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Scouting the new division rivals: The Tampa Bay Lightning

The Canadiens take on the Tampa Bay Lightning for the first time as a division rival today. What is there to know about the team?

Scott Iskowitz

The Canadiens will be seeing a lot more of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the coming years, as they join together in the new Atlantic Division. Prior to the season, I asked some of the fine folks over at Raw Charge about the team, and what to expect. Obviously things have changed significantly since then, as the Lightning have come out of the gate scorching hot, but now will be without captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos for a significant period of time. Either way, check out what they had to say back in September:

1. Do you think the new realignment helps or hinders the Tampa Bay Lightning?

In a short-term aspect, it hurts: This is a franchise that's played in the weakest division in hockey for how many years? The Southeast Division did have some tough games, but usually just one dominant team each year. Maybe two. The Bolts are now part of what was the Northeast Division, and that's something they'll have to overcome because the division is no pushover. Of course, the majority of the games played are still going to be against general NHL teams, they still have a division-heavy schedule (and a terrible track record against the likes of Boston, Detroit and Ottawa).

Long-term, though? It raises the bar for the organization and what they need in order to compete. Of course, they're only playing four games total against each divisional opponent - basically what they faced against the Northeast in the past, and two games less against Florida (while almost entirely more than what they faced against Detroit). The challenge is the schedule in realignment, which is the same for all teams in all divisions: don't get lulled while playing the opposing conference, because if you write off a game as unimportant, you'll lose a step in the race against a divisional foe.

2. The Lightning have been a below-average possession team two years in a row now. What do you think it will take to turn that around in 2013-14?

Since Guy Boucher's first season catching lightning in a bottle, to (poorly) turn a phrase, the Lightning have struggled mightily with maintaining meaningful puck possession. Once the puck is on a TB stick, amazing things can happen, as evidenced by this team's ability to score in bunches -- but earning the puck and keeping it have been serious issues the past few seasons. Zone entries and puck retrieval have also been painful to watch at times as the players tried to execute difficult outlets in Boucher's meticulously coached system. If I were to pinpoint the one thing that has crippled this team possession-wise in the past few years, however, and thus the thing that needs to change to improve under new head coach Jon Cooper in 2013-2014, it would be zone exits -- namely, avoiding turnovers at the defensive blue-line. Outside of Victor Hedman, this team doesn't seem to have a blue-liner capable of properly exiting the zone, be it via a pass or by carrying the puck. Radko Gudas should help in this regard, as he's been terrific in very limited NHL action, but Matt Carle and Eric Brewer in particular need to be better with the puck in the defensive zone and the entire team needs to transition from defense to offense more efficiently. Turnovers at the defensive blue line result long shifts where the only option is to chip the puck out and change, eliminating the opportunity to gain (and keep) possession of the puck for extended periods, which is reflected in this team's poor Fenwick numbers the past two years. Fortunately for the Bolts, the new-look coaching staff has so far focused almost entirely on defense and own-zone play.

3. Jon Cooper took over this team halfway through last season. What changes have you seen since he took over, and what are your impressions of him as a coach so far?

The hiring of Cooper signals a changing of the guard for the Lightning as an organization. Players that Cooper has coached in the AHL for several years are starting to crack the NHL lineup, and he's been very effective at developing young talent and getting them to play "his way", as seen with his championship run and record-setting 28-game win streak with the Norfolk Admirals in 2011-2012. He says he wants the Lightning to play a mix of hockey that incorporates elements of the 70s Flyers and 80s Oilers, which is why guys like Pierre-Cedric Labrie will likely make the opening night lineup. In the past Guy Boucher might have opted for more speed and finesse. As for appreciable trends in Cooper's short stint in the NHL (Boucher lasted 31 games last year before getting fired), the whole team enjoyed a marginal bump in possession once Cooper took over, and the bottom lines in particular were generating more scoring chances and providing more offense in part because Cooper doesn't seem to specialize his forwards the way Boucher did, particularly in regards to zone starts. Expect to see more of Stamkos and St. Louis in defensive situations, perhaps even on the penalty kill, which was rare in the Boucher era. Nate Thompson might even get to occasionally start a shift somewhere other than his own zone from time to time. Boucher was a bit robotic at times -- requiring players to "buy in", and "submit to the process", whereas Cooper is a bit more easy-going and affable, at least on the surface. By all accounts he is a terrific motivator and his teams have won championships at the NAHL, USHL, and AHL levels.

