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NEW-LOOK LIGHTNING HASHOCKEY ANALYSTS BUZZING

Jacques Demers was so adamant about his opinion of the Lightning, he promised to declare it on his television show.

"This is the most improved team in the East," said the analyst for Canada's RDS network.

Not only that, Demers said Tampa Bay, 30th in the league in 2007-08 and 29th last season, could make the playoffs.

"Absolutely, why not?" he said. "I just like what's been done."

Okay, so Demers is biased. The former Lightning coach always has a soft spot in his heart for the organization. The thing is, he is not alone. As Tampa Bay opens training camp today at the Ice Sports Forum, the overhauled team is creating a playoff buzz among analytical types.

"If everybody stays healthy, they have a legitimate chance," said TSN analyst and former NHL coach Pierre McGuire.

"They have to get off to a good start so it doesn't steamroll, but they're going to be good."

How good?

Scott Morrison of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada said the Lightning probably will battle for the East's final playoff spot.

"They're one of a handful of teams that has a shot," he said.

The critiques are not without caveats. Goalie Mike Smith still must prove he is recovered from post-concussion syndrome and play for a full year at last season's level. With so many new parts, chemistry is a concern. And, geez, can these guys win a shootout?

Still, general manager Brian Lawton said about the playoffs, "We have a lot of hope." What's fueling it? Here are five factors:

* * *

An NHL-ready defense

The Lightning added free agents Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker and Kurtis Foster, and used the No. 2 overall draft pick on Victor Hedman to retool one of the league's worst blue lines.

McGuire called Ohlund "a tremendous acquisition" for his ability to move the puck, steady a game and be a mentor for Hedman, a fellow Swede.

Of the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Hedman, McGuire said, "When you look at his size and athleticism, skating ability and skill level, he has a chance to be a legitimate rookie of the year candidate."

* * *

Two scoring lines

With Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone, Alex Tanguay and, perhaps, Stephane Veilleux, the top six forwards can match up with most.

* * *

A new Vinny

Healthy and no longer burdened by incessant, spirit-wilting trade speculation, Lecavalier is expected to return to 40-goal, 90-point status. Motivation to make Canada's 2010 Olympic team won't hurt.

* * *

Coaching continuity

Rick Tocchet gets to run camp and install his system and philosophy from Day 1. Respected by his players, dedicated to preparation and conditioning, he should provide stronger leadership than Barry Melrose did last season.

* * *

Less gridlock

No one argues that after commissioner Gary Bettman put Lawton, and not owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules, in charge of hockey operations, things have gone much smoother.

Smooth enough to reach the postseason for the first time in three years?

"You've got to think that way," Stamkos said. "That's our mentality. You can't let anyone tell us we are or we aren't. It's up to us to go out there every night and play like you want to be there."

SMOLENAK AGREES: Forward Radek Smolenak agreed to a one-year, two-way deal, Lawton said. The left wing had an assist and 10 penalty minutes last season in six games with the Lightning. He had 24 goals, 49 points and 165 penalty minutes in 71 games with AHL Norfolk.

Smolenak signed in May with Nizhnekamsk of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League but apparently was released from the contract. Lawton must get confirmation before Smolenak can sign.

While waiting, Smolenak, 22, can attend camp. The 6-2, 180-pounder could challenge for a third- or fourth-line spot.

ROOKIE CAMP: The White earned a 2-1 victory over the Black in a camp-ending scrimmage. Hedman and defenseman Vladimir Mihalik scored for the White, defenseman Mark Barberio for the Black.

* ** *

Around the league

Coyotes: As the two-day bankruptcy auction of the team ended, BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie and the NHL sweetened their bids to buy it. Balsillie offered the city of Glendale, where the team plays, a guaranteed $50 million to drop objections to the franchise moving to Ontario. That's in addition to the $242.5 million he has offered for the team. The city previously rejected a maximum of $50 million from Balsillie, dependent on outside factors.

The NHL, which has offered $140 million for the team and wants to keep it in Arizona, offered former owner Jerry Moyes and coach-investor Wayne Gretzky up to $14 million, dependent on outside factors.

The bankruptcy judge presiding over the case said he expects to award control of the team in the next few weeks.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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