The Tampa Bay Lightning had the best goal differential of all the non-playoff teams, even better than playoff-bound Minnesota, but shaky goaltending and an abysmal road record left them with the third-worst record in a 30-team league.
Off-Season Game Plan examines what the Lightning could do with a roster that has enough talent to compete for the playoffs, but needs a different approach under new head coach Jon Cooper.
The Lightning are an interesting case. For a team that finished so low in the standings, they have a lot of talent around which to build and have many quality prospects in the pipeline, but not a lot of financial flexibility, based on the contracts already on the books, so GM Steve Yzerman may have to get to wheeling and dealing if there is going to be significant improvement in the summer.
"Our group will change, how dramatically I'm not prepared to say yet, but we'll explore options as far as improving the areas we feel need to be addressed," Yzerman told the Tampa Tribune. "We have players coming up from Syracuse (of the American Hockey League) next year that will have an opportunity to make this team. So, things will be different; they need to be different."
There's no denying that the results need to be different, but competent goaltending can go a long way towards closing the gap between the Lightning and the playoffs. They can improve defensively, knocking a shot or two per game off the 30.2 (20th) that they allowed last season and, with improved puck possession, possible increase their own 27.6 shots per game (ranked 24th), but if they get goaltending that stops around 91% of the shots they face, instead of 89.9% (tied for 24th) like last season, that would account for a change of 20-25 goals in an 82-game season.
So, the goaltending will play a big part in Tampa Bay's success or failure next season, but new faces that are added to the established core will also have a chance to make a difference for a Lightning team that could be a playoff team or miss the playoffs like they have for five of the past six seasons.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Steve Yzerman/Jon Cooper
Lightning Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
The game's premier goal-scorer, Steven Stamkos has scored 185 goals over the last four seasons, 33 more than Alex Ovechkin, who ranks second, 56 more than Corey Perry, who ranks third. Stamkos is a scorer because he has a rare ability to shoot the puck, but he's a great player because he works at it. He was practicially a frail teenager among men when he arrived in the league as an 18-year-old, but he's been diligent about his fitness since and as he's matured, he's become strong enough to go to the dirty areas to score goals, while remaining fit enough to play in every game over the last four years.
Stamkos' development has obviously been helped by the freakish Martin St. Louis skating on his wing. St. Louis led the league in scoring for the second time in his career, with his 1.25 points per game was a career high. He'll turn 38 this summer and has two years remaining on his current contract, so there's little reason to expect anything but continued elite production from the second-highest scorer in the entire league, behind only Ovechkin, since 2006-2007.
The game has taken a toll on Vincent Lecavalier, the 33-year-old centre whose production has fallen off considerably since he scored 92 points in 2007-2008. He's still a fine No. 2 centre behind Stamkos, but if injuries have caused him to miss 44 games over the past three seasons, the trend is only going down for a player eating up a large portion of the salary cap through 2020.
A skilled winger with good size, Teddy Purcell could be even more dangerous if he used his size more, but as it is, Purcell is merely talented enough to play on either of Tampa Bay's top two lines as well as the power play. He's a productive complementary scorer, the kind virtually every team can use.
The lockout may have helped Alex Killorn, the 23-year-old rookie out of Harvard, who got to spend half the year in the AHL developing his game before the NHL season started. Killorn didn't debut with the Lightning right away but, after 38 points in 44 AHL games, he was ready to step in and contribute. He has good size and skill; the question is whether he has enough to hold down a regular spot in Tampa Bay's top six.
Tom Pyatt has worked his way into a top-nine role with the Lightning, though there is some evidence to suggest that he's overmatched playing 13-14 minutes per game, which is admittedly a challenging spot with Tampa Bay because they naturally want to start the Stamkos and Lecavalier lines in the offensive zone as much possible. At the same time, with 20 goals over the last two seasons, Tom is the higher-scoring Pyatt (brother Taylor has 15 goals in that time) in the NHL.
Injuries wreaked havoc with Ryan Malone's 2013 season, but that's not uncommon as he's missed 91 games in five seasons with the Lightning. When healthy, he's a big physical presence on the wing, who can score a bit, hit and fight, if need be. At the same time, knowing how often he's been hurt, it could make sense for the Lightning to either trade or buy out the final two years of the 33-year-old's contract in order to create greater roster flexibility.
22-year-old Richard Panik was one of several young Lightning forwards to get a chance and he didn't disappoint. Despite limited ice time, Panik's play showed that he was ready to play in the NHL. If his offence (22 goals, 41 points in 51 AHL games last season) can translate, then he could get a chance higher up the depth chart.
