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Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Wind of Change in Tampa


SIESTA KEY, Fla.- Usually when you take a new post at a new team you wait to see what you have before tinkering. Incoming General Manager Neil Smith, the architect of the New York Islanders' celebrated Stanley Cup win of 1998, thought otherwise.

After a season where the Tampa Bay Lightning were seen as Cup contenders only to have it derailed by constant partying (including an episode with a pear that would leave the creators of Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" scratching their heads), Smith concluded the only way forward was to clean the slate completely and start fresh, dealing away every last member of last year's team except Jamie McBain.

"It goes without saying that we didn't have a winning culture last year," said Smith at the press conference here, the home of the Lightning's new main training facilities. "We needed to remind the players that any straying from our goal of winning the Cup won't be tolerated, so we decided to start anew."

Smith put to rest rumours of head coach Guy Boucher's demise, a statement that surprised many. Although it was obvious the partying wasn't the fault of Boucher- despite his best attempts to enforce curfews, the players continually found ways to flout them- Boucher, as the coach, had to have accepted some blame, plus he was at the centre of the aforementioned pear incident and another strange incident at Busch Gardens that the staff could only describe as "something not even National Lampoon's Van Wilder could cook up".

"I know it's easy to blame the coach and leave it at that, but real solutions sometimes involve looking past the obvious," explained Smith. "Guy tried to have control of the room- the players just wouldn't let him have it. Therefore, we determined it wasn't Guy's fault- it was solely with the players."

As for the players Smith brought in, he stated unequivocally that this was Jonathan Toews' team. "Jonathan has earned that right, and we expect him to carry the torch for not just this year but for years to come. He wanted a change of scenery for so long- now that he has it he has to deliver."

Smith also had to face questions about bringing in Alexander Ovechkin, considering his disciplinary problems in New Jersey with the Devils.

"I talked with Alex before making the move," explained Smith. "He told me that the problems he had in New Jersey had more to do with a lack of viable nightspots, so he was delighted to come to Tampa where there's always a party on the beach."

On paper, the team brought in by Smith looks to be a formidable challenge for not just the East Cup title but also the Stanley Cup itself (although we all know the Sabres are winning this year, so that’s a moot point). The defensive-minded Toews is the perfect compliment to Ovechkin, whose offensive prowess belied a defensive recklessness that undermined the Devils too often last year. Carey Price showed he can be a show-stopping netminder while playing in the Canadian Professional Hockey League last year, and has the skills to be the Lightning’s franchise goaltender, something Tampa Bay has not had since Nikolai Khabibulin in 2005. The team also brought in David Krejci and Andrew Ladd to give their top six forward corps much needed sandpaper, and the blueline is stacked with accomplished Brit Jay Haken and former Winnipeg Jet Keith Yandle, who became the first defenceman in West Cup history to lead the league in plus/minus despite not leading the league’s defencemen in scoring, a first in the goal-happy league. The final reason to like how this team looks are the presences of Rich Peverley, Thomas Vanek, Ian White and Josh Gorges, all stars in their own right yet are tasked to be support players, and are perfect compliments to what the team already has. Smith has certainly done his homework.

There’s only one question, and it’s so painstakingly obvious that it’s not worth mentioning, but it will anyway because who knows if Smith really does know what he’s doing:

-Is this all going to work?

Say what you want about chemistry and all those other intangibles such as instinct, diligence and intensity- yes, it’s not scientifically measurable and Smith is clearly a scientific guy. Still, with a team this talented, failure isn’t an option, because the only way this team can fail (other than the Sabres getting in their way, as they always do) is if it beats itself. Even if one can’t quantify the intangibles, certainly Smith could have considered the ramifications of forcing many players who have never played with each other to find a way to work together. Sure, Toews is an excellent passer and Ovechkin receives and shoots those passes with ease- but how does Toews know how Ovie likes his passes having never played with him?

Then there’s character. After all the problems the team went through last year, the last thing it wants are more players who will cause problems. Which is why bringing in Ovie made so little sense. He proved himself to be a petulant whiner in New Jersey and a bit of a party animal, and if Smith believes Ovechkin is going to start taking the game seriously just because he’s now in Tampa Smith has to be delusional. You may also recall Peverley and his impromptu motorcycle leap over the Grand Canyon last summer that lead to Boston Bruin brass to trade him because of his recklessness. That’s just the tip of the iceberg- guys like Timo Helbling and Rob DiMaio had their moments last season, and McBain was often seen as the ringleader of the Lightning’s partying ways. Are you sure you haven’t made Boucher’s problem even worse, Mr. Smith?

What’s the rub in all this? Smith concluded the press conference by saying that “more changes will be coming”. As if the Lightning hadn’t seen enough.

All in all, the Lightning will sure be fun to watch. Hopefully the fun won’t be just off the ice.

-Jeff Baxter

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