Lightning Roster Predictions

With the NHL and NHLPA coming to an agreement last night, it’s time to take a peak at what the Lightning might look like when the season starts in a couple weeks.

I was asked on Twitter this week how I thought the Lightning would fare in a shortened season. My answer is three fold. It depends on:

1. Goaltending
2. Special teams
3. How quickly the team gels

No. 1 on the list just happens to be the biggest offseason question for Tampa Bay. Anders Lindback was acquired before June’s draft and after a mediocre start he was scorching hot in Finland before suffering a minor injury. He’ll be ready to go.

The season always starts with penalties. And a lot of them. Whether it’s the NHL trying to teach old dogs new tricks or a reflection of players not being in game shape and taking lazy penalties, there always seams to be a steady stream of angry skaters to the box in October. I would expect the same for January.

That means the Lightning’s power play has to be better than it was last year. Having Matt Carle on the blueline should help the power play, which already features the greatest goal scorer on earth right now. Being in a division with Alex Ovechkin is still a challenge and the PK will have to be huge.

Teams always find their groove, and it’s usually not in October. I wouldn’t expect the Lightning to come out firing on all cylinders, but head coach Guy Boucher is sure going to try. More on that later.

Teams are allowed 23 players on their active roster, but as everyone knows, only 20 dress and one of those is a backup goalie. Here’s a look at my prediction for the Lightning’s 23.

Goaltenders:

1. Anders Lindback, 24, 6-6 203
2. Mathieu Garon, 34, 6-1 206

Analysis – There are a lot of questions here, to say the least. Garon missed the last 16 games of 2012 with a groin injury, but is reportedly healed. Lindback has never been a starter in the NHL, though his potential is high. The two were expected to split time for a full year, but it’s hard to think Boucher won’t run with whomever is hot. Lindback, due to his recent play in Finland vs Garon practicing sparingly in Brandon, is the favorite to be the No. 1. Could this be the first year since 2004 that the Lightning have an elite goaltender? I don’t know if the chances are greater than 50% for that to happen, but he has to be above-average.

Defensemen:

3. Matt Carle, 28, 6-0 205
4. Victor Hedman, 22, 6-6 230
5. Eric Brewer, 33, 6-3 220
6. Sami Salo, 38, 6-3 212
7. Brian Lee, 25, 6-3 205
8. Brendan Mikkelson, 25, 6-3 205
9. Marc-Andre Bergeron, 32, 5-9 198
10. Keith Aulie, 23, 6-6 217

Analysis – The additions of Carle and Salo will help the power play, and both – especially Salo as a veteran presence – will help the penalty kill. A short season means the elder Salo should stay healthy deeper into the winter and the Lightning have the depth to spell him should it be needed. Boucher frequently dresses seven defensemen, especially when he wants Bergeron as a power play specialist. I don’t know if that will be as big of a need with Carle expected to be on the first unit.

Expect more from Victor Hedman on the power play, too. He’s my breakout candidate this year. For as old as he seems, he’s just coming off his rookie contract and most his age are still in the AHL. Aulie is on a one-way contract, and there is no way – ready or not – the team is going to risk losing him for nothing after giving up a top prospect like Carter Ashton for him. Syracuse Coach Jon Cooper has praised Aulie, saying his ability as a stay-at-home defenseman and on the PK is needed. He may start slow, then get more starts as the season wears on.

Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman was burned by injuries to defensemen last year, so he’s got eight NHL-caliber rearguards ready to go. With Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, Evan Oberg, and Matt Taormina on the bubble, he can go 12 deep and not worry too much.

If – IF – the Lightning want an expanded roster for an abbreviated camp, Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio will likely get some practice time, but don’t expect them on the opening night roster. And don’t expect Syracuse to be shorthanded for any of their games.

Forwards:

11. Brett Connolly, 20, 6-2 181
12. BJ Crombeen, 27, 6-2 210
13. Adam Hall, 32, 6-3 213
14. Vincent Lecavalier, 32, 6-4 208
15. Ryan Malone, 33, 6-4 219
16. Benoit Pouliot, 26, 6-3 199
17. Teddy Purcell, 27, 6-2 201
18. Tom Pyatt, 25, 5-11 187
19. Martin St. Louis, 37, 5-8 176
20. Steven Stamkos, 22, 6-1 188
21. Nate Thompson, 28, 6-0 210
22. Dana Tyrell, 23, 5-11 185
23. JT Wyman, 6-2 199

Analysis – Being forced to keep eight defenseman due to one-way contracts means only 13 forwards can be kept. Since Boucher only dresses 11 forwards many times, it’s not a hindrance. The forward corps is pretty straight-forward due to one-way contracts (all but Connolly) with the exception of two names – JT Wyman and Brett Connolly.

Back in the summer, it was reported the Lightning wanted to fill an open top-9 spot with one of the organization’s younger players. JT Brown was the favorite for that spot, with he and Benoit Pouliot being interchangeable between the second and third lines. Brown is out until possibly March with a broken collarbone sustained while playing for the Syracuse Crunch, so the spot is open again.

Kyle Wilson, acquired in the Lindback trade, is also an option. The Predators were up against the 50-man roster limit and Wilson is on a one-way contract this year. They didn't want to pay him and needed the space. It was likely they insisted the Lightning take him in the deal. He has value as a depth forward, but isn't familiar with the Lightning's system. I project him to play the role Trevor Smith played in Norfolk last year: veteran leader capable of contributing on the top lines in the AHL. It's possible he's kept in Tampa because he would have to clear waivers to go to Syracuse. With the mass waivings that will take place prior to the season, he should have no trouble going through. If he's kept in Tampa, over Wyman for example, he likely won't see the ice much until he's got the system down.

Crunch candidates for that spot are Connolly, reigning AHL MVP Cory Conacher, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, PC Labrie, and Mike Angelidis. However, with a short camp limited teaching time, it’s likely Boucher will take the player best versed in the Lightning’s system. Since Connolly, who has been consistent offensively for Syracuse, is both offensive-minded and played all of last season with the Bolts, he’s the heavy favorite. Boucher can get right to work on details rather than spending time on evaluations. This is reminiscent of the Jay Feaster era when he and John Tortorella would send young players to the minor leagues early in order to spend more time with the NHL group.

The Lightning could bring in one or all of the others for a look-see and “pre-call-up training,” but they’re not going to want to damage Syracuse so if there’s a big roster, it will likely only be a couple practices. If I had to guess, Conacher would be the only other Crunch player invited. I don’t believe the Bolts will want to spend time on evaluations, and don’t forget Steve Yzerman has been a frequent visitor to Syracuse games to evaluate the farm. While Conacher could get that extra invitation, Connolly’s size provides better roster balance.

It's important to note that while Syracuse plays a pressure system, they do not play the same system as the Lightning. There is very little - if any - 1-3-1 in Syracuse. There is a learning curve beyond the normal for AHL call-ups.

As for Wyman, even though his numbers aren’t staggering in Syracuse, he’s a Boucher favorite. He’s already cleared waivers so they don’t have to bring him up (if they do, he’s subject to re-entry waivers, which shouldn’t be a problem). Since there is no development worry with him, it’s okay to have Wyman on the roster as a healthy scratch and readily available depth. Angelidis and Labrie are other candidates for that “limited fourth line spot”, but Wyman has more experience in Boucher’s system. It’s also possible they keep just 22 on the roster and Wyman is kept in Syracuse.

Assuming the 13 listed above comprise the forward ranks, there’s a lot on the shoulders of Lecavalier, Connolly, and Pouliot. The Lightning didn’t get much secondary scoring last year and that is a priority going into a shortened season.

Connolly is good in space and could help on the power play. His confidence is much higher than it was in his rookie year, and he’s got an NHL shot and improving two-way ability. Pouliot would help with scoring on the third line, or grit on the second line if needed. Lecavalier was good on the power play last year, but he has to be a difference-maker 5-on-5 for the Lightning to contend for the conference championship.

As for the bottom lines, Hall was re-signed for his faceoff ability, so I don’t see him being a frequent scratch. The staff loves Tyrell, and reports say he’s healthy, so when they want more speed and “first-on-puck” ability, he’ll be in the lineup.

Here’s how I see the 23-man roster in terms of lines:

Malone-Stamkos-St. Louis
Purcell-Lecavalier-Connolly
Pouliot-Thompson-Pyatt
Crombeen-Hall(-Tyrell/Wyman)

Carle-Salo
Hedman-Brewer
Lee-Mikkelson
(Bergeron/Aulie)

Lindback
Garon

Season prediction: After 45 games last season, the Lightning were tied for last in the conference. I don’t see that happening again, but there are also too many question marks on the club (goaltending, special teams, secondary scoring, own-zone coverage) to pencil them into a division championship. I think they’ll battle Carolina for second in the division behind Washington and be on the road to start the first round of the playoffs. They have to hit the ground running, which is why I think they’ll have a small camp roster.