Another of the sacrificial lambs on the lower half of the forward depth chart, Nate Thompson has never started more than 42% of his shifts in the offensive zone, making it tough to put up very good possession numbers (or a plus rating -- Thompson has been a minus every year he's been in the NHL), but the Lightning obviously like Thompson's active physical game as they signed him to a four-year contract extension.
Though he's scored a single goal in each of the past two seasons, winger B.J. Crombeen did score a career-high 12 goals in 2008-2009, but he's making his mark as pugilist, fighting 74 times over the last five seasons, including a league-leading 14 last season. He's a better player, and not as imposing, as the standard heavyweight, but that's how Crombeen is earning his bones.
Industrious forward Dana Tyrell has been battling to keep a spot on the Lightning roster, but he's not as skilled as some of those climbing up the organizational ladder, so if he's not as proficient offensively, he'll really have to master the defensive details -- and stay healthy -- if he's going to have an extended NHL career.
Restricted free agent winger Benoit Pouliot isn't ever going to live up to being the fourth pick in the 2005 draft but, in recent seasons, he's shown that he can a useful complementary player, skilled enough to play on a scoring line in a pinch. But Pouliot is replaceable, by younger, cheaper players, which makes sense for a player that has played for four teams in the last four seasons.
The Lightning have a number of prospects that can challenge for spots, and are likely to have either Jonathan Drouin or Nate MacKinnon at their disposal after the draft, but might also want to add a veteran to go in their top nine, particularly if they do manage to shed a few salaries (like Malone and Pouliot). If that's the case, maybe a veteran with a Detroit Red Wings background and solid two-way ability, like Dan Cleary, would have some appeal.
Free Agent Defence
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
Lightning Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Particularly in light of his offensive production, some may wonder if Victor Hedman is living up to being the second overall pick in the 2009 draft and the answer is yes, he certainly is. The 22-year-old has been eating a steady diet of the opposition's top forward lines, with more shift starts in his defensive zone, and his 0.45 points per game last season represented a career high, continuing the scoring ascent that has occurred in each of his four seasons.
Bringing in Matt Carle as a free agent last summer was a shrewd move by the Lightning in their attempt to shore up their defence. Carle doesn't play a physical game, but he's smart, skates well, makes a good first pass and played a career-high 23:45 per game for Tampa Bay in 2013.
Shortened seasons might be the way to extend 38-year-old Sami Salo's career as he missed only two games in 2013, after missing 161 in the previous eight seasons. Salo played hard minutes for the Lightning, perhaps more defensive responsibility than the ideal, but understandable given some of the alternatives.
When the Lightning brought up Radko Gudas, they didn't just add a fearsome beard, they brought a guy who lays his body on the line. With 87 hits in 22 games, Gudas ranked second among defencemen, to Philadelphia's Luke Schenn, in hits per game (3.95) and Gudas did so with good possession numbers in his admittedly small sample of NHL work. Playing with an edge to his game not only differentiates Gudas from other Tampa Bay defencemen, but it's also a prime reason that 22-year-old should get a chance to earn a bigger role as he matures.
Despite facing lesser competition and starting fewer shifts in the defensive zone, veteran Eric Brewer's possession numbers weren't very good last season. The 34-year-old has good size and has played plenty of hard minutes in his career, but he's slowing down. He played 20:31 per game in 2013, his lowest since 2000-2001, and an indication that he's not going to be handling the heavy lifting on the Tampa Bay defence.
The Lightning erred in their judgment on Brian Lee's career prospects, giving him a contract extension, then being forced to bury him in the minors last season after he struggled through 22 games. The ninth overall pick in 2005, Lee has been given ample opportunity to prove he's an NHL defenceman but, after 209 games, it appears that he's destined for the AHL barring another team willing to take a chance on a change of scenery making the difference.
No defenceman in the league played more than 40 games, like towering Keith Aulie, and as little as Aulie's 12:49 per game. He was okay in that limited time, but a long-term career will depend on how much he can improve so that he's trusted by the coaching staff.
Knee woes have prevented Mattias Ohlund from playing the last two seasons. He's 36 now, has 979 games (regular season and playoffs) under his belt and not making a comeback, so he's included merely because his salary will sit on the Lightning's salary cap until he gets put on the long-term injured list.
Upgrading the defence is always a wise move for the Lightning. They did last summer, adding Carle and Salo, and it wasn't enough, but that doesn't mean they should stop trying. Prospect Mark Barberio maybe ready to make the jump after three years in the AHL, but the Bolts could go for any reasonably-priced veterans that will improve their NHL depth. Mike Kostka, who played for Jon Cooper in the AHL prior to getting his feet wet in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, might be worth considering.
