Wednesday July 9th, 2008

You have to hand it to new Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie. When they promised a more competitive team for 2008-09, they weren't simply blowing some Florida sunshine up the skirts of frustrated fans.

A weeklong shopping spree has completely re-vamped a forward corps maligned for its absence of depth beyond the trio of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and the now-departed Brad Richards. Along with first overall pick Steven Stamkos, the influx of reinforcements includes a trio of fresh-from-the-Cup-finals ex-Penguins -- Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall -- plus Radim Vrbata and former Bolts Vinny Prospal and Evgeni Artyukhin.

No arguing that this group, which now includes 15 players on one-way NHL contracts, looks more formidable, both in terms of talent and character. If it gels -- no sure thing, it should be noted -- the Lightning have the depth to challenge for a playoff spot, and maybe even the top seed in the wide-open Southeast.

But in a league where youth is served and building from within has keyed the success of both of this year's Cup finalists, is a short-term fix really the best approach?

It's definitely a risk.

By going this route, the Lightning hope to bypass years of bottom dwelling that would make the game a tough sell in a fickle market. Of course, being lousy offers some benefits that make up for the empty seats. That's the path that allowed the Penguins to gather up cornerstones like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury and return Mellon Arena to its SRO glory days. Moving back into the middle of the pack means the Pens won't be adding another blue-chipper like Stamkos any time soon.

And all the recent FA signings did little to address what was widely perceived to be the Lightning's biggest problem: it's laissez-faire defense

It all seems a bit counterintuitive ...until you understand which basket they're actually putting their eggs in.

These moves aren't so much about building a formidable offense as they are about buying time for the young blueline. While some of the forwards, like Recchi and Roberts, may be transitionary, the Lightning believe they already have the defensive bodies around which they can build a viable contender.

Thing is, at the moment anyway, this group looks less imposing than the one that ranked 29th last season. Since moving Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich to San Jose this week, the Bolts are left with just one player, Filip Kuba, who has at least three seasons of NHL experience on his resume. The rest of the group includes Matt Carle, who slumped badly in his sophomore campaign with the Sharks before coming over in the Boyle deal, Alexandre Picard, Paul Ranger and Shane O'Brien. Filling out the final spot could be Finnish vet Janne Niskala, minor league puck-mover Andrew Hutchinson, big bruiser Matt Smaby, or Mike Lundin, who showed poise and smarts in his rookie season.

The system also includes Vladimir Mihalik, a 6-foot 8-inch behemoth who should get a long look in camp after a solid year with Norfolk of the AHL, and Ty Wishart, the former first-rounder who was another key piece of the Boyle deal.

There's some real potential there, but it's not exactly imposing in the short term. And that's where all the recent moves begin to make sense. By throwing four capable forward lines at the opposition, the Lightning hope to take some pressure off the blueliners and buy them some breathing room so the mistakes that are surely going to come won't be so painful. Sure, there should be a lot of 6-5 games in the short term -- again, not a bad thing for ticket sales -- but they're giving the kids a cushion for when they fall down on the job.

That said, it wouldn't be surprising to see another addition to the group at some point. With so many bodies up front on one-way deals, a trade or two seems inevitable. Jussi Jokinen, acquired last spring in the Richards deal, lost his second line pivot job to Stamkos and is the most likely body to be moved. Michel Ouellet, a versatile forward who doesn't seem to have a spot in Tampa's top six and is far less effective in a lesser role, is another good bet. Neither will bring a top-pairing defender, but packaged with another player, possibly Kuba, they could land another building block for the blueline.

The Lightning desperately needed to address blueline troubles in free agency. It'll be interesting to see if their forward-thinking approach allows them to do just that.

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