After reaching the NHL's version of the Frozen Four last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are one of the most disappointing teams in the Eastern Conference this season. Already the dreaded vote of confidence has been issued for head coach Guy Boucher as his team has played some uninspired hockey while slipping to 14th in the Eastern Conference with 42 points. Is Boucher the one who deserves the criticism for the failed 2011-12 campaign? Is it Yzerman? Dwayne Roloson? There's plenty of fingers to be pointed all around.
Beginning with Stevie Y, let's make it clear it's been an amazing transformation of this hockey club. From the laughingstock of the Brian Lawton era, Yzerman came to a Tampa Bay franchise burdened by some top heavy bad contracts, a defense in shambles, an uncertain goalie situation and a barren farm system.
Few quality General Managers would take on that challenge - yet Yzerman did a remarkable job. His January trade for Dwayne Roloson sparked a borderline playoff team to a top five seed. His smart moves acquiring Simon Gagne, Eric Brewer, Sean Bergenheim, Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark stabilized the young hockey team with some veteran leadership. His hiring of Boucher - the hottest young coaching prospect available - seemed to instantly provide benefits as Boucher's intelligence and psychological stratagem seemed to reach his hockey team.
This season, however, Yzerman was saddled with the unenviable task of re-signing one of hockey's top players in Steven Stamkos. The team's top defenseman Eric Brewer was also an unrestricted free agent while it's other top defenseman, Mattais Ohlund, struggled with recovering from knee surgeries on both knees. Dwayne Roloson, the team's playoff hero also was a free agent but was turning 41 years old. Add to that list Gagne and Bergenheim, both who would command top free agent dollars.
With the cap already top heavy with the contracts of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Pavel Kubina - all who had no movement clauses in effect for the 2011-12 season, he had to decide what was best for the team.
Ultimately, Yzerman knew that all the good will that was generated this past hockey season with the Lightning fanbase would be completely undone if the franchise allowed their best player to walk. He signed Stamkos to the monster deal he richly deserved and Stamkos has delivered, leading the league in goals as we approach the All-Star break.
With Ohlund's status uncertain, Yzerman knew he needed some stability on defense and re-signed Brewer. The steady defenseman Mike Lundin walked, as did veteran Randy Jones. Yzerman filled their roles with cheaper alternatives in Matt Gilroy and Bruno Gervais.
The Lightning said goodbye to playoff hero Sean Bergenheim and goal scorer Simon Gagne, replacing them with draft pick Brett Connolly and Tom Pyatt. Yzerman took a flyer on Ryan Shannon, hoping he could provide some of the goal scoring punch that Gagne had the previous season.
Finally, Yzerman had to decide between Mike Smith, who never seemed to reach his potential with the Bolts and the aging Roloson. Ultimately, he decided to bring back Roloson, Smith looked for a change of scenery and the Bolts brought in Mathieu Garon to take some of the load off of Roloson.
So basically, while the principals are the same, many of the components that pushed the Bolts over the top were let go due to the salary cap constraints and the bad timing of the Stamkos contract.
Who could have predicted that the long playoff run took the stuffing out of Roloson's game? Rollie the goalie returned a shell of the player who led the charge up the standings for Tampa Bay. After posting a 2.56 goals against, Roloson has been terrible, surrendering 3.68 GAA. His save percentage has plummeted from .912 to .880 and he's found a place on the bench, forcing Garon into a starting role.
Garon has been decent, putting together some spectacular games while looking pretty ordinary on other nights. It's not his fault. Over the past six seasons, Garon averaged playing in about 28 games a season. He's played in 32 of Tampa Bay's 46 games this year. The only time in his career Garon was a full time starter was in 2005-'06 when he played 63 games for the LA Kings. He put up career worst numbers in goals against and save percentage that season. This year, Garon's goals against is actually worse than Mike Smith's last season. The change of scenery has done wonders for Smith, who has a 17-12-7 record, a 2.41 GAA and a sparkling .921 save percentage in Phoenix.
Adding insult to injury, other goaltenders who could have been picked for Roloson's $3.5 million include Tomas Voukoun, who signed a 1 year $1.5 million dollar contract with the Caps. Voukoun is 19-12-0 with a 2.56 GAA and a .917 save percentage. JS Gigure, who's 2 year $2.5 million deal to back up Semyon Varlamov has been rewarded with a .923 save percentage and a 2.12 GAA in 20 games. Jose Theodore has led the Panthers surge to the top of the Southeast division with a 14-9-5 record, .916 save percentage and a 2.50 GAA. He signed a 2 year $3 million dollar deal with Florida.
So the goaltending has failed them, as has their defense. Ohlund has never recovered from the knee surgeries, Victor Hedman has missed time with a concussion. Marc-Andre Bergeron, who played sparingly last season as an offensive defenseman specialist has been pushed into an every night role, giving the Lightning a significant defensive liability.
Shannon, Connolly and Pyatt have failed to make up the scoring lost with the free agent defections. Bergenheim signed a big deal with Florida but has managed just 7 points (all goals) this season. Simon Gagne joined the Kings and has 17 points in 34 games.
Yzerman was dealt the hand he was dealt but his decision to go with Roloson may have been the death knell in this season's fortunes. He has also said he won't knee jerk and trade away prospects for a rent-a-goaltender.
He made the bed, Guy Boucher has to lay in it.
Many thought it was a travesty last season that Guy Boucher wasn't a finalist for the Jack Adams award, given to the NHL's coach of the year. This season, there's no such talk as his hockey team has sunk to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Boucher used his infamous 1-3-1 to perfection last season, frustrating opponents while giving the Bolts fans an exciting, hard hitting brand of hockey. The Lightning didn't use the 1-3-1 exclusively, in fact you rarely saw it in the post-season, but Boucher always seemed to know when to make the switch. His team was relentless in the forecheck, forcing opponents into a number of mistakes that typically ended up in the back of their net.
Boucher also seemed to know all the right buttons to push in his players, getting career years out of journeymen Nate Thompson, Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore as well as solid seasons from Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone. Stars Vincent Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos all reached their expected potential.
The Lightning were deadly on special teams, ranking 6th in the league on the power play and 8th on the kill.
It hasn't been that way this season. Thompson and Moore have come careening back to earth while Malone and Purcell have only recently come on after an uninspired first half.
The Bolts have seen their power play and penalty kill drop like a stone to 27th and 25th respectively.
On most nights, the Lightning's forecheck has been non-existent and their work in their own defensive zone has been putrid.
To many times we've seen a great divide between forwards and defensemen. We used to see teams have to fight into the Lightning's zone but now they seem to have free entry.
Games like last Tuesday night's thrilling victory over the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins were supposed to be the standard, not the exception.
Has Boucher lost his Midas touch? No says GM Steve Yzerman.
""The coach's message is the farthest thing from the problem here," Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times' Damian Cristodero, "There's no point in anybody discussing the coach (in regards to job security). We've got a great coach. He's the same coach as last year. His message is work hard, be structured. We play hard. We're structured. Our guys are competing. He'll learn from this experience and be an even better coach."
""Either we stay the same, you get worse or you get better," Boucher told The Times, "It's a choice (to get better), and I wanted to make sure the players knew that as a coach I'm making that choice, and I felt the players were making that choice, too."
At 41 years of age and coming of a sensation run at the Stanley Cup, Dwayne Roloson elected to return for his 14th NHL season. The truth of it is, the cracks in Roloson's game began to manifest toward the end of the team's playoff run.
After being absolutely sensational in the first two rounds, Roloson seemed to run out of gas. His save percentage and goals against average in the Eastern Conference Finals (3.66 GAA and a .882 save percentage) were eerily similar to the performance the Lightning have seen this season.
The season has been an absolutely disaster for Roloson, who is currently on a 12 game winless streak and hasn't seen a victory since November. He has a career worst 3.68 GAA and .880 save percentage and has managed an abysmal 6-10-2 record.
To say he's underperformed to his 1 year $3.5 million dollar contract would be an understatement, especially considering the alternatives.
So Who's to Blame?
If the success of 2010-11 goes to Yzerman, the failure of 2011-12 falls on his shoulders as well. Sure, few predicted the collapse of Roloson and the listless play of the team under Boucher but in the end, it's Stevie Y's team on the ice.
He rolled the dice on the likes of Roloson and Shannon and crapped out. Certainly, he was saddled with the tough contract negotiations with Stamkos, having to wait out Stammer's agent Mark Guy while they hoped for a big money offer from another team.
Still, it was on Yzerman for failing to get the deal done before free agency opened. By waiting it out, he probably got a better deal for the franchise but in the end, doomed this season by having to much money tied up while waiting for the "decision". He couldn't be aggressive in his search for a goaltender, nor could he spend much in better support roles.
There's still fleeting hope among Lightning fans that the Bolts, who are 10 points out of a playoff spot, can make a late run and sneak into the playoffs. The truth of it is, if Tampa Bay isn't a playoff team the blame of this disappointing year should be placed squarely on the General Manager.