The SBN Hockey Summer Series is back. Last off-season we were prescient when we asked Broad Street Hockey about their goaltending problems. This off-season we've been paired with Raw Charge, the best Tampa Bay Lightning site on the internet. Tampa has managed to overhaul the entire franchise in a single summer, with ownership changes, a new general manager, new coaches, new scouts and a bevy of new players. The challenge now becomes melding all of these new faces with the existing (and quite talented) core.
Managing Editor John Fontana was kind enough to take our questions.
Check out John's interview with us at Raw Charge. John touched on the coaching change, the new arena, Marc Pouliot, and even offer sheets.
Copper & Blue: Ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning has been like the papacy in the ninth century. I'm half-expecting a Cadaver Synod any time now in Tampa. Is there finally some stability in the ownership situation?
John Fontana: Let’s go back to June 2009 – that’s when things really hit the fan for the last ownership group (OK Hockey). Bickering and having to go to Gary Bettman to mediate things. There were attempts by both partners (Oren Koules and Len Barrie) to buy each other out, which failed as neither partner could attract someone’s investment in their ownership bids.
Last January, rumors started to surface about a hedge fund manager from Boston, named Jeffrey Vinik, who had interest in buying the Lightning. Nothing clear and truthful was leaked to the public about his guy or the sale (besides doom-and-gloom "reports" from sunbelt hockey’s favorite* columnist at the Hockey News, Ken Campbell, who insinuated this-that-and-the-other-thing from the secretive negotiations between the league, OK Hockey and Vinik).
Vinik bought out OK Hockey entirely in February and the deal closed in March. There’s been two major things that we’ve learned since this happened: Vinik does not like doing business through the media (proving most everything Campbell "reported" from "sources" as fiction writing), and that Jeffrey Vinik (who is part owner of the Boston Red Sox) wants a world class organization, in every sense of the word, for his Tampa Bay Lightning.
Vinik is financially secure, that’s the first stabilizing item for the Lightning. The second is how intent and how effective he is in trying to establish the franchise as world class. The hiring of Steve Yzerman is the first piece; the hiring of former Vulcan Sports CEO Tod Leiweke (one of the best and brightest executives in pro-sports in North America) is more evidence of that.
Everything so far from Vinik has been a grand departure from what Lightning fans have endured in the past from ownership groups. Where it goes from here is still a question, but it all seems to be on the right track. A stable and promising track at that.
C&B: Steve Yzerman's impact on the franchise was immediate. At the organizational level he's brought in Guy Boucher as a coach, Wayne Fleming as assistant coach, Al Murray as Director of Amateur Scouting, Pat Verbeek as a professional scout, and lastly, Julien BriseBois as General Manager in Norfolk. It's a complete overhaul. Were these changes overdue? What's your read on why Yzerman found these guys to be the right fit?
Fontana: "Overdue" may be understating it. Vinik wanted to start with a clean slate in Tampa and that meant firing former GM Brian Lawton and former head coach Rick Tocchet. Of course, other changes had to be employed from there as the scouting staff and GM staff that remained were a mix-and-match bunch of holdovers from two previous ownership groups (OK Hockey and Palace Sports and Entertainment)
Why did Yzerman find these guys to be the right fit? They all fit what he’s looking for – or what he’s experienced in the past. Every mention of Guy Boucher’s name over the summer seemed to draw comparisons to Mike Babcock in Detroit (and not just because of Boucher and Babcock’s McGill University education). Personally, I see it all as some comfort-zone aspect. He’s worked with Al Murray, he’s worked with/played against Pat Verbeek. Between that and simple philosophical agreements, there’s a method to what Steve is doing – even if it’s hard to spell out inwords what his intentions are with each move.
C&B: From a personnel standpoint, he's worked wonders as well. He fleeced Philadelphia for Simon Gagne, and in turn gives Tampa one of the best top six combos in the league. Are there enough pucks and power play time for Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Simon Gagne, and Ryan Malone?
Fontana: You know, last season they talked about the potential offense out of the Lightning top two lines with Lecavalier, Stamkos, St. Louis, Malone and Tanguay. All the hype only led up to a huge let-down not so much because there was a lack of ability, talent… But the system they were playing wasn’t playing to strengths. I blamed the system that Rick Tocchet was trying to hammer home. The only guys excelling offensively in it were St. Louis (in a support role), Stamkos and Steve Downie.
Having the offensive potential of everyone you listed is quite the reason to be excited, but it’s all going to come down to Guy Boucher and how he works with the players. That’s where I’m excited in the potential more than the players themselves. If Boucher really plays to strengths, instead of demanding everyone follow his system (and trying to pound square pegs through round holes), then the offensive production can and will be thrilling. If his plans don’t click in the NHL, it may be a long and disappointing season.
C&B: Yzerman has done the little things too - Dominic Moore, Sean Bergenheim, Marc Pouliot, Nate Thompson; these guys aren't huge names, but can they have an impact?
Fontana: The lower lines have been ignored for a while in Tampa Bay: The bit players, the role players, the specialists who aren’t going to be the top-line threats. The fact Yzerman went out and added these guys for both their skill set and the depth they add to the roster, shows that the approach isn’t just on top-line-production as has been case in Tampa Bay since 2006-07.
C&B: We were surprised to see Martin St. Louis get another four-year pact at age 35, with a raise over the (excellent value) four-year deal he signed after the lockout. What do you think of the new cap hit, especially at that duration?
Fontana: History with Marty and the Bolts says that he’s not just been a value; he’s been downright bargain. Of course, all of that was when he was a much younger player. At 35, it becomes a risk to throw out that much money toward a player (even if he is considered the heart and soul of the team).
Outside of direct production, Marty’s influence in the locker room and on the bench makes up for the risk (a $5.625 annual risk until 2014). It’s still quite a bit of money to throw around at an aging player, but I don’t think Yzerman would have done it if he didn’t see sound reasons to keep Marty around.
C&B: Many think that the franchise really stubbed it's toe on the handling of James Wright last season. What's your take?
Fontana: Wright is one of our personal favorites over at Raw Charge… Most of our regulars are / were rooting for "Killer" (a nickname he earned from a pre-season incident last year). But to go into the whole situation last season – while James proved he could keep up with NHL talent for the most part, he wasn’t afforded time off when he showed signs of being overwhelmed and having his play regress. Nope, he played 48 straight contests and wasn’t given a healthy-scratch / press box glimpse at the game in order to get his focus back. That was something that had been afforded to Steven Stamkos is 2008-09, and was given to Victor Hedman in his rookie season last year. They both bounced back from it. Wright? He gets sent back to juniors when Nate Thompson becomes available on the waiver wire…
Should he have been outright returned to the Vancouver Giants after camp in 2009-10, or before the cut-off number of games early in the season? In retrospect – they should have sent him back earlier if he were only to play the third/fourth line grinder role that he handled most of his time in Tampa Bay. He bounced around lines (but then again, so did everyone else under Rick Tocchet) and no role was clear for him. The franchise stubbing it’s toe with how they handled Wright is just more evidence of the dysfunction of the last regime in TB.
C&B: Tampa has a couple of kids that could be ready to break out. Is there a chance that we see Carter Ashton or Brett Connolly in the NHL this season?
Fontana: Early on in the off-season, there was fan speculation about kids breaking through – Ashton and Dana Tyrell among others. Yzerman came in and preached patience with younger players, letting them develop at each level instead of rushing them to the NHL.
It should be pretty evident that Brett Connolly will likely be heading back to juniors this season, given time to get back into a groove after his injury shortened 2009-10 campaign in Prince George. Ashton, on the other hand… Well, an impressive pre-season may speed up the organization’s plans for him, but there is a glut of new acquisitions now that he’ll have to beat out to earn a spot. That goes fro James Wright, Richard Panik, Alex Hutchings,Tyrell and other prospects in the pipeline.
Fontana: For me, personally, I watch Downie and every time he shows any emotion I cringe and fear he’s going to snap and do something stupid that gets him suspended. Others see him as the only grit and physical presence the Lightning still has on the roster. They’re endeared to his feistiness. He was Rick Tocchet’s pet project last season – trying to get grit and production out of the guy while reigning in his loose cannon antics. While last season saw more of the production and less of the recklessness that he’d been renown for since juniors, his temper was still there and looked like it could / would blow at any time.
Downie’s antics aren’t going to wear on people until it starts disrupting both on-ice and off. It’s especially going to be overlooked if his offensive production continues to improve.