It’s puzzling, really, how a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning, just six years removed of a Stanley Cup championship, was forced to drop everything and start all over.
Although you can blame former wacky owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie for a bulk of the organization’s problem, the team was also in shambles on many levels below ownership.
Former general manager Brian Lawton made headlines for all the wrong reasons in seasons past: awarding lucrative contracts to less-than-stellar players, and making trades that would seem almost fair in NHL 11. Lawton was also at the epicentre of the Vincent Lecavalier trade rumours, citing numerous times that his star forward was indeed on the trading block, and on other occasions announcing the contrary.
The Lecavalier saga may have been a roller coaster, but the franchise was in the midst of a big free fall, the bottom of which was the hiring of ESPN’s NHL insider Barry Melrose as head coach for the start of the 2008 season. That experiment lasted just one month, as Melrose was fired, leaving his coaching record at 5-7-4.
The Lightning were in a complete state of disarray. Gone were the memories of the 2004 Stanley Cup run. Gone were the memories of arguably the best line hockey had to offer in Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. Gone were the amusing, yet effective, methods of Coach John Tortorella.
The identity that NHL fans had become familiar with over the organizations short history was all but erased. There was nothing left.
However, as is usually the case with bottom-feeding teams, the Lightning were given a new lease on life. Out were Koules and Barry, in was Jeff Vinik. Though unknown to the hockey world, Vinik has made substantial changes since taking the reins for the Lightning. Interim head coach Rick Tocchet was replaced by up-and-coming coach Guy Boucher, and most noticeably, management replaced Lawton with Steve Yzerman.
This is where it gets interesting.
Already blessed with some immense on-ice talent in Lecavalier, St. Louis, Steve Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan Malone and Mattias Ohlund, Yzerman put his stamp on the organization by acquiring some marquee names during the off-season.
His tenure began at the draft, where he used his sixth overall pick to select Prince George Cougars forward Brett Connolly. Connolly is viewed as a high-risk, high-reward prospect as injuries have already begun plaguing his young career.
Two years ago, Connolly recorded 30 goals and 30 assists in 60 games for the WHL’s Cougars and followed that up with an injury filled 2009-2010 season that saw him register just 19 points in just 16 games.
Yzerman’s summer of rebranding the Lightning continued with the additions of Simon Gagne, goaltender Dan Ellis and depth forward Dominic Moore.
The Southeast division has arguably been the worst division in the NHL in years past, with only the Washington Capitals making the post-season in 2009-2010. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s exciting off-season has led many to believe that they can make the playoffs out of the Eastern Conference. With parity at an all-time high in the new NHL, don’t be shocked to see the Lightning make a push in the East.
And who knows, with Yzerman’s championship pedigree, don’t be surprised to see a competitive Tampa Bay team for years to come.