Turned around in Tampa Bay

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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The 2004 Eastern Conference final was a spirited series played between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. The Bolts squeaked through and managed to claim the Cup, but there were some dark days between that high and today’s team, which is again an Eastern contender. Philly regressed too - big time - only to rise again and become a league power.

That’s an organizational life cycle they’d kill for in, among other markets, Montreal, Atlanta or Columbus. But that’s what is possible when you’ve wisely drafted and developed a young core as both teams have done.

To the casual eye, the Lightning may not have been a lock to make the playoffs - they had finished dead last in 2007-08 (as the Flyers did the season before), 29th overall in 2008-09 and 25th last season - but when The Hockey News gathered in the summer to make our pre-season predictions, we slotted the Bolts seventh in the Eastern Conference. Why?

Because of a better-than-above-average base of young players, including budding superstars Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Because veteran stars Martin St-Louis and Vincent Lecavalier were still around to set the tone. Because former GM Brian Lawton and ex-owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules were packing their bags and new GM Steve Yzerman and new owner Jeffrey Vinik were moving theirs in. Because last season, the Bolts built a decent-by-Eastern-Conference standards record (26-24-11) prior to the Olympic break before Lawton fired beloved assistant coach Wes Walz - without the knowledge of coach Rick Tocchet - and essentially poisoned the dressing room for the remainder of the year (which Tampa finished on an 8-12-1 skid).

So, when Steve Yzerman was looking for a spot to launch his career as an NHL GM, Tampa stood out as the most attractive destination. The organization was in disarray, but the components weren’t damaged beyond repair. He could undertake a rebuild-on-the-fly as Brian Burke wanted to do when he arrived in Toronto, but unlike Burke, Yzerman actually had the assets to do it.

“Regardless of me or anybody else coming in here, to say they didn’t have a lot with Stamkos a year older, with Hedman a year older, with St-Louis returning, with Lecavalier getting healthy, I don’t think it was a stretch to say this team would compete for a playoff spot,” Yzerman said.

Aside from Stamkos flourishing as one of the premier players of his generation, the key for the Lightning’s success this year is seen by many to be the astonishingly great play from St-Louis.

Nobody took the Lightning’s lost years harder than the 35-year-old right winger, who saw good friend Dan Boyle bullied out of town and wondered where his future was after his contract expired this season.

“It was hard, a couple tough years,” St-Louis said. “There was a bad article written about us pretty much every week. So much negative press and you go into cities and have to answer all these questions about that negative press all the time. It was draining, but those days are behind us.”

Yzerman always knew he wanted to retain the services of the team’s most driven player.

“His leadership, his work ethic, his attitude, his professionalism - he sets the tone for what we’re trying to do,” said Yzerman, who signed St-Louis to a four-year, $22.5-million extension in July. “Really good players who make a difference are hard to find. You can’t just let them go; even if you do trade them for draft picks, you have no idea where you’re picking and you have no idea what kind of players they’ll turn out to be. You do everything to hang on to good players.”

St-Louis is glad he’s around to enjoy the Lightning’s bounce.

“Until new ownership took over and Steve came in, the team was not looking like it was headed in the right direction,” St-Louis said. “When Steve took over, it’s like he brought nicer weather and calmed that storm. There hasn’t been any negative articles about us and it’s been much smoother sailing."

This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011 edition of THN magazine.

Follow Adam's hockey tweets at twitter.com/TheHockeyNews, and his non-hockey observations at twitter.com/ProteauType.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

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