unrestricteds such as Cory Sarich, Pavel Kubina, Ruslan Fedotenko, Vinny Prospal (the first time) and Jassen Cullimore, and losing them for nothing.

• Bad drafting that left the minor-league system nearly bare.

If not Vinny and Marty, then … nobody

Without help for Richards, an awful lot of pressure fell to Lecavalier and St. Louis, who this season had 29.4 percent of the team's 221 goals. That they played on the same line made Tampa Bay easier to defend.

Prospal, on that line as well, had a nice season. But when Lecavalier and St. Louis weren't in stride, generally, neither was the Lightning.

Hit somebody, please

Physical play meant more success. Remember the win over the Canucks? That is a tough and exhausting way to play. The referees make it harder with an inconsistent penalty standard. Still, Tampa Bay is not feared in the corners and doesn't win enough puck battles.

Injuries

With so little depth (see above), losing almost 300 man-games to injury in 2007-08 was debilitating. That the bug hit key players such as Boyle, Tim Taylor, Ryan Craig and Chris Gratton made it worse.


TRENDING UPWARD

A good summer

General manager Jay Feaster got a running start with two good deadline deals that brought in forwards Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen, defenseman Alex Picard and goalie Mike Smith. Center Steve Stamkos will be drafted No. 1 overall and is thought to be NHL ready.

Still, with Brad Richards and Vinny Prospal gone, Tampa Bay needs, perhaps, two more top-six forwards and a steady, veteran defenseman.

That is a lot to ask and could be expensive, so Tampa Bay likely won't get it all. With so little organizational depth and a critical need to keep or add draft choices, there is little to trade. So free agency seems the likely option.

Coaching

John Tortorella and associate Mike Sullivan must keep their message fresh and change the message in areas that this season fell on deaf ears, such as the players' poor understanding and execution of situational play. Making sure team leaders are invested in the rebuilding process is critical.


Player leadership

Tim Taylor's hip surgery that kept him away revealed the Lightning's lack of strong locker-room personalities that were the hallmark of the Stanley Cup run. Leading by example is one thing. Face-to-face peer pressure is another.


The draft

Whether it is the decisionmaking process or the scouting, Tampa Bay's draft record is abysmal, and a thin minor-league system is the result. Nothing motivates players like knowing someone is pushing for their job. The push from the Lightning's affiliates has been almost nil. The long-term fix must start immediately.

Who owns this thing?

One way or another, the ownership situation must be resolved. Whether it is Palace Sports & Entertainment or would-be owner Oren Koules, a strong, consistent voice needs to be heard in personnel and business decisions. And whoever owns the team needs to articulate a plan to the players and fans.

Leadership starts at the top, and the Lightning has had very little.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.







How the Lightning went from best to worst and how it can get better 04/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 2:26pm]

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