4. Do you think this is the year the Lightning finally get decent goaltending, and how do you think the battle will play out between Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop?

It's a really tough question for me. I've never had less of a sense of what's likely to happen. These are two guys with obvious talent but no proven track record, and they'll be sharing the job for at least the first few weeks of the season. Jon Cooper pointed out recently that the year the Norfolk Admirals won the Calder Cup; they did it with what was essentially a goaltender tandem. If you forced me to put money on it right now, I'd put it on Bishop to have a slight lead in games played and numbers just above league average. But I wouldn't be happy about that bet. In part that's because I think Bishop is the safer option, not necessarily the more talented. My gut tells me not to count Lindback out. [Disclaimer: I've probably spent more time watching Anders Lindback than any other goaltender besides Pekka Rinne.] In the end, I just keep coming back to "anything can happen," then I chew on what's left of my fingernails some more.

5. Presuming he makes the team, what kind of impact do you see Jonathan Drouin having in his rookie NHL season?

The impact is the one he earns the chance to make. We're presuming he makes the team here, and that necessitates that he doesn't just leapfrog other top prospects on the cusp of the NHL, but also displaces an NHL veteran to secure a spot on the roster. That's also assuming the Lightning don't decide to make him an in-season project and try converting him to center (they were messing with him there on day one of training camp, we haven't heard much of the organization's intentions for Drouin as a center since - was it just fooling around/experimentation or is that the long-term goal?).

It'd be better to expect him to meet or exceed the type of season that Steven Stamkos had his rookie season in Tampa (starting cold while adapting, actually having to be scratched a few games to observe and learn the NHL from the press box, and then adapting and excelling as the season progresses) than that of Brett Connolly (who struggled and then was sent to the Team Canada World Juniors team before returning and additionally struggling and losing confidence in himself and his abilities). In short, the expectation for Drouin in Tampa this season is firstly to adapt, to learn. Once he gets things down, what he could accomplish may surprise everyone.

Yet, if Drouin is going to be partaking in a position-change project, or is destined to play sheltered minutes all season, he'd be better off being returned to Halifax for the time being. Tampa Bay (under Steve Yzerman as GM) is all about patience with player development.

6. Who is the X-Factor on this team; the guy that could push the squad into contention for a playoff spot?

He may be 38 years old, but RW Martin St. Louis is still looked at as the true X-factor for the Lightning. He was the bright spot last season when things went bad in Tampa with his Art Ross trophy run. In 2010-11, he was a Hart Trophy finalist (the second time of his career). He's in the cards for the captaincy of the Lightning (which won't be revealed until October 1st); St. Louis is a dynamic to the game in Tampa Bay that's all-too-often overlooked.

He makes his line mates better, he makes his teammates better. His attitude and work ethic are inspirational. And while you can't expect him to do it all over a full 82-game season, that's not the necessity here. The necessity is sharing his passion, his drive, the fire inside him, with others on the team. If Marty can help light a fire in his teammates while showing the way (buying into Jon Cooper's coaching and contributing offensively within that scheme), that's what could propel the Lightning to be the dark horse of the division.

Thanks to Clare Austin, Kyle Alexander, and John Fontana for the responses. Obviously, Drouin wound up being sent back to juniors, and Ben Bishop has emerged as the clear cut starting goalie - at least for now. It'll be a hobbling Lightning squad that the Canadiens face today, but one near the top of the standings. Hey, maybe they'd be interested in David Desharnais!

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