Friday, October 4, 2013

Only a Game Behind - The 2013-14 Lightning Preview

All too familiar last season

Before we get rolling on this season preview that I’ve put off for two weeks, let me get something off my chest.  It has become glaringly apparent that not only does General Manager Steve Yzerman read this blog, he is basing his personnel decisions on who I choose to collect.  Let’s take a look at some of his roster moves since I’ve started posting my personal collection:

1. February 2013 - The Lightning trade newest member of The Hopeful Chase Collection Dustin Tokarski for Cedrick Desjardins
Owning the card doomed his career

2. July 2013 - Mr. Yzerman bites the bullet and buys out the largest contract in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning. A contract signed by the original member of The Collection - Vincent Lecavalier

3. September 2013 - The only remaining member of The Collection, Brett Connolly, is sent to Syracuse to start the season.

Seriously, Mr. Yzerman, this is no way to run an organization.

Now to the real reason why you’re all gathered around the glowing computer monitor - my preview of the 2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning. This year brings a lot of change to Hockey Bay, USA.  New captain, new division, semi-new coach and a few new rules.  After doing some reading, crunching the numbers (namely the heights of players) and watching the first game of the season I can firmly state that I have absolutely no idea how this team is going to do in the upcoming season.

How’s that for going out on a limb? Look, there are just too many unknown factors.

 The last two seasons, with roughly the same roster I thought that the Lightning would battle for a spot in the playoff race. Instead, the only race they were involved with was the one for the overall number one draft pick (two races they also lost).  Their most glaring weakness, the inability to keep the puck out of the net was addressed by……skipping a blue chip d-man in the draft and signing a two-way forward for a skoosh too much money.

Mr. Yzerman has picked his goaltending hill to die on.  Granted with Anders Lindback at 6’6” and Ben Bishop at 6’7” it’s an extremely tall hill, but you have to wonder if he spent any restless nights pondering a one-year contract for free agent Tim Thomas as an insurance policy.  The tandem has cost the team Corey Conacher, a 4th round pick, two 2nd round picks and a 3rd round pick.  Oh and the rights to Sebastien Caron. That’s quite a haul.

Bishop seemed to have a slightly better play of it in the pre-season posting a .903 save percentage to Lindback’s .884, but it was the Swedish net minder who got the call to start the season against the Boston Bruins.

It’s a given that the duo will be splitting starts this season until one grabs the reigns and makes the job their own. If I had to choose which one, I’d lean to Ben Bishop.  He just seems to be a bit more fundamentally sound .  Plus, Lindback seems to struggle at times controlling the puck, especially with his glove hand.  Too many pucks seem to bounce out of his glove on what should be relatively easy saves.

Standing in front of the net minders and helping them clear the pucks away will be a semi-revamped blueline. Mr. Yzerman decided to promote from within, with Syracuse players Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr all suiting up for the first game.  They’re joined by Eric Brewer (steady and one-year closer to the end of his contract), Matthew Carle (should provide some offense from the blueline), Sami Salo (steady when healthy) and the emerging Victor Hedman.

I sincerely feel that this will be the year Victor Hedman and Norris Trophy are whispered about in the same sentence. Five years into his career and things are starting to come together for the Big Swede.  He has the size to control the puck in the defensive size and the skating ability to smoothly transition from offense to defense. By the time the season is over, he should be the undisputed leader of the defense.

Sustr was a bit of surprise member of the roster, not based on how he played in the preseason, but for the fact that the 22 year-old (same age as Hedman!) has less than one-year of experience in professional hockey. For an organization that seems hesitant to rush their prospects to the NHL, its seems out of the norm for them not to give him more “seasoning” in the AHL.

While Hedman should be the breakout star of the defensive corps, Radko Gudas is going to be the one getting the jersey sales.  The heavily bearded Czech is tailor-made to appeal to the Tampa faithful.  A big hitter (ask Kris Versteeg) with a surprisingly deceptive shot, he should have quite the highlight reel put together by the end of the season. Heck, it started in the first game with his terrific open ice hit on old man Igninla.

Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for a team (pay no attention to the one goal scored against a shaky Tuukka Rask and the two failed 5-on-3 power plays) that finished third in goals per game last season.  Even with the loss of Lecavalier, the Bolts should be able to score enough to stay with any team in the league.

Down the middle they are quite strong.  Steven Stamkos is now the undisputed number one center on the team and he played like one posting seven points in four preseason games.  The removal of Lecavalier also eliminates the temptation to shuffle Marty St. Louis from line to line, giving Stamkos two permanent line mates for the first time in his career.  Well, at least until Ryan Malone gets hurt.

The second line drops off a bit in offense, but should be more responsible defensively. Valtteri Filppula, Teddy Purcell and Alex Killorn all have the potential to score 20 goals this season even with Purcell looking to pass the puck 99.6% of the time.  Filppula with spend the next 80 games being compared to Lecavalier, but any drop off in offense will be made up with his defensive skills.  A have no idea what a Fenwick* is, but Filppula posted a +11 against the Bruins and that sounds pretty damn good.

A new wrinkle on the season is a third line that should posit some problems for opposing coaches when it comes to defense.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a team that kept basically an all-rookie line together to start a season.  Tyler Johnson will lead the team in face-off wins and challenge St. Louis for the most times opposing announcers use the phrase “undersized”. Richard Panik will continue to annoy Detroit fans to an unreasonable degree (not sure if I’ve ever seen such Twitter-hatred for a player in an AHL final) and chip in enough goals to make this line a little dangerous. Ondrej Palat, I don’t know too much about so I’ll defer to the experts at BoltProspects:

“All he does is score [I like that]….. The common knock on Palat is that he’s more of a perimeter player and plays even smaller than he already is [Teddy Purcell 2.0?]”

Nate Thompson returns to center the fourth-line with Bash Brothers BJ Crombeen and PC Labrie. I have a feeling that, much like last year, it will seem like they spend an ungodly amount of time in the offensive zone without scoring a lot of goals.  Not that it’s a bad thing.  Their job is to grind time off the clock until Stamkos and Co are rested and ready to come back out on the ice.

This years team has a much different feel to the one that took the ice last April. The expectations are low (ESPN Power Poll ranks the Lightning 28th, TSN has them at 21st) and the competition is tougher (playing Boston, Ottawa, Detroit and Montreal isn’t like playing Carolina, Florida and Washington), but I think the Lightning will surprise a few folks. Not sure they’re in the playoff race, but I don’t think they are drafting in the top 10.

When it’s all said and done they finish fifth in the Atlantic Division.

Justin G.’s Lightning Award Predictions:

Steven Stamkos Award for Most Goals - Steven Stamkos
Marty St. Louis Award for Most Points - Stamkos
Cory Cross Award for Best Defensive Player - Victor Hedman
Darren Puppa Award for Best Goaltender - Ben Bishop
Sergei Gusev Award for Rookie of the Year - Tyler Johnson

Tim Taylor Unsung Hero Award - Sami Salo
JT Brown MidSeason Callup of the Year Award- Brett Connolly
Sheldon Keefe Biggest Undersized Player Award - Marty St. Louis
Mattias Ohlund Most Games Listed with an undisclosed Body Injury Award- Ryan Malone
Corey Conacher Can’t Believe He Got Ttraded at the Deadline Award - Nikita Nesterov
First Rookie Card That I Buy - Alex Killorn
Player That Gets The Shaft Because I Collect Him - JT Brown

*Fenwick is a relatively new stat that measures the even strength shot differential (not counting blocked shots)while a player is on ice. Some consider it a better indicator of a player’s impact than traditional stats such as +/-.

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