Stable ownership? Check. Hot young coach? You got it. Even hotter (and super smart) new general manager? Oh, ya. Completely healthy (well, almost) scoring studs? Yes.
What a difference a year can make.
There’s a buzz in the Tampa Bay air, and this year’s edition of the Bolts is for real. Gone is the three-ring circus of dysfunctional ownership; ditto the bad management team and the dead wood (bye-bye, Andrej Meszaros and Alex Tanguay). The stars are healthy (or so Vinny Lecavalier says) and then there are the intangibles that Stevie Y brings to the team.
Hockey is back in Tampa Bay, and it’s finally going to be fun again.
This team will soon be knocking on Lord Stanley’s door. Another championship won’t happen this season or even next, but there’s a lot to like about this squad.
Sure, questions remain on the blue line, nor is anyone exactly sure who will start between the pipes on opening night. Or, who’ll be there in a month.
But there are still plenty of options for your fantasy squad. Let’s take a look.
THE BIG GUNS
Martin St. Louis (RW) – Mighty Mite delivered an MVP-like season last year and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. His speed, vision and tenacity are second-to-none and his chemistry with Steven Stamkos has helped this 35-year-old feel and play like a man 10 years younger. His up-tempo excellence makes him one of the top right wingers on the fantasy board. Expect another season close to the last.
Steven Stamkos (C) – Stammer was nothing short of outstanding last season. He tied Sidney Crosby for the league lead in goals (51) and led the NHL in power-play tallies (24). Oh ya – his 95 points were good enough for fifth overall, too. This all happened in just his second year of pro hockey. I used to think 45 goals and 95 points were his ceiling; I know better now. He’s one of the league’s elite and he’ll come close to replicating his totals from last year. And then he’ll crack 100 points in 2011-12.
Vincent Lecavalier (C) – It was supposed to be a comeback year for Vinny; that was until news broke that he’d be going under the knife for left knee surgery in late August. The news was good, though – no tear in the meniscus. A few years ago, he was arguably the best player in the NHL; that was followed by injury after injury and one sub-par season after another. If he’s healthy, Vinny will rebound to 30-plus goals and 80-plus points, particularly with new sidekick Tonto, I mean, Simon Gagne. If he’s not healthy, he’s still a 70-point man.
ON THE RISE
Steve Downie (RW) – Downie was a revelation last year. He shed his temper tantrum routine and leapt straight to the top line beside Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. His final output – 22 goals, 46 points and 208 PIMs – was an absolute dream for those who owned him in Sin-Bin leagues. As long as he sticks with the little guy and the stutterer, he’ll be the only man in the league who delivers on a 50-point, 200-plus PIM season. Pretty soon, I’ll have to list him as a Big Gun.
Victor Hedman (D) – Hedman is a future star who’ll definitely improve on a rather weak rookie season. There were times last season when he appeared lost on the ice but there were others when he seemed like a poised 10-year vet. It's easy to forget the 6-foot-6, 220-pound behemoth is just 19, so we shouldn't expect the world. But 35 points – or maybe 40 – on a vastly improved Bolts squad are well within reach. And of course, keeper-leaguers should be moving him near the top of their defense lists. Those Lidstrom comparisons may come true before long.
Simon Gagne (LW) – So much talent, so many injuries. Every year, someone bites on Gagne’s potential and forgets about those injuries. And every year, that same person gnashes their teeth at the sight of the team trainer leaning over a hunched Gagne on the team bench. This time around, he comes with the same risks but even more potential for significant reward. His speed and vision are the perfect fit for a job beside Vinny Lecavalier and the two will flash some major French-Canadian chemistry almost immediately. He’ll still miss 12-15 games but he’ll be electric when he’s on the ice.
Pavel Kubina (D) – Every season, this sturdy defender faces some form of criticism – not enough speed, too few goals, not doing enough. But every year, he delivers 40 points and throws his muscle around enough to keep his goalie and his owners in sin-bin leagues very happy. He was at his very best the last time he played in Tampa and there’s every reason he’ll return to that same form. And that means a whole lot of power-play goals.
THREE TO AVOID
Dan Ellis (G) – General manager Stevie Yzerman says he’s going to let both Ellis and Mike Smith battle for the starter’s job but the team may not end up with a single top dog. I think Ellis will rediscover his mojo in Tampa Bay and push Smith into a timeshare. Platoons are a fantasy owner's curse; platoons behind a thin defense corps are even worse. Be cautious on draft day.
Ryan Malone (LW) – Here’s what I wrote about Malone before last season had begun: “As much as I hate the following statement, I’m going to use it any way; there’s no better way to sum up his talents. He is what he is. And that’s a 50-point (max), 100-PIM power forward. His value is tied to leagues that count sin bin points; otherwise, he’s fringe-average at best.” Here’s what I think about Malone this year: Ditto.
Mike Smith (G) – Mr. Smith is on trial. Sure, his record last year was directly tied to the after-effects of yet another injury. But he has a serious propensity for softies through the five-hole and those injuries are really starting to pile up. General manager Stevie Y says the number one job is wide open and both Smith and Ellis (above) have an equal shot. They were in the exact same skates when they were both in the Stars’ organization; Smith won that battle and he may do the same thing now. But I’m not convinced he’ll keep the job. Like I said above, I smell a platoon coming on.
Brett Connolly (C) – Connolly wears an elite tool belt. And if it weren’t for a hip flexor injury that limited him to just 16 games this past season, he might have challenged super studs Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin for top billing in the 2010 draft. He’s one of the best pure goal scorers from that draft class and he’s an absolutely effortless skater. But serious hip flexor injuries at such a young age do concern me, just the same way they’ve concerned a lot of scouts. He needs to put some muscle on his 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame to withstand the pounding he’ll take along the walls in the NHL. He'll spend this season back in the Western Hockey League where he'll look to rekindle the magic he showed as the 2008-09 Canadian Hockey League Rookie of the Year. And some day, he’ll make a guy like Vinny expendable. Either that or he’ll force some other stud to the wing.