Monday, September 21, 2009

The Long and Winding Road Trip

Tonight marks the beginning of the Lightning’s wacky road trip across North America. For some reason they thought it would be a grand idea to play four games in four nights and five games in seven days. Not only did they decide to do this, but why play at home when you can score sweet frequent flyer miles on the road? According to the St Pete Times the trip will cover 6,803 miles and feature games in Regina, Saskatchewan (that’s in Canada for our American readers) Everett, Washington, Loveland, Colorado, Winnipeg (again Canada), Norfolk, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia.

While it’s great for hockey fans in those towns to see some NHL hockey it’s going to be brutal on a young team that is featuring many new players. Last season, the team managed a sluggish start due in part to it’s road-weary beginning in Prague. Of course, the sluggish start was mostly to Barry Melrose’s lack of coaching, but a small part can be, and was blamed on their road trip.

Game action is nice for evaluating talent, but it doesn’t give the coaches chances to work on areas of the game that need refining. How sharp can a team be in a morning skate after three consecutive nights of games? Think of the bleary-eyed participants in a morning session discussing the power play after a night game followed by a red-eye flight from Washington state to Colorado.

For a team that was plagued last season by an ineffective power play and a stung together defense time going over fundamentals is important. Rick Tocchet’s plan of “pick[ing] a couple of points and be good at them and worry about the rest later” is kind of troublesome. Especially the “worry about the rest later” part.

That plan is eerily similar to Melrose’s “throw the best players out there and let them figure it out” doomed strategy from a year ago. Less games and more focus on the power play (which went 1-8 during Friday’s tilt against the Thrashers) would seem more prudent with this team. After all you’re not paying Adam Oates to fix the power play from the press box. Wait, they’re not paying Adam Oates? Oh well, you get the point.

The Lightning traveling party will include all forty-two players still in camp. That many folks are necessary since the NHL has an agreement with it’s players that they can’t suit up for games played on consecutive days in training camp. So some ice time is going to be dedicated to players that have no shot of making the team.

Playing against other NHL teams will provide good experience for prospects such as Dana Tyrell and Carter Ashton. It does, however, come at a cost. Ice time at game speed is important for line-mates to get accustomed to each other. Vincent Lecavalier, Alex Tanguay and there still to be determined third right winger need time together on the ice to become better acquainted with each other.

Of course, finances could be behind this trip. According general manager Brian Lawton the box office receipts from the arena’s should cover the costs of the entire training camp. That’s nice, it probably keeps ownership from selling ad space on the jerseys or naming rights for the team (The Outback Steakhouse Tampa Bay Lightning does have a nice ring to it).

Luckily, the Bolts have five days off upon return from their Homeric odyssey and seven of the first eleven regular season games will be at the Ice Palace. Will it be enough time to rest their weary bodies and find a key to a successful power play? Will the road trip help them determine their defensive pairings? Will Victor Hedman average 30 minutes a game by the end of the trip? At this point the trip seems to be providing more questions then answers. Hopefully, by the time the questions are answered the team won’t be too far behind in the standings.

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