Free Agent Goaltenders
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
6-foot-7 Ben Bishop got caught in a numbers game in the Ottawa Senators' crease, so he was dealt to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline as the Lightning keep looking solutions between the pipes. Bishop had a .911 save percentage in 36 career games before joining Tampa Bay, good enough to warrant a look in a starter's role, but hardly a sure thing that he'll be the long-term answer.
Part of the reason to remain skeptical about Bishop is because the Lightning made a similar attempt when they signed Anders Lindback last summer. Lindback, like Bishop, is a huge (6-foot-6) backup, who had a .914 save percentage in 38 games over two seasons with Nashville before getting his shot with Tampa Bay. A .902 save percentage in his first year as a starter opened the door for the Lightning to acquire Bishop.
There is the possibility that one of Bishop or Lindback, or both, will post a save percentage of .915 or better, and Tampa Bay's goaltending problems will be solved, but it may not be that easy either because, well, it hasn't been that easy so far.
||2.22 GAA, .924 SV%, 8 GP
||31-32-63, +19, 71 GP
||29-34-63, +17, 33 GP
||37-28-65, +26, 62 GP
||8-34-42, +7, 73 GP
||7-14-21, +4, 44 GP
||6-23-29, -24, 42 GP
||10-18-28, -3, 51 GP
||13-39-52, +26, 56 GP
||9-16-25, +16, 39 GP
It figures that the Lightning have questions about their NHL goaltending while their top prospect is the 19-year-old goaltender, Andrei Vasilevski, that they drafted in the first round last summer. He's a very good prospect, but hard to figure that he would be NHL-ready sooner than a couple of years.
Brett Connolly played 68 games for the Lightning in 2011-2012, as a 19-year-old, but it was likely premature for his development, so he spent most of the 2012-2013 season in the AHL where he showed the skills that got him drafted sixth overall in 2010. The 21-year-old can finish, has good size and should be able to make the jump next season.
A potential second-round steal from the 2011 draft, Nikita Kucherov came over from Russia to play in the QMJHL last season and shredded the league. He's a skilled forward who should put points. Now it's a matter of being strong enough to do it against men.
Can the Lightning find room for 5-foot-9 pivot Tyler Johnson? Don't they have to? Johnson was named MVP of the American Hockey League and started his NHL career with six points in six games before going through an eight-game scoreless drought and getting sent back to Syracuse. The challenge is that Johnson figures to be a scoring centre and the top two slots are taken in Tampa Bay by Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier. Nevertheless, if Johnson is the best the AHL has to offer, then he's due a legitimate opportunity to stick in the NHL next season.
After putting up 134 points in his first the AHL seasons, Mark Barberio got into a couple of games with the Lightning in April. There's little question that Barberio has the skill to play in the NHL, at least helping on the power play, but there could be more too. If his defensive play is adequate, Barberio could climb into a significant role with Tampa Bay over the next couple seasons as some veteran defencemen reach the end.
A smallish skilled centre, Vladislav Namestnikov was a first-round pick in 2011 and has the game to be an NHLer, but he will need to get stronger to withstand the rigors of the pro game as well as take advantage of skating and puck skills that are so encouraging.
Injuries have plagued 19-year-old defenceman Slater Koekkoek, limiting him to 68 games over the past two seasons, so next year may just be a year to get game experience, but he's a well-rounded defenceman with good size and improving puck skills.
J.T. Brown is a speedy winger whose first season as a pro was marred by a broken collarbone. There are a lot of skilled young forwards bidding for jobs in Tampa Bay, so Brown faces a lot of competition, but if he's healthy, he'll be in the mix.
A strong year in the AHL earned Ondrej Palat a promotion to Tampa Bay and he didn't embarrass himself (2 G, 2 A, +5, 14 GP) while playing in a depth role. A third line role, with a little scoring potential, is a reasonable expectation but there is no shortage of challengers.
One of the hottest collegiate free agents, 6-foot-8 defenceman Andrej Sustr could take some time, particularly as he adjusts to the pro game from playing a Nebraska-Omaha, but his size gives The Giant intriguing upside.
Tampa Bay's prospect pool is deeper than most and defencemen Nikita Nesterov, Dmitri Korobov and Dylan Blujus are among those beyond this list that are worth monitoring.
3rd - Jonathan Drouin, Nate McKinnon, Seth Jones
According to www.capgeek.com, the Lightning have approximately $62.8M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 20 players.
Check out my possible Lightning lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman.
What I said the Lightning needed last year: Three top nine forwards, two top four defencemen, two more defencemen, starting goaltender.
They added: Benoit Pouliot, Cory Conacher, B.J. Crombeen, Matt Carle, Sami Salo, Anders Lindback.
Ryan Malone, Benoit Pouliot, Eric Brewer, prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.