by Ian Cunningham
There has been an abundant amount of speculation the past week or so regarding the Tampa Bay Lightning’s goaltending situation. Namely, that a change is needed to keep the hockey club competitive with increasingly difficult Eastern Conference squads. The NHL Standings as of November 1st read more like science fiction compared to the end of last season. The Leafs lead their division, the Sens are battling for home ice, and Florida is trumping the Lightning for a playoff spot. All of this, coupled with a slow start for veteran netminder Dwayne Roloson, has Bolts fans and media types alike hollering for a change.
Much of the focus has fallen on Vancouver Canucks backup Cory Schneider, who has frequented rumor blogs since the commencement of training camp back in September. It has been reported that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman recently contacted the Canucks regarding Schneider, but any talks would be strictly window dressing this early in the process. The Canucks won’t be doing anything with Schneider while Roberto Luongo continually battles with his Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. The best option for Stevie Y at this point may be to do nothing at all.
Through the first month of the season, a month that saw Roloson go 2-3-1 with a G.A.A. of 3.70 and .888 SV%, the Lightning have gone .500 through 12 games. Not the start that the club or fans expected, but hardly time to push the panic button. At this point last season the Bolts had gone 7-3-1, four points superior to this season’s start. Those four points (two games) would have the Lightning tied with Washington atop the Southeast Division. So in other words, the Bolts are only two games back of the Division lead. The difference between last year’s start and this year is simply expectations.
Tampa is coming off an appearance in the Conference Finals. With that success comes expectations, the same expectations that Conference Finalists Boston, San Jose, and Vancouver face this season. Look no further than the aforementioned pressure between the pipes in Vancouver, and the patience instilled by management, to see the proper protocol in such situations. Early November is not time to overreact, to disassemble young prospects in search of short term success. Such attempts tend to be futile and in the salary cap world, entirely inefficient.
Yzerman is an astute hockey mind who knows what it takes to win. A solid core that is firmly in place, surrounded by a supporting cast dedicated to the details, and a solid foundation in goal. The latter has been put under the microscope, with serious doubts over the longevity of Dwayne Roloson, and no serious replacement within the organization. However, to improve through trade would seriously diminish the supporting cast required to win in this league, and would be a step away from how Yzerman has built this club. That is why I do not foresee a change in goal for the Lightning, who as mentioned, are only two games out of the third seed in the East. An Eastern Conference that is becoming increasingly competitive with no easy points up for grabs.
Earlier in the year I told you I would wait til the end of month one to assess where the Bolts sit this season. Well, here we are and the Lightning are .500 through November 1st. With the points laid out above, I think it is safe to say that the Lightning are right where many thought they would be, in a dog fight for the four lower playoff seeds in the East. To look at the Eastern Standings it would appear that only Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington will be sure things for the post-season. Beyond that there are, in reality, ten teams fighting for the final five spots in the playoffs. Listed along with their current seeding, they are: Toronto (2nd), Ottawa (5th), Florida (6th), Carolina (7th), Buffalo, (8th), Tampa Bay (9th) NY Rangers, (10th), Montreal (11th), New Jersey (12th), and Boston (15th). Unlikely to compete for the post-season are Winnipeg (13th), and the Islanders (14th). It is possible that Ottawa could still flounder out of contention by the New Year, but they have looked increasingly impressive on their recent tear.
The Bolts play the vast majority of hockey versus these teams so head-to-head records will ultimately decide who moves on in April. Of great importance will be the remaining games against Southeast Division opponents. With Washington setting a torrid pace to start the year, odds are only one other team from the south will make the playoffs. So games against Carolina, Florida, Washington, and Winnipeg will be priorities for the win column. The NHL’s weighting of play within the division is the key factor in this reality, something the league has always hoped for. The parity in the East has made capitalizing in your own division that much more important, with so many points on the line.
So in summation, it appears that the Bolts will have their hands full for their final 70 games. Much the same as last season, there will be no assurances for some time that a post-season berth is secure. Gaining ground in the standings will also be a very tedious process, as “leapfrogging” a team in the standings requires some assistance by those ahead. However, with three games versus the Panthers in the month of November, the Bolts have a real chance to hop up a rung on their state rivals by December. That is, if Roloson returns to form. Here’s hoping it’s not time to panic.