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Yzerman improves Lightning

The last time we saw the Lightning, it was skating off the ice in Montreal, pretty much domi­nated and thoroughly dejected after being swept out of the playoffs by the Canadiens.

It was such a bummer end to what had been a surprisingly feel-good season.

Playing without injured starting goalie Ben Bishop, the Lightning was better than it showed in the postseason but, clearly, still miles from where it needs to be if it wants to become a real-deal contender in the NHL.

The gap between pretender and contender just got a little smaller thanks to Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.

No longer wearing his GM training wheels, Yzerman has settled in and, from the looks of things, become one of the shrewdest executives in the league. Hey, at the very least, he has been among the busiest.

A furious flurry of trades and free agent signings over the past week have shown that simply making the playoffs was not good enough for Yzerman.

And here's the deal: Because of those transactions, the Lightning is a better team today than the one that skated off the ice in Montreal in April.

"We didn't play very well in the playoffs,'' Yzerman said, "so I hope we're better.''

Hold off on the champagne for the time being. No need to map out parade routes just yet. Don't rush out to buy any confetti. The Lightning still has moves to make and holes to fill and questions to answer.

"I've never seen a team on paper win the Stanley Cup,'' coach Jon Cooper warned.

But it's quite all right to feel optimistic. You can see the progression. You can sense the improvement.

Yzerman's excellent summer is the reason.

Among his finest moves was getting rid of some of the dead wood, parting ways with Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone — two high-priced players whose poor production no longer justified their rich contracts. There should be no crying over a couple of spilled underachievers.

Along the way, Yzerman pulled a Callahan out of his hat, somehow talking gritty forward Ryan Callahan into signing a long-term deal only a few days before Callahan was eligible to back his truck up to the bank as an unrestricted free agent.

"He chose to stay here,'' Cooper said, "and I think (that) was a huge sign that Tampa might be a place for guys to come and play.''

Callahan, acquired in the controversial Marty St. Louis trade, gives the Lightning a whole lot of heart and a whole lot of leadership. And he's a pretty good hockey player, too. He does all the things that some players would rather not do. He blocks shots, stands in front of the net and skates into the areas of the ice where you have to fight through elbows, fists and high sticks to get the puck — just so you can pass it to someone else.

Then came improvement on defense. A trade for Jason Garrison. The free agent signing of Anton Stralman.

They're top-four defensemen who can log heavy minutes and shore up a defensive unit that most certainly needed some shoring up. Add those two to the likes of the steady Eric Brewer and just-about-a-superstar Victor Hedman, and the defense has gone from a weakness to a strength.

"I think we're a little bit younger and a little bit quicker on the back end,'' Yzerman said.

Yzerman brought in veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov, a more reliable solution to back up Bishop than the wildly inconsistent Anders Lindback.

At forward, the Lightning added 6-foot-7 Brian Boyle, a meaner and more-skilled version of Nate Thompson, who was traded away to make room on the roster for youngsters, such as former first-round picks Brett Connolly and Jonathan Drouin, and make room under the salary cap to sign some veterans. The Boyle signing might be Yzerman's most underrated of the offseason.

"We need to get bigger,'' Yzerman said. "In this league, you not only have to be good, I think size is important.''

If there's a reason for worry, it's the youth, particularly up front. Valtteri Filppula is the only Lightning forward who is 30 or older, and he's exactly 30. And, well, star Steven Stamkos can't do all the scoring by himself. Scoring could be a bit of an issue.

That's why Yzerman went hard after veteran Jarome Iginla in free agency and said Thursday that he remains in search of a proven veteran, maybe to play on the right wing.

"Any team that makes a lot of changes in the offseason, there's optimism,'' Yzerman said. "But until you actually get on the ice and the players play together and you see how it all comes together, (you don't know). Sometimes, it takes time. We've changed this roster a lot. We're optimistic. We feel good about the changes we made. We would like to think we're better, but let's wait and see in the fall.''

Yzerman is right. We need to see it. A couple of injuries here, a few subpar seasons there and shaky goaltending could send the Lightning to the back of the pack in the tough Eastern Conference.

But this season's version of the Lightning is a little bigger, a little faster, a little deeper and, thanks to last season's premature playoff exit, a little hungrier.

Put it this way: Things this fall should start off a whole lot better than they ended last spring.

Tom Jones can be reached at tjones@tampabay.com and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620.

Yzerman improves Lightning 07/03/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 3, 2014 9:08pm]

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