Saturday, August 25, 2007

Feeling festive... Ice Festive!

Forty days to go. No Rays’ fans that is not how much longer you have to suffer through the rest of the season. Rather it is how long the TBA has to wait for the return of professional hockey. On Thursday October 4th the puck will drop on the 15th season of Tampa Bay Lightning hockey. Take heart Rays fans your miseries will be over by then. Their season ends on September 30th.

So what has changed since the bolts were bounced in the first round by the New Jersey Devils ? Off the ice a lot changed, however the product on the ice will remain quite the same. The off-ice action was headlined by the quietest sale of a franchise ever. The only heads up I heard was from my buddy Big Mike who was a weak early with his report of sale. Even the omniscient Big Dog was caught unawares. Apparently none of his drinking buddies sources knew anything about it.

While the move hasn’t been officially completed yet I have no doubt that the sale will go through without any of the problems that plagued the Nashville and Pittsburgh franchises. It would be a shame if the TBA didn’t extend a heartfelt thank you to the Davidson group. They brought professionalism, dignity and a championship to an organization that was a laughing stock in all of sports.

While there were some bumps along the way (complaining about tax breaks, Ron Campbell’s DUI, etc) for the most part Bill Davidson was the type of owner a fan should want. He signed the checks and stayed out of the way. He allowed his hockey people to build and sustain a winning franchise. Since I’m sure he’s reading this – Thank You Mr. Davidson.

Now the questions start popping up for the new owners, Absolute Hockey Enterprises. Should John Tortorella and Jay Feaster start packing their bags or are their jobs safe? Do they keep the Big Three together or trade one of them to fill a glaring weakness on the team? Most importantly do they keep the franchise in Tampa?

The new ownership has to quickly forge an identity for this team. There would be nothing wrong with keeping the one that the Davidson group built. A fast, exciting team and a well run professional organization. There are some questions being posted about the role that Doug MacLean is going to play in the organization. The sentiment coming from Miami and Columbus (two of his previous stops) seems to be “he’s your problem now”. That’s not a good sign.

Think of how the Tampa Bay professional football team has evolved since Tony Dungy and Rich McKay left. No longer are they a young, eager well run program. Instead it’s become a revolving door for quarterbacks and past their prime offensive “weapons”. The defense has deteriorated into a pale imitation of its former dominant self. Could that happen on the ice?

Only time will tell how it will all play out, but the good news is that it should play out in Tampa. The fear some have about the new group moving the team should be assuaged by the fact that the group is also buying the Saint Pete Times Forum and about 5 and ½ acres of property in the Channelside area. So don’t count on the team bolting for Las Vegas and the new arena being built by Harrah’s anytime soon.

The team also released their new logo today. It’s ummm well it’s kind of new. The changes weren’t dramatic, more of a retooling of the current design.

It definitely wasn’t the drastic change that the Bucs pulled off a few years ago or that the Rays are expected to do next year. The dark jerseys look good, but the white jerseys will take some getting used to because there is a lot white. Feel free to go to to preview the changes.

That pretty much takes care of the main off the ice issues so how about on the ice? Well, not much changed. Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist will battle to be the number one goalie. That will be up to you to decide if it’s a good thing or not.The offense will have to come from the Big Three once again. A couple of former Lightning players return as Chris Gratton and Brad Lukowich resign with the team. The one signing that could prove to be a steal could be Michelle Ouellette. As my buddy Link would say – “He’s got a girl’s name, but plays a man’s game”.

Training camp starts in a few weeks and the weeding out process will begin. The goaltender battle will highlight training camp, but keep an eye out on the defensive battle. The top five should be locked up with Filip Kuba, Dan Boyle, Shane O’Brien, Paul Ranger and Lukowich beginning the camp as starters. The sixth spot should be an open battle between youngsters Andy Rogers, Matt Smaby and veteran (and Wasteland favorite) Doug Janik.

Another big question going into the season will involve Vincent Lecavalier. The face of the franchise is coming off of the best season of his career. It was a season that begin with a challenge from Tortorella and Feaster to improve his game and ended with 52 goals and 108 points. Will his evolution into an elite NHL player continue or will he experience a setback. The coach has been able to push all of the right buttons so far with the enigmatic center-man and it will be interesting to see if he can find the right motivation for 27 year old former first round pick.

Going into training camp the team looks better on paper than it did last year, but only time will tell if they will be able to compete in a strong Eastern Conference.

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