The 2009-2010 Tampa Bay Lightning, while exciting and quite fun to watch, fell short again of the playoffs for the 3 consecutive season. In a year of change, where the Lightning were sold to Boston investor Jeff Vinik, the interim coach tag was removed from Rick Tocchet, and heightened expectations came on the heals of number 2 overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, Victor Hedman, second year phenom Steven Stamkos, and free agent signing Mattias Ohlund. The team’s play in falling short of the playoffs, while never a goal for any franchise, gave their fan base a glimmer of the bright future to come.
We know where the bright spots were. We know that Steven Stamkos is one helluva hockey player. The Rocket Richard co-winner (along with Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby) scored 51 times and had 44 helpers for 95 points on the season, and he was hands down the best player in the NHL on the power play. 34 year old Martin St. Louis is ageless and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The alternate captain led the team with 65 assists and ended the season with 94 points. Lightning captain, Vicent Lecavalier remained healthy, playing all 82 games this season (something he hasn’t done since the 2006-2007 season), and while he finished with 45 assists his goalscoring and plus/minus dropped off from recent seasons. Right winger Steve Downie had a breakout year scoring 22 goals to go along with 24 assists. There were nights that he was clearly the best player on the ice, which is saying a whole lot considering he played with Stamkos.
As for the rest of the team a lot could be said in the way of uncertainty. Free agent signing Alex Tanguay most likely played himself out of Tampa, finishing with 37 points (the worst of his career). Rookie Victor Hedman, showed flashes of brilliance, but needs to get better in his own end (he will get better and will be this teams franchise defenceman for a long time). Ryan Malone may have played his best hockey this season for Team USA in the Winter Olympics. The power forward finished with 20+ goals for the 5th time in his 6 year NHL career, but after a fast start to the season, bottomed out after the Olympics.
The Lightning divided playing time amongst Mike Smith and Antero Nittymaki, but at seasons end many questions remained for the future of Tampa’s goaltending. Smith was inconsistent at best throughout the season and his 3.09 goals per game average reflected that. The Lightning thought they were getting a number one in the Brad Richards trade with Dallas but now questions of whether or not he’ll be with the team next year are arising. Nittymaki was clearly the more stable of the two, especially at season’s end, but also had trouble with his constancy as well. I can see Nittymaki being a solid number 2 for the Lightning, but a steady starter may be something the team needs to look into this off season.
The Lighting remained competitive through the Olympic break but faded significantly in the month of March, going 5-10-1, falling 8 points out of the playoff race, and all but punching its ticket for a lottery pick in the upcoming 2010 NHL Draft. Much of this can be attributed to the play of Tampa’s blue line, which is due for changes this off season. Beyond the play of Kurtis Foster and Mike Lundin, the rest of the defensive corps left something to be desired. That being said, Lundin will still have to play his way on to this team come September. Hedman and Ohlund need to play better. Ohlund ended the season with 13 assists and no goals. This is not what ownership was expecting out of their 7 year, $26.25 million dollar man, who was brought in to show Hedman the ropes. Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker saw their minutes decline under head coach Rick Tocchet. Those minutes were replaced by David Hale, whose -2 rating lead all Lightning defencemen.
Stamkos’ chase for the goal lead gave Tampa fans something to cheer for when the team was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs the first week of April. His final two games against Southeast Division rival, Florida Panthers, gave him just enough ice time up his total from 48 goals to his league leading 51. April 10th against Florida, Stamkos had a season high 10 shots on goal and scored twice. The very next day he logged a season high 26:20 of ice time and scored an empty netter to tie Crosby. Where his goal totals will be next year for the 20 year old remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Stamkos belongs in the same club with Crosby, Malkin, and Ovechkin.
Depending on what this team does with its goaltending and defensive situation, Tampa Bay has a very real opportunity to make the playoffs next year. With a solid number one in net and upgrades on the back end, this team (who is 6 years removed from a Stanley Cup victory) will be second to only Washington in the Southeast. Couple those moves with the 6th overall pick in the upcoming draft and the outlook is good.
The head coaching vacancy, left with Rick Tocchet being fired by team owner Jeff Vinik a day after Tampa’s season ended, has yet to be addressed. A coach with a better overall team defensive scheme is needed, but at the same time the Lightning have established an offensive identity, especially on the power play, that needs to be exploited by next year’s coach. Tocchet was liked and well received by his players but unlike other Florida NHL franchises, winning trumps all. This team has too much top end talent, especially up front. The next Lightning coach needs to get better production from his third and fourth lines, while being able to handle the responsibility that comes with coaching superstars. Checking lines shouldn’t be buried so deep on the minus of the plus/minus stat. Defensive play and second and third tier scoring must improve for this team to remove itself from this season’s problems.
Tampa Bay ended the year with 34-36-12 record, 4th in the Southeast Division, 12th in the Eastern Conference.
About the Author
Written by Jack Powell
My name is Jack Powell. I'm 26 and work for a civil contracting company in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I've been a Panther fan since the team was formed in 1993 and don't ever plan on not being one. Looking forward to see what new Panther GM Dale Tallon is going to do to rebuild this franchise and make us a Cup contender!!