Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos

2011-12 season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

2010-11 record: 46-25-11, 103 points; 2nd in Southeast, 5th in East

Playoffs: Defeated Pittsburgh 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals, defeated Washington 4-0 in Eastern semifinals, lost to Boston 4-3 in Eastern finals

After new GM Steve Yzerman’s first summer of moves, people expected the Lightning to improve last season. Few expected them though to fall one win short of the Stanley Cup finals. While it might be difficult to match that encore effort, the Bolts still employ an enviable trio in Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier. Their top players give them a fighting chance against any team, as their East opponents found out in the 2011 playoffs.

Offense

Stamkos became the cover star of NHL 12 and signed a hefty new contract, but St. Louis was the Hart Trophy finalist for a reason: he’s one of the best right wings in the league. Stamkos would be a threat on most teams, but St. Louis’ pitch-perfect passes make him a top five sniper. Those two shouldn’t have much trouble rekindling the magic from the first half of last season, but keeping that going for a full campaign would make the Lightning even scarier.

Then again, Tampa Bay could use some help. Unless he plays with them on the top line (as he did fairly often during the playoffs), Lecavalier will be responsible for generating much of the team’s secondary scoring. The Lightning’s hopes of wrestling the Southeast title from Washington probably rests on the work of Leavalier, Ryan Malone, Steve Downie and breakthrough playoff player Teddy Purcell.

The East’s second-highest scoring offense might dip a little bit with Simon Gagne and playoff surprise Sean Bergenheim having departed, but Tampa Bay’s top-end players should fill the net enough to make up much of the difference.

Defense

On paper, Tampa Bay’s defense is pretty bad. That played itself out in the regular season, as the Lightning allowed 240 goals (just seven less than they scored). For starters, Mattias Ohlund just isn’t the same stellar Swedish blueliner that he was during his prime years with Vancouver.

That being said, the Lightning improved after the addition of Eric Brewer late in the season. He logged big-time minutes and helped the Bolts deal with some tough matchups, especially in their sweep of Washington.

Brewer’s steadiness and the continued development of Victor Hedman give the Lightning some reason to believe that their defense will be better this season, although it is likely to still rank as an area of weakness.

Goalies

Last season, things just weren’t working with Mike Smith and Dan Ellis, so Yzerman shrewdly traded for Dwayne Roloson. While Roloson’s numbers were up and down during the regular season, he gave the team a stabilizing presence in net during the playoffs. His often-dazzling playoff performances earned him another contract.

The obvious worry is Roloson’s age. A potential Eastern contender is weighing its hopes on the shoulders of a man who will turn 42 on Oct. 12.

Thankfully, Yzerman found a solid backup in Mathieu Garon. That doesn’t change the fact that the Lightning is taking a substantial (if short-term) risk with Roloson, but at least they can spell their old goalie when necessary.

Coaching

Guy Boucher stands out thanks to his charm, that 1-3-1 system and a facial scar that demands ‘James Bond villain’ jokes. He would be noteworthy for his coolness alone, but Boucher produced fantastic results in his first season as an NHL coach. Naturally, he’ll face a significant challenge to match that debut campaign.

Breakout candidate

Hedman could make a big leap. He’s getting the experience needed to adjust to the NHL game and has the greed-based motivation of a contract year on his side, too.

The big Swedish defenseman probably ‘broke out’ already, though. If you need a more obscure player, how about Mattias Ritola? The former Detroit Red Wings prospect could have a shot of stepping into Sean Bergenheim’s role if the bounces go his way.

Best-case scenario

Roloson produces an outstanding season, but most importantly gets plenty of rest with Garon receiving 25 starts. Lecavalier finally earns his ridiculous paycheck by producing a healthy point-per-game season while St. Louis and Stamkos work their magic for even more impressive results. The defense comes together thanks to a maturing Hedman and the leadership of Brewer. Tampa Bay makes another deep run in the playoffs, only this time it gets over the hump and makes it to the Cup finals.

Reality

The Lightning are really rolling the dice with Roloson. Again, Garon is a capable backup, but not necessarily the ideal choice if Roloson gets injured – which is a realistic fear given his age. Even if Rollie stays healthy, who’s to say that he’ll be able to put together another great season? Whether it’s due to ability or opportunities, he hasn’t carried a big workload many times in his career – Roloson’s only played 60-plus games twice.

Depth scoring might also be a concern, especially if Lecavalier struggles again with injuries. One can’t help but worry that Boucher’s system won’t be able to cover up that defense’s blemishes for another season, too.

All that negativity aside, the Lightning should challenge for the Southeast title and fall somewhere in the fourth- to sixth-seed range. As long as they make the playoffs, they have the talent to make anyone sweat in a best-of-seven series.

Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

Perhaps not.

The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.

Capitals bump Todd Reirden up to associate coach

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10:  Assistant coach Todd Reirden of the Washington Capitals talks to the power play unit during a time-out against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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The Washington Capitals announced that Todd Reirden (pictured) was promoted from assistant to associate coach on Monday.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, most directly, the team shared word that he’ll run Capitals training camp while Barry Trotz works with Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Giving Reirden a promotion makes sense, as he’s been linked to some head coaching searches. The Washington Post compiled some of his opportunities:

In the past two years, Reirden has been a serious candidate for two NHL head-coaching gigs. According to the Calgary Sun, Reirden was a finalist to coach the Flames before they settled on Glen Gulutzan, and he was considered for the New Jersey Devils’ vacancy last summer, too. Lane Lambert, another Capitals assistant, was a finalist for the Colorado Avalanche head-coaching job earlier this month, according to the Denver Post.

The Capitals have a pretty well-regarded coaching group, as many credit goaltending coach Mitch Korn with some of Braden Holtby‘s improvement since Trotz took over.

Maybe we’ll see Reirden and Lambert get head coaching gigs at some point, but for now, Trotz’s “coaching tree” stays intact.

Penguins believe Kessel, others can heal up by start of next season

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Going deep enough into the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup often comes with the cost of stacking up injuries, and the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the price.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others report, Phil Kessel (wrist) and others aren’t guaranteed to be healthy to start the 2016-17 regular season.

“All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won’t know 100 percent where they’re at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review runs down a significant list of players who likely accrued bumps and bruises that may carry over:

Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle on May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

If recent history is any indication, Kessel will probably fight hard not to miss time.

For all the weird criticisms he receives, he’s been remarkably durable, playing in every game during the past six seasons.

That’s impressive stuff, but the Penguins would be wise to keep an eye on the big picture. If it comes down to making Kessel and others swallow a little pride to limit the odds of aggravating injuries, they need to do it.

Even if it means a bumpy start to their title defense.

Win now, worry later: Why the Lightning should go all-in

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

The Chicago Blackhawks employed some great teams in winning three championships so far during the Jonathan ToewsPatrick Kane era, but there was something special about that first group.

For one thing, Toews and Kane were playing out the final years of their entry-level contracts. Those CBA-powered savings gave the Blackhawks a surplus of players who would eventually be too expensive to retain, most notably Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell.

That fantastic group never faced elimination during an overpowering run to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Thanks to deft maneuvering by GM Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were able to reload and put together other strong supporting casts even after big losses, and that could be a profound lesson for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It might be tempting for the Bolts to merely keep their window open as long as possible. Instead, they should take a big swing in 2016-17 and then trust management to recover from any fallout.

Bishop’s expiring contract

The safe move would be to trade away some of the expiring contracts on Tampa Bay’s roster instead of risking getting nothing when they leave.

Many believe that Ben Bishop is on his way out. With one year left on a contract that carries about a $6 million cap hit and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the Jake Allen-style “you’re the man” extension, it seems like a matter of time.

Keeping Bishop around for one more season might just pay off, though.

For one thing, Vasilevskiy’s shown signs of brilliance, yet his current NHL numbers aren’t overwhelmingly strong. Bishop, meanwhile, kept the Bolts afloat during some tough times in 2015-16.

Even if the Lightning feel like Vasy is the guy, what if he gets hurt? They’ve already seen goalies get injured at inopportune times, and the reigning champion Penguins provide another reminder.

(For more on the Bishop situation, click here.)

Win low, worry later

GM Steve Yzerman deserves ample credit for signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to relative bargain deals, but those are still expensive contracts. The squeeze is coming.

That said, the Lightning may want to identify their own Byfugliens and Ladds and go for broke in 2016-17. Let’s not forget how close they were to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance even with Stamkos on the shelf.

It’s tough to imagine the Bolts managing to keep all of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine many opponents managing to contain an attack that features Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Drouin and other dangerous attackers.

(Plus, another year of evaluation would give Yzerman time to determine who is truly a core member.)

***

It’s a challenging situation, but the Lightning easily rank alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and maybe a few other select teams as the cream of the East crop.

They’re positioned to jostle with the elites for some time, but why not take their best shot in 2016-17 and then make the best of things later on?

Sometimes the difference between really good and truly great comes down to having the courage to make these tough calls.