UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Lightning may have struck gold, Panthers have promise, more

Tampa Bay general manager Brian Lawton has to be feeling pretty good about his summer. He authored a compelling revision of the league's worst defense by drafting a Lidstrom/Pronger hybrid in Victor Hedman second overall and signing steady veterans Mattias Ohlund, Kurtis Foster and Matt Walker.

Lawton shored up the goaltending by adding former Flyer Antero Niittymaki to provide veteran backup for Mike Smith, and he rebuilt the port side with Alex Tanguay, Drew Miller and Stephane Veilleux.

It was the sort of dramatic lineup revamp that you'd expect from a team coming off a season in which it won just 24 games and left its fans to daydream about the first overall draft pick before the Christmas break. But in the end, Lawton appeared to run out of fingers before he plugged all the leaks. And for all the changes he made, he failed to address what could be a gaping hole behind Martin St. Louis on the right side.

With the All-Star winger riding shotgun for promising sophomore Steven Stamkos on what is ostensibly the team's second line, the primary focus of the Lightning camp will be to find someone to saddle up with Vincent Lecavalier and Tanguay on the top unit.

The best bet at this point? Steve Downie.

Don't laugh. Despite a well-earned reputation as the league's loosest cannon, Downie might be up to the challenge.

A former first-round pick, Downie was seen as the next Steve Ott when he was taken 29th overall by Philadelphia in 2005. An offensive whiz in junior (92 points in just 45 games during his final season in the OHL), he was envisioned as someone who would create space and opportunities with his ferocious checking and willingness to step over the line on occasion.

But rather than learn to pick his spots, Downie seems to have spent his entire career seeking new ways to make people forget that he can actually play the game. There was the hazing incident and stick-swinging brawl with teammate Akim Aliu that led Downie to his banishment from Windsor in 2005. There was his 2007 headshot on an unsuspecting Dean McAmmond of the Ottawa Senators that earned Downie a 20-game suspension. Last year, he earned another 20-game vacation after striking an official with his stick while playing for Norfolk of the AHL.

Despite the evidence of some seriously loose wiring, there's still a belief that Downie can be an impact player in the NHL...under the right circumstances.

"He's a guy who probably is as frustrating to watch as he is to play against," an Eastern Conference scout told SI.com last February. "You remember him at the [2006] World Juniors? He only scored two goals, but he ended up on [the All-Tournament Team]. You noticed him on every shift. [Brent] Sutter gave him enough rope, but never enough to hang himself with and he responded.

"But there's all that baggage. Who knows if he'll ever get his head screwed on straight?"

Part of the problem, the scout thought, was a self-esteem issue born of a difficult childhood. Downie was only seven years old when his father died and he had a hearing disability in one ear. "He's had to deal with a lot," said the scout. "Even when things are going well, you can still see that frustration just below the surface."

The challenge for the Lightning, and coach Rick Tocchet in particular, is teaching Downie to rein that in that frustration. They can find inspiration in his history. Sutter was criticized for bringing a disciplinary liability like Downie to the risk-averse Canadian junior team back in 2006, but by using a firm hand he managed to squeeze an all-star performance out of him on the way to another gold medal.

That's the player Tampa wants to see. They don't expect him to score 30 goals. They just want him to do what he does best. When he's focused, Downie is a puck-seeking missile, fearless in the greasy areas and adept at creating opportunities for his linemates with an aggressive forecheck. So maybe it just comes down to needing a certain style of leadership. Tocchet, who knows a bit about battling to find his place in the league, may be ideally suited to help Downie take one step back from anarchy and finally realize his potential.

Giving him the additional responsibilities that come with skating on the top line -- instead of reinforcing old behaviors by planting him in a shift-disturbing depth role -- may turn out to be the smartest step taken in Downie's rehabilitation. It's early yet, but he looks comfortable skating with the big guns in camp. Might turn out that Lawton didn't have such a big hole on the right side after all.

That the Panthers finally bit on free agent defender Dennis Seidenberg over the weekend wasn't anywhere near as surprising as the price. Though it was just a one-year deal, the $2.25 million cap hit was about $750,000 more than was expected for a player who'd spent his summer waiting for the phone to ring.

Cap hit aside, the ex-Hurricane is a savvy acquisition for a team that's working on a defensive renovation almost as extensive as that of their cross-state rivals. Having lost Jay Bouwmeester, Karlis Skrastins and Nick Boynton, the Cats have done a solid job back-filling the holes with puck-movers Jordan Leopold and Ville Koistenen and training camp invitees Martin Skoula and Christian Backman.

Seidenberg's arrival gives Florida a sixth defender with considerable NHL experience. He'll replace some of Skrastins' physicality and bring a reliable presence to the penalty kill. As long as he's not asked to do too much -- injuries forced him uncomfortably into a top pairing role at times in Carolina -- he can be highly effective.

Truthfully, the same can be said of the entire Panthers blueline. It lacks someone who fits the ideal top pairing mold, but it looks to have six players who are second-unit caliber. If coach Peter DeBoer finds the right chemistry, Florida might have itself a very solid group.

It's hard to accept that the Canadiens actually believed for a moment that Andrei Markov would have any interest in assuming the captaincy. But in asking him if he wanted the responsibility, rather than simply bestowing it upon him, it's clear that Bob Gainey learned a lesson from his old team, the Dallas Stars.

Shortly after Gainey resigned from his GM post in Texas, the Stars were faced with naming a new captain in the wake of Derian Hatcher's departure. Mike Modano, the face of the franchise and the team's best player, was quickly appointed to the job despite an off-ice personality that, much like Markov, was best suited for a secondary leadership role.

It wasn't long before Modano was revealed to be the classic square peg, and while he relished the position, there was no denying he was miscast in the role. After the team failed to respond to his quiet leadership in a crushing first-round playoff loss to Colorado in 2006, the letter was stripped away and given to Brenden Morrow. It was the right decision for the team, but a painful public rebuke that scarred Modano's legacy.

Markov may have been a similarly obvious choice by virtue of his standing as the Canadiens' best player, but he would have been equally wrong for the part. He's never been one to gladly face the voracious Montreal media for the postgame interview -- a requirement of the captain in that town. Nor does he possess the charisma and force of personality of Toe Blake, Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Serge Savard or Gainey. The legends of those men prove that there's no city where that piece of fabric weighs more heavily on the bearer.

So good on the Habs for making it an option for Markov rather than an obligation...even if it leaves them with no obvious successor to Saku Koivu. The team is better served by three A's than one man so clearly uncomfortable with life at C level.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.