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Team Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

Key additions: Sean Burke, G (FA - PHI); Vaclav Prospal, C/LW (FA - ANA); Rob DiMaio, RW (FA - DAL); Jim Campbell, RW (FA - NYI); Norm Milley, RW (FA - BUF); Todd Rohloff, D (FA - CBJ); Jason Jaspers, C (T - PHX); Alexander Polushin, C/RW (D - 2001, 2/47); Mike Egener, D (D - 2003, 2/34); Timo Helbling, D (D - 1999, 6/162 by NSH)

Key losses: Nikolai Khabibulin, G (FA - CHI); Cory Stillman, LW/RW (FA - CRL); Brad Lukowich, D (FA - NYI); Andre Roy, LW (FA - PIT); Ben Clymer, RW (FA - WSH); Jassen Cullimore, D (FA - CHI); Jamie Storr, G (FA - PHI); Jarrod Skalde, C (T - PHX); Stanislav Neckar, D (FA); Dwayne Hay, LW (FA); Sheldon Keefe, RW (FA - PHX); Darren Rumble, D (FA); Pascal Trepanier, D (FA); Evgeny Konstantinov, G (FA); Eric Perrin, C (FA - Europe); Shane Willis, LW (FA - Europe)

Key player unsigned: Nikita Alexeev, RW/LW

Forwards: From 2001-02 through 2003-04, the Tampa Bay Lightning's League rank in goals scored went from 28th to 13th to third. Contributing to that increase in production were improvements by several key players over that stretch. Reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis went from 35 to 70 to 94 points. Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards went from 62 to 74 to 79 points. Wings Fredrik Modin (31-40-57) and Ruslan Fedotenko (26-32-39) also improved in each of their last three NHL seasons. Former (and future) captain Vincent Lecavalier actually took a step back points-wise in 2003-04 (though he ended the season on fire with 42 points and a plus-27 rating in his last 36 games), but established himself as a true leader in the playoffs, perhaps best exemplified by his willingness to drop the gloves with Jarome Iginla. The Lightning lost Cory Stillman to free agency but actually had already replaced him by bringing back Vinny Prospal, who had 79 points for Tampa in 2002-03 before doing a disappointing tour of duty in Anaheim in 2003-04. The top two lines of Prospal-Lecavalier-Fedotenko and Modin-Richards-St. Louis are as dangerous a one-two punch as there is in the League (though some in Ottawa might argue), and the checking line of Dave Andreychuk, Tim Taylor and Rob DiMaio is long on character and grit. The Lightning got career years from St. Louis, Richards, Modin, Fedotenko and the departed Stillman in 2003-04, but the best may still be yet to come for Richards and Lecavalier, so don't expect the Lightning offense to regress much, if at all.

Defensemen: The leader of the Lightning defense is Pavel Kubina, a big man who will play bigger minutes in 2004-05. Kubina notched a career-high 35 points in 2003-04, a career-best plus-9 rating (especially impressive given that prior to 2003-04, his career plus-minus rating was minus-95), and put the League on notice of his ability to shutdown opposing forwards (ask Jarome Iginla). He will be joined on the blueline by Dan Boyle, Darryl Sydor, Cory Sarich, Nolan Pratt and likely Todd Rohloff. Despite being undersized, power play specialist Boyle had a plus-23 rating in 2003-04 and is just one season removed from a 53-point campaign (Boyle had 39 points in 2003-04). Sydor, who was rescued from Columbus midway through the 2003-04 season, is a solid two-way defenseman, but his 45+ point days are behind him. Sarich is a big hitter who is learning to play more responsibly in his own zone. Pratt is a decent back-end blueliner with no offensive skills of which to speak. As for Rohloff, all you need to know is that he's been castoff by the Blue Jackets and Capitals since January of 2004. Prospect Mike Egener will not break camp with the team, but he will no doubt be in a Lightning uniform sooner rather than later.

Goaltenders: Nikolai Khabibulin took his Stanley Cup and bolted the Bolts for more money. Now the hockey world will see whether The 'Bulin Wall made the Lightning or vice versa. Khabibulin's heir apparent, John Grahame, apparently wasn't so apparent to Tampa management, so they went out and acquired 16-year veteran Sean Burke as an insurance policy. Some insurance - the 38-year-old Burke is already missing time with a groin injury. Burke has played in only 69 games since the end of the 2001-02 season due to various injuries and benchings, but also had the NHL's highest save percentage (.919) over the five years leading up to 2003-04. As for Grahame, he started 2003-04 like a house afire, compiling a 13-6-1 record with a 1.69 goals against average and a .922 save percentage in his first 20 starts, but finished the season with 18 wins, a 2.06 GAA and a .913 SV%. If both goalies can stay healthy, expect Jack Adams Trophy winner John Tortorella to play the hot hand (if we had to bet, our money would be on Grahame getting most of the starts). With a good defense in front of him, whoever is in goal for Tampa should post fairly strong numbers.

Bottom line: 2003-04 was a storybook season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Eastern Conference's best team during the regular season, they were the NHL's best team in the postseason and took home most of the hardware the League has to hand out. The big question facing Tampa as they try to repeat is, of course, in goal. But if Grahame can step up or if Burke can stay healthy, the Bolts will again challenge for the Presidents' Trophy and will be poised for another deep playoff run. One point worth noting is that Tampa signed Lecavalier and St. Louis to huge ($6+ million) deals in the offseason, likely signalling that this is Richards' last year with the team. Whether the associated drama finds it's way onto the ice in any perceivably fashion remains to be seen, but we're willing to bet that in two years the Lightning will be wishing they'd kept Richards and not St. Louis.