This offseason, when Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher discussed what needed to be done to get the team back into the playoffs, the focus turned quickly to defense. So much attention was placed on the Lightning goaltending situation, but they both knew they had to add at least one top-four defenseman. Preferably a right-handed shot to fit in with Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos on the power play.
In breaking down the market, they realized just how limited the supply was on defense.
"Steve made miracles," Boucher said during a Wednesday phone conversation. "There were five legitimate top-four defensemen available in free agency. We got two of them. Thirty teams were after them. And it totally changed our team."
On July 1, they landed Sami Salo with a two-year deal to a 37-year-old with a history of injuries. It was risky, but as we're seeing early this season, it was completely necessary.
Three days later, Yzerman signed Matt Carle to a six-year deal worth $33 million. Re-signing Carle was a priority for the Philadelphia Flyers and he was a player the Detroit Red Wings liked if they couldn't land Ryan Suter.
Yzerman beat both big-market teams to lure Carle to Tampa.
There was more focus on the addition of Anders Lindback in goal, and those defensemen signings were the kind of moves that became forgotten as the lockout erased memories from free agency.
With the Lightning jumping out to a big lead in the Southeast and challenging Boston at the top of the Eastern Conference, we're reminded of Yzerman's aggressiveness in rebuilding his defense. Stamkos (4 goals, 7 assists) and St. Louis (3 goals, 9 assists) are lighting things up offensively again.
But scoring goals wasn't the issue last season. Preventing them was. Now, six games in, only San Jose has a higher goal differential than Tampa's plus-14. The Bolts finished last season a minus-46.
"I would love to say I'm coaching better, but the reality is very simple that Steve did a terrific job this summer of filling the holes and weaknesses we had," Boucher said. "My belief now, my third year in the NHL, everything has to do with your defensemen. You can have all the top offense you want, but it's about your defense and top-four. We didn't have a top-four last year."
Losing Mattias Ohlund for the season was a big blow for the Lightning, coming off their trip to the Eastern Conference finals. Mike Lundin, who played more than 20 minutes of solid defense a night for the Lightning, signed with the Wild. A concussion wiped out Victor Hedman for portions of time, leaving Eric Brewer as the team's only legitimate top-four defenseman.
It meant Brewer was being asked to play more than 23 minutes per game, more than he'd averaged in years. More than he should be playing. Brett Clark, who remains a free agent, was also a top-four regular for the Lightning. He finished last year minus-26.
The pairings of Salo and Carle, along with Hedman and Brewer this season, now ease pressure on each other. It also slots Brian Lee and Keith Aulie into the bottom pair where the 6-foot-6 Aulie and 6-foot-3 Lee add even more size to a suddenly big Lightning defense.
"We went from being a small team to a big team with defensemen who can not only defend but are really good at moving the pucks on the transition," Boucher said. "It's a total transformation for us."
There's still room for growth from first-year starting goalie Anders Lindback, who has started five of six games for the Lightning. The talented Swede is 4-1 with a 2.80 goals-against average and .914 save percentage so far as he grows into the role of a No. 1. He hasn't been perfect, but then again with Stamkos, St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier up front, you don't need to be. Boucher also has total confidence in backup Mathieu Garon who made a run last year before getting hurt.
There are, however, still areas of concern with the Lightning. They've played four of six games at home where they remain undefeated. Winning at home wasn't a problem last year where the Lightning were 25-14-2, in part because Boucher was able to get the matchups he wanted and hide defensive deficiencies. On the road, Tampa was just 13-22-6.
The Lightning have two games at home this weekend including a nice Saturday test against the Rangers. Then they hit the road with a four-game trip against the Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. After that, we'll have a really good idea if this team is serious about running away with the Southeast.
The other concern, as it is with most teams, is defensive depth. Salo was pretty healthy last year but hasn't played more than 70 games in a season since 2003-04. If the Lightning lose one of their top four defensemen, the balance that is working so well is wiped out. And if the Lightning thought it was competitive to land a top-four defensemen this summer, it may be even more so now.
One general manager I spoke with on Wednesday is in the market for a defenseman and can't find one.
"They're not out there," he said. "I can get a lot of five, six, seven guys ... [top-four] ain't out there. I'll ride it out."
With a little luck, the Lightning won't have to.
• Another part of the problem for Tampa Bay last season was rebounding from the emotional high that comes with a long playoff run the previous year. We know about the Stanley Cup hangover, but sometimes it's easy to forget there's often a hangover for the final four teams.
"All of us came in last year, whether we admit it or not consciously or unconsciously, a little bitter," Boucher said. "It made for an emotional and mental low to start the year. It took us too much time to get rid of that."
It makes New Jersey's start this season even more impressive, with the Devils still undefeated in regulation. The other three conference finalists from last year are a combined 7-9-2.
• Teams continue to look for help on defense and there's at least one free agent who might eventually become a solution. Chris Campoli continues to stay in shape while training at a university in Toronto. He played with the Canadiens last season on a one-year deal worth $1.75 million and is eager to get his career back on track which means he'd probably come in at a discount south of that number. There's good value there if he can be signed for under $1 million. Campoli had 11 points in 43 games with Montreal last season.
• Reports surfaced yesterday that Kings forward Andrei Loktionov had requested a trade from Los Angeles. Through an NHL source we were able to confirm the trade request, although his availability is nothing new. GMs were alerted in the past that he was on the market and the response has been underwhelming. Loktionov, who trained with Edmonton's Nail Yakupov this summer, is the first client who Hall of Famer Igor Larionov signed as an agent and there appears to be a difference of opinion in his value between Larionov and the Kings.
Loktionov had seven points in 39 games with the Kings last season and has 22 points in 35 games with Manchester in the AHL this year. The 5-foot-10 forward was a fifth-round pick in 2008 and the asking price in L.A. is likely a draft pick in that range now.