Why Tampa Bay will make the playoffs.
Over the past couple seasons, Tampa has been a team waiting to take their skill into April. Tons of offensive firepower, a defence with a blend of youthful speed as well as a veteran presence to solidify the blueline. They've been questionable in goal since they won the cup in 04, but Ellis is a more than suitable replacement for the outgoing Nittymaki.
Let's start the breakdown by dissecting the Bolts' forwards.
Having Stamkos and Lecalvalier as your top two centremen is an enviable position to be in. While Vinny has tailed off in the last couple years, he now has Stamkos to help carry the load. If 51 goals was Stamkos' sophomore slump, watch out. This kid will push for the Rocket every year, for at least the next decade. As much as Stamkos can carry the offence on his own, Vinny should be looking to take back the title of being 'the guy'. He's won the rocket, and can easily do so again, if he can shake off whatever has been holding him back the past couple years.
The top 4 wingers are also ones that shouldn't be looked down on. The addition of Gagne adds some grit, heart, and dude will put up points. He's in a contract year, and needs to grow on last season to prove injuries are behind him, and he can be the guy Tampa expects him to be. With Malone, St. Louis, and Steve Downie (once he resigns - and he will) rounding out the top 6, this is clearly a team with loads of firepower, who can rival the best.
The bottom six have a couple question marks, with some spots left to be filled, either through the UFA market, trade, or promoting homegrown talent. Dominic Moore is a steal at 1.1 mill to be your third line centre. As he proved with Toronto two seasons ago, he can step up and rack up points if he's given the chance. He's not passing Vinny or Stamkos on centre, but if one of them goes down to injury, look for Moore to take over. He won't look out of place one bit. Teddy Purcell will look to continue the promise he showed at the end of last season. After coming over from LA, he had more points in 19 games for the Bolts (9), than he did for the Kings in 41 (6). He was rookie of the year in the AHL, so he has the skills to help this team in the years to come. If he really steps up, he may take over Gagne's spot in the top 6, if Gagne isn't resigned for the 2011-2012 season.
Szczechura will see decreased ice-time because of the addition of Moore, but will be a good 4th line pivot for the season.
Tampa's first rounder Brett Connolly will likely stay in the WHL to keep developing, and to make sure he's fully recovered from the back injury that made him a question mark at the draft.
Next up is the defence.
After dealing Meszaros to Philly following a disappointing tenure in Tampa, they filled the gap by welcoming back Pavel Kubina. Solid move bring him back, because with him they get a veteran defensemen who won a cup with the team in 04, and he is a great presence on and off the ice. He may not have the long-term upset of Meszaros, but he's better for right now, and for the sake of this article, that's what Tampa needs - to get into the postseason now.
Letting Kurtis Foster walk may be the biggest mistake of the off season, as his 42 points will be greatly missed, and Tampa could have easily afforded the1.8 million he signed for in Edmonton, especially because he would have easily gotten top 4 minutes alongside Kubina, Ohland, and Hedman. That leaves room for somebody else to step in, and my guess at that is Ty Wishart to step up. He's developed nicely, and will continue to do so with added responsibility and minutes.
The bottom pairing will be split up between Brett Clark and either Matt Smaby or Mike Lundin, with the other being the 7th defensemen.
In the blue paint.
Tampa is following the trend that is pushing legitimate starting goalies out of jobs, by splitting the duties in a 1A and 1B system. Smith and Ellis will share the load, and will fare well in the crease. Neither are bona fide starters, but they're consistent, reliable goalies. They aren't going to be a cause for concern for the defence, and will allow the blueliners to focus on playing their game. They'll both let in a softie from time to time, but will make up for it with the occasional brilliant save and stealing a few games for the team. WIth Mike Smith playing for a contract, we'll definitely see him work his tail off this season, and Dan Ellis is far from secure, as he only inked a two-year deal.
Between their stacked top 6, solid blueline, and dependable goaltending, the Bolts should find themselves in the playoffs, and be a team in the 4-6 spot, rather than scrapping for 8th. A few moves still need to be made to figure out their bottom 6 wingers, but we can assume only the best from Yzerman. The new GM, along with his great new coaching staff (straight from the AHL powerhouse Hamilton Bulldogs), will build a great roster with loads of talent, and Boucher will be able to craft the lineup into consistent contenders for this season, and many to come.
Rejoice, Tampa fans. The Lightning will bring pride back to hockey in the Sunshine State.