Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning shocked the hockey world by advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals and taking eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston to the brink by forcing the series to 7 games.
With a re-tooled arena, brand new uniforms and a season ticket base that has doubled, the Lightning franchise has never had a more solid standing.
The momentum is certainly behind them, the skill on the ice, behind the bench and in the front office is evident and the support of ownership is there. The question on everyone's mind is can the Lightning take the next step?
Few teams can boast three scoring superstars like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. The trio form the guts of the Lightning's scoring prowess but the funny thing is, they're no longer alone.
Teddy Purcell finally found his scoring touch in the NHL, setting career highs in goals (16) and points (51) in 81 games. He was a key cog in the Bolts' quest for the cup, scoring 17 points in 18 playoff games.
Purcell wasn't alone in posting career numbers as both Dominick Moore and Nate Thompson had their best offensive seasons in Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 attack.
The Lightning did lose some scoring depth as Simon Gagne and playoff hero Sean Bergenheim left for big money contracts. Tampa Bay hopes they can replace some of that with Ryan Shannon - who reminds more than a few pundits (myself included) of a certain mighty moused Tampa Bay player who wears number 26.
Another intriguing addition to this year's roster is 2010 first round pick Brett Connolly. Connolly had a rough rookie camp last season and was challenged by Bolts GM Steve Yzerman to not only get physically stronger to meet the rigors of an NHL season but also mentally prepare himself to be a professional hockey player.
Its no secret that Connolly may have come in a little full of himself. He was sent back to Junior and he responded by working extremely hard on his conditioning and attitude.
Enter the 2011 training camp and Connolly pleasantly surprised the Bolts brass, earning a job on the opening night roster. The Lightning will have nine games to decide whether Connolly deserves to remain with the big club or if he needs one more year of seasoning in Junior.
His outstanding pre-season made it a little more difficult decision.
Mattais Ohlund will begin this season on injured reserve. Ohlund was once the best the Lightning had to offer along the blue line but the Bolts have spent a lot of their free agent dollars in fortifying this position.
Eric Brewer, who came over in a deadline week trade, was re-signed and should play on the Lightning's top defensive pairing. The ever improving 2009 First Round pick Victor Hedman will get another year of seasoning with the big club. Vets Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark make up the remaining top four, while newcomers Bruno Gervais and Matt Gilroy look to steady the back end of the blue line. Marc-Andre Bergeron was also retained and if the Lightning need a little punch from the blue line on the power play, he can provide it - although the Lightning have to balance his defensive liability.
The Ancient One, Dwayne Roloson, returns for another shot at the Cup. Rollie the Goalie had a terrific year for Tampa Bay last season putting together an 18-12-4 record, 2.56 GAA and .912 save percentage with 4 shutouts. Roloson guided the Lightning through the first two rounds of the playoffs before finally running out of gas against the Boston Bruins.
Roloson will get some help this season as he has a capable backup in Matthieu Garon. Garon put up credible numbers in a reserve role with the Columbus Blue Jackets, posting a 2.72 GAA and .901 save percentage while winning 10 games in 36 appearances.
The Lightning hope Garon can take some of the load off Roloson and keep the 41 year old netminder a little fresher for the post season.
Guy Boucher moves into his second season as the Lightning's head coach. Boucher's innovative 1-3-1 system (or the Tampa T as our buddies at Raw Charge call it) and his myriad of motivational tactics did wonders for a franchise that failed to qualify for the playoffs three straight years. Boucher's Bolts took the NHL by storm, earning 103 points in the standings and coming within one game of playing for the Stanley Cup.
With a full year in the system under their belt, the Lightning should even more potent in 2011-12.
Few expected the rapid rise of the Tampa Bay Lightning under first year coach Guy Boucher. After all, the team had always had talent but never seemed to be able to put it all together, especially under the cavalier ownership of Oren Koules and Len Barrie.
The stability that owner Jeffrey Vinik brought to the organization cannot be understated. This is an entirely different franchise. Once believed to be on the brink of bankruptcy, the Lightning have never had a better financial standing.
The team has doubled it's season ticket base and expect near capacity (or sellout) crowds for most of their 41 home dates.
The re-tooling of the St. Pete Times Forum, the new uniforms and additions on the ice make it all the more exciting.
Will the loss of Gagne and Bergenheim hurt? Perhaps but the promise of Connolly and Shannon seem to off-set that. Vincent Lecavalier looks healthy and provides a big presence on the second line. Ryan Malone and Steve Downie are both healthy and ready to contribute while the addition of depth along the blue line should certainly help.
While I still have some concerns over their toughness (ability to stand up to physically imposing teams like the Bruins), this team has the look of a one ready to compete for championships.
Prediction: 108 points, 1st in the Southeast Division