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2012 Lightning Preview: Jolt To Defense Will Help Lightning

Janet Eagleson

Janet Eagleson

Janet Eagleson is a four-time winner of the Hockey Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Top heavy -- that was the 2011-12 Tampa Bay Lightning. The Dolly Parton of the NHL. So has anything really changed?

Not necessarily.

The Bolts finished 10th in the Eastern Conference last season with a top-heavy lineup of scorers and almost nothing else. They relied on a Swiss-cheese defense and two sieves between the pipes.

It wasn't pretty.

So, the team's summer moves excited fans and fantasy folk alike. Defenders. A new goalie. But I'll be honest -- I just don't think it's enough. Not yet anyway.

Sami Salo and Matt Carle will boost the back end. But those two are not -- and I repeat, ARE NOT -- saviors. Yes, Carle will help and Victor Hedman will be one-year better. But Eric Brewer is morphing into a guy who brings "valuable" leadership. Ouch. And has Salo ever played a full season?

The D is better, but not good enough.

Now, the arrival of Anders Lindback was a great move. And it should eventually solve the team's recent netminding problems. But here's a cold dose of reality.

Lindback has started all of 28 games over two NHL seasons. Last year, he started just 10. Yah, 10. He can't possibly start 60 games this year. And he might not even start 50 without being completely exhausted. So that means Mathieu Garon could be in net for upwards of 40-45 percent of the team's starts.

Uh-oh.

The team still has plenty of fantasy value, though. The Bolts remain buxom up front with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, and to a lesser extent, Vincent Lecavalier, Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone. And Carle and Hedman will be a good fit in most formats.

But the playoffs may just be one more season away.


THE BIG GUNS


Steven Stamkos (C): Mirror, mirror on the wall -- who's the best fantasy player of all? Stamkos' name is in that debate along with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, and you certainly can't go wrong taking Stammer with the top pick. He won the Rocket Richard Trophy for his 60 goals last season and finished second in the Art Ross race with 97 points. And he could easily win both this year -- his first 100-plus point season is on the way. My only quibble? I'd love to see an improvement in power-play production, but that's a truly minor issue. Stamkos is a stud. 'Nuf said.

Martin St. Louis (RW): Mighty Mite might be 37, but he plays like he's still in his prime. Last year, he scored a "paltry" 74 points -- his worst output since 2005-06. But his second half was strong and his chemistry with Steven Stamkos is outstanding. Expect a return to his point-per-game ways, making him one of the NHL's best at his position.


ON THE RISE


Victor Hedman (D): Hedman is a talent. But he spent most of last season being schooled by opposing players. Those lessons started to sink in toward the end of the year and he had 10 points and an even rating in his last 13 games. That's impressive considering he finished with 23 points and a minus-9 rating on the season. He's still a bit of a gentle giant, but skating with the newly arrived Matt Carle should help take him to the next level. Are 40 points possible? He should come close, courtesy of first-unit power-play time. He'll hit 50 points in two years time.

Teddy Purcell (RW): Purcell played well with Vinny Lecavalier last season, but he was outstanding with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. So much so that he recorded career bests in goals (24), assists (41) and points (65). So what's in store for this native of Newfoundland? He's now the Bolts' top left winger and a 70-plus point season is on tap. He probably won't replicate his goal-scoring prowess, but there are few better opportunities for supreme set-ups than with Stammer and St. Louis. Take advantage.

Matthew Carle (D): Carle's second tour of duty in Tampa will be far better than his first. And paired with big Victor Hedman, I'm going out on a limb to suggest he could deliver career numbers. His best work in Philly came alongside big, snarly Chris Pronger. Hedman isn't as "ugly" as Pronger, but his size will give Carle room to conduct the orchestra. Who'll benefit most? Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, et al., who will find breaking out of the zone far easier than it has been in years. Fifty points are a stretch, but he could come close.


DON'T OVERRATE


Vincent Lecavalier (C): Is this the year Vinny slips from fantasy relevance in standard 12-team leagues? He's a shell of the offensive player he was right after the lockout and injuries have seen him miss significant time the past two years. I fear more of the same this time out and if I'm right, Vinny will probably finish with the same point totals he had in 2010-11 (54) and 2011-12 (49). Center is deep -- a low 50s point total just doesn't make the cut, at least not as a regular activation. Yes, I'm in mourning, too.

Anders Lindback (G): Lindback is big (6-6) and talented, but inexperienced -- he has played just 38 games over the last two seasons. At 24, he'll grow with the youngsters on this squad, but remember -- goalies rarely peak until their late 20s and early 30s. He's a whole lot better than either of last year's putrid duo of Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon, but I wouldn't build my fantasy squad around him. At least not yet. Thirty wins will make him a great second goalie on your single-year squad, but even 30 wins might be a stretch. The big boy will get tired this year.

Ryan Malone (LW): Malone is big and talented, but an injury waiting to happen -- he hasn't played a full season since his rookie year. So, if you can stomach carrying a guy who could miss 20 games and deliver just 45-odd points, you go right ahead. I'm convinced there are better options available. And those options won't cause the kind of ulcers that Malone will.


TWO TO WATCH


Cory Conacher (LW): Is Conacher the next Mighty Mite? Probably not -- like St. Louis, he's small, but his feet are 10 times heavier. However, he is smart, talented and absolutely fearless, and that combo earned him the AHL rookie of the year and MVP last year. He's a huge sleeper this season -- I think he wins a job on the Bolts' third line, and with Ryan Malone's propensity for injury, there's a solid shot for him to see time on the second line. Keep him in mind in your later rounds.

Benoit Pouliot (LW): Pouliot has been handed a free gift -- the possibility of a semi-permanent gig alongside Vinny Lecavalier. He has never lived up to his draft-day hype (he was fourth overall back in 2005) and his best output came last season (16-16-32). But this year, he'll be afforded an opportunity to win that second-line gig and despite Lecavalier's decline, the duo could click. There's an outside shot of 50 points and 80 PIMs, but don't over-invest early. He may not earn the job until the very end of camp.


HOT PROSPECTS


Mark Barberio (D): Barberio is a power-play specialist who dropped to the sixth round in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft because of questions about his own-zone play. Not anymore. Barberio earned the Eddie Shore Award last season as the best defender in the AHL and he has a shot at a spot on the Bolts' blue line this year. Tampa hasn't had a true power-play specialist in years (Marc-Andre Bergeron just doesn't count) and Barberio could elbow his way onto the man advantage if Victor Hedman doesn't mesh with Matt Carle. Remember his name -- he's a sleeper pick. And keeper leaguers should seriously take note. The Bolts aren't flush with offensive-minded blueliners who can play now.

Slater Koekkoek (D): The sky's the limit for this offensive defender. That is, if he's healthy. Koekkoek (pr. Coo-Coo) missed more than 40 games in his draft year due to a torn labrum in his shoulder. If he's fully healed, he could actually be one of the best two-way defenders of the 2012 draft and a real steal (he was the 10th overall selection). He's big, poised with the puck and extremely mobile, and his first pass is one of the best of the draft. His compete level is also high and that bodes well for his NHL future as a possible top-pairing, scoring defender.

Nikita Kucherov (RW): Kucherov's offensive skills are absolutely breathtaking and he executes them all at breakneck speed. But he's "forgetful" ... he forgets he has teammates and he forgets his team has its own zone. Hey -- isn't that a nicer than saying "puck hog" or "cherry picker?" Oops, I said that out loud. He's a long way away, but his talent alone would be the best in the team's system. Unfortunately, his risk is the highest, too.

Vladislav Namestnikov (C): Namestnikov is a whole lot closer to a job in Tampa than fellow Russian prospect Nikita Kucherov. Namestnikov isn't quite as talented as Kucherov, but he's awfully close. Combine that with his willingness to leave Russia and play in North America, specifically in the pro-style system of the London Knights, and his ability to play with an edge, and you have a potential top-line playmaker. His speed will impress in camp and he'll press for a job this fall. But I fully expect him to toil -- and dominate -- in the AHL in 2012-13.

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