Last year, I said the Bolts would soon be knocking on Lord Stanleyís door again but it wouldnít be 2010-11. Or this year, for that matter.
Boy, was I wrong. At least about the year.
The turnaround in Tampa was -- and pardon the pun -- Lightning fast. And it has cemented Steve Yzerman and Guy Boucher as two of the most brilliant young minds in hockey.
Then again, it didnít hurt to inherit Stammer and Mighty Mouse, did it?
The Bolts arenít going to surprise anyone this season -- the league knows how good this team is after they knocked off the Pens in seven, swept the Caps and lost to the eventual Cup champs late in the third period of Game 7 of the Eastern final.
But from a fantasy perspective, it may come as a surprise that this team just isnít a fantasy hotbed -- thereís the cream and then thereís the Ö uh Ö froth.
The team boasts not one, but two, fantasy first rounders, one overrated center, one seriously underrated winger and an aging goalie that, if handled properly, can deliver strong fantasy value.
After that, the coffee cup doesnít have a whole lot of caffeine in it. Letís take a look.
THE BIG GUNS
Steven Stamkos (C): There was talk last year of that elusive 50 in 50 when Stammer exploded out of the blocks with 21 goals in his first 22 games. And it was right about then when I got roasted -- no, annihilated -- for suggesting single-year owners should immediately trade the guy. Those folks missed my point. At that time, Stamkos was scoring at a 1.73 point-per-game pace (38 points)! Only the true greats (think the best seasons ever of Wayne Gretzky [2.69], Mario Lemieux [2.62], Mike Bossy [1.84] or even Sidney Crosby in his injury-abbreviated 2010-11 [1.61]) can sustain that kind of pace. He was still good the rest of the way but in the end, he delivered just 53 more points (including just 24 more goals) in the final 60 games -- thatís just decimal points over half of his previous pace. And he scuffled in the postseason with 13 points in 18 games. My point now? He could be the top overall pick (second, at worst) this season and Iím sure heíll come out of the blocks like a top fuel dragster again. And if he gets more than a third of his projected 50 goals/100 points before the quarter pole Ö get ready to cash in your chips with some owner willing to seriously overpay.
Martin St. Louis (RW): Wow, Mighty Mite really is the Energizer Bunny. He shows no sign of slowing down even at 36 and should come close to another 100-point season again this year. Heís definitely a top-10 overall pick (top-five in some formats) and is top-two at the thinnest position in fantasy. He wants to drink from Lord Stanley again so watch for another brilliant season.
QUIET VALUE FOR SMART DRAFTERS
Steve Downie (RW): Downie is a rare bird. He's one of the few fists-first, talk-later guys who have the speed and skill to play on a scoring line. He's already come close to a 50-point, 200-plus PIMs season (he was just four points shy in 2009-10) and Iím convinced he'll get there in the next few years ... maybe even this one. But it'll all hinge on how the Bolts use him, Ryan Malone and Ryan Shannon -- only two of those three can round out the left side on the top two lines. Malone will start the season on the IR so Downie will skate with either Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, or Vinny Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell. Downie is a multi-category All-Star at the shallowest position in fantasy. Not that everyone ďgetsĒ that, though. Except you.
ON THE RISE
Teddy Purcell (RW): Purcell has finally arrived. The undrafted U.S. college stud finally put together the season (and postseason) that was foreshadowed when he exploded for 83 points in just 67 games as a rookie pro in the AHL. He has buttery soft hands and the size to play in traffic. And last season, he demonstrated a delicious chemistry with two-way center Vinny Lecavalier. Purcellís six goals and 17 points in 18 playoff games smacks of another escalation to his game, and he should better his 51-point, 2010-11 regular-season output. Thatís decent value but he probably won't come cheap.
Victor Hedman (D): This season, Hedman will finally emerge as a top-pairing, near 40-point, 80-PIMs defender. He's becoming a formidable shutdown specialist who can elegantly transition into attack mode with a single step and pass. And in a couple of years, his point totals will spike to near 50. Keeper leaguers rejoice. But single-year owners need to use their heads when drafting him and focus on his projection, not his size, draft position and name. Heíll barely pop into the list of top-30 scoring defenders this season and there are other guys who will provide cheaper value -- at least in 2011-12 -- than this talented Swede.
TWO TO WATCH (IN TRAINING CAMP)
Matt Gilroy (D): What, you say? Gilroy completely underwhelmed on Broadway last year but the Bolts Ė and Boucherís system -- could be the perfect up-tempo fit for his game ... that is, if he can break camp with the big club. He's a poised puck-mover with a smooth, effortless stride and excellent speed. And his passes hit the tape of speedy forwards with accuracy. He's a finesse defender who relies on his stick and speed in his own zone, something that can work in todayís NHL if heís paired with a (somewhat) steadier Brett Clark or Pavel Kubina. Next thing, heíll be stealing some power-play time and then look out.
Ryan Shannon (RW): Shannon is a squirt (5-9, 175) whose hard work and tenacity have never translated into significant NHL production. But things may be different this year with Malone on the shelf to start the season. Thereís an open spot on the wing beside none other than Vinny himself and Shannonís excellent vision and playmaking skills could be the perfect fit alongside the big man. He's also quite effective with the man advantage and is surprisingly durable for a little guy. Watch him in camp -- he could deliver 40-50 points if he wins that job. And that could be worth a spot in deep leagues.
Vincent Lecavalier (C): I know Iíll take some flack for this rating but hear me out. Vinny is not a top center any more. Sure, he rebounded in the playoffs with 19 points in 18 games. But his 54 points last season were good for no better than 30th on the list of NHL centers. After two brilliant seasons, he has morphed into a strong two-way centerman with no more than 70-point upside. Seventy points would have tied him for 11th on the list of centers -- still valuable but not in the first few rounds -- but there are plenty of fantasy owners who draft on name alone. Donít be one. Know where the real Vinny fits in your format and rank him accordingly.
Ryan Malone (LW): Malone is borderline on the list of 30-best left wingers in the NHL. In a perfect world, he delivers a consistent 45-50 points and 80-100 PIMs. But last season, he struggled through serious abdominal and shoulder injuries, and saw his output drop. And this season, that surgically repaired shoulder will keep him out of action until December. He may be worth stashing until then, but only if your league allows for IR spots. Left wing isn't as shallow as it once was. And a 55-60-game power winger trying to get back up to game speed will likely have a slow start Ö whenever he finally fires up the engine.
Dwayne Roloson (G): At 41, Rolie will be the oldest player in the NHL this season. But he hasnít lost his quickness or his athleticism, and like Ed Belfour before him, he has adapted his game to a more economical style as he has aged. Heís itching to win a Cup and I wouldnít bet against this chronic overachiever -- he was one of the biggest reasons the Bolts made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season. With Mathieu Garon's help as backup, Rolie should get enough days off to be fresh for another Cup run while still netting you wins in the low 30s and solid ratios all the way around. Not bad for the last active player born in the 1960s.
Brett Connolly (RW): Connollyís future is bright Ö that is, if he can stay healthy. Held to just 16 games in his draft year because of a hip injury, Connolly slipped to sixth overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Funny thing, though: He was seen as the best player in that draft just a year earlier. Yes, better than Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner, all of who have already put in impressive seasons in the NHL. Connolly will always be a bit of an injury risk -- he had a suspected concussion at the 2010 World Juniors, where he represented Canada, and he suffered the first injury at the 2011 development camp for the same squad. But heís an elite talent who can take over games with his speed, smarts and skill. And his hockey IQ is better than most guys already in the NHL. Marry that with unbelievable sniping (he scored 46 goals in just 57 junior games last season) and you have a medium-risk, super-high reward keeper pick. Just donít expect him to spend more than the max nine games in the NHL this year.
Nikita Kucherov (RW): Iím going to anger some of you by including Kucherov, and not Richard Panik or Vladislav Namestnikov, as the other Bolts prospect to watch. Panik may be closer to the NHL and Namestnikov may have been drafted higher, but itís Kucherov who has real star potential. This guy is an offensive wizard -- he was arguably the most talented offensive non-North American in the 2011 draft class. He set a record at the World Under-18 tourney with 21 points in just seven games and is already an elite stickhandler. He just needs to work on his consistency. And put some meat on his little (5-10, 160) frame. He's several years out but he's worth monitoring in keeper formats.