Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tampa Bay Lightning Still on Shaky Ground

Heading into this summer's NHL free agency period, it looked as if the Tampa Bay Lightning had hit rock bottom.  The media spotlight shone brightly on the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy proceedings, yet Oren Koules and Len Barrie, co-owners of the Lightning, were bickering over the direction of the cash-strapped franchise.

The team was coming off a dreadful season in which they finished second-to-last in the NHL and had major holes on the roster to fill. Perhaps realizing that another missed playoff appearance would make it very difficult to stay afloat, GM Brian Lawton went to work this offseason with Koules' checkbook in hand.  Gone were glorified pylons such as Noah Welch and Cory Murphy, and in came free agent prize defenseman Matthias Ohlund (7 years, $26.25M) in what seemed like just seconds after the free agency period opened.  Not only was Ohlund exactly what the Lightning needed to improve on perhaps the league's weakest defensive group last season, but the 33-year-old Swede was also the perfect mentor for '09 first round pick Victor Hedman who also hails from Sweden.

Prior to tonight's matchup with Toronto, Tampa finds themselves on a 4-1-2 run and tied for seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a 9-5-7 record through the first quarter of the season.  Head coach Rick Tocchet seems to be getting results from last season's disappointments. 2008 top pick Steven Stamkos has burst onto the scene and finds himself tied for the team scoring lead with 24 points.  Following a rough start under former head coach Barry Melrose last season, Tocchet made Stamkos a healthy scratch at times last spring to help him focus on his physical training.  Over the summer, Stamkos put in time with fitness-fanatic and former Lightning winger Gary Roberts:
"We did some unusual things...The toughest part was on dry land, pulling a 100-pound sled, sprinting the whole way and then turning around and going back. I was face up on the ground, gasping for air."

Stamkos added five to seven pounds of muscle or so, though, and his body fat dipped by three percentage points. He said he didn't want to add too much weight and sacrifice speed, so the body fat percentage was the real goal.

The training seems to have paid off, as Stamkos has already found the back of the net 15 times this season, three off the league lead.  Some are already calling for Hart Trophy consideration as league MVP for the 19-year-old forward.

Ryan Malone has been a direct beneficiary of Stamkos' success.  Following a disappointing 2008-09 campaign, the former-Penguins winger has 22 points in 21 games. Joe Smith at the St. Pete Times feels Malone is the team's unsung hero thusfar.  Things seem to be going great in Tampa Bay.  A far cry from the train wreck we antipicated in November 2008, right?

Not so fast.  I can't argue Malone's start hasn't been impressive; but is it really him, or the fact he's now paired with the talented Martin St. Louis and Stamkos, instead of bouncing between scoring lines and limited checking roles like last season? Malone stumbled onto a great line his final season in Pittsburgh when Evgeni Malkin helped Malone score 27 goals and land a mega-contract two summers ago. And how does one become unsung when his paycheck reads $6 million, as Malone's does this year?  He should be leading this team at that price.

While we're on the subject of millions, what about $10-million-man Vincent Lecavalier?  He's taken plenty of criticism in recent weeks (some of which is probably unwarranted), but maybe he's not the player who once scored 52 goals in a season.  In fact, since that 2006-07 season, his goal totals have dropped considerably as a result of mounting injuries.  He underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in April '08 following a cheapshot by Matt Cooke.  He's had wrist surgery on both wrists due to damage to the triangular fibrocartilage complex, the most recent coming last April after playing through a season of pain.  According to the University of Michigan Health System, for athletes like Lecavalier, "the longer you have symptoms before you start treatment, the longer it will take to get better."

One would assume he'll snap out of it, yet it's hard to ignore that he's currently on pace for a paltry 16 goals this season.  Despite rampant trade rumors, I can't think of many teams chomping at the bit to take on an underperforming, injury risk with huge money remaining on a contract that runs through 2020.

Off the ice, it isn't all that pretty either. Despite the successful start and slashed ticket prices, attendance is still down from last season, as the Lightning rank 25th out of 30 teams. Damien Cristodero shares some of the same concerns:

Operationally, the team has been stable this season, with co-owner Oren Koules and general manager Brian Lawton running things, and co-owner Len Barrie, as per commissioner Gary Bettman, involved only in transactions worth more than $2 million.
The question is what happens when the $15 million the organization received in league revenue sharing runs out and it has to start paying more of its bills on its own?
Barrie, although claiming his day-to-day role hasn't really changed since last season, may be in no position to come to the rescue financially.  According to a report by David Shoalts at the Globe & Mail:
His financial problems with the Bear Mountain golf resort and housing development near Victoria were severe enough to scuttle his attempt to buy out fellow owner Oren Koules in late summer. Now it appears as if the problems will worsen.
In the wake of a damning report by the company’s former auditor that accused management at Bear Mountain of misappropriating funds, a source said Canada Revenue Agency is looking into the development’s finances.
Barrie, who was accused in the report and by a member of the development’s executive committee of improperly financing at least part of his share of the Lightning with Bear Mountain funds, did not respond to a request for comment.

Shoalts went on to indicate that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is content with the team's situation.  The economy is beginning to show signs of life and financing is a bit easier to come by than it was a year ago. Perhaps Koules will be able to lure in an outside investor or two.

Yet as the Phoenix Coyotes have found, not every corner of the country is out of the woods yet.  All signs point to Florida (like Arizona) still being years away from an economic and housing recovery.  How far will attendance and revenues fall if the team begins to struggle? What other skeletons are there in Barrie and Koules' closet? For now, every win silences the critics and buys the risk-taking Koules more time.  But an 18th century preacher once said, "The worst thing that can happen to a man who gambles, is to win”.

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Anonymous said...

Tampa Bay never, ever, ever should have been granted an NHL franchise...

Move this franchise to Winnipeg ASAP